Hugo Chavez may be dead, but the tradition of South American despots doesn’t look like it’s over. We can probably expect to be hearing more in the future about Rafael Correa, the recently reelected president of Ecuador. A long time fan of Chavez, Correa has a pretty colorful history in politics, which began with the rather unusual way he chose to be initially sworn in to office.
The ceremony took place in the Andean town of Zumbahua and Mr Correa wore an embroidered shirt typical of some highland villages.
Shamans shook sacred herbs over his head to protect his “Citizens’ Revolution” from evil spirits.
Then, some of the country’s indigenous leaders handed him a sceptre with colourful ribbons to show they accepted him as president.
When you’re an ostensibly democratically elected president and you start off on day one by having somebody hand you a scepter, that should raise some eyebrows right off the bat. But the indigenous tribes represent roughly one quarter of the population in Ecuador, and they were instrumental in getting Correa elected. That changed pretty quickly, though, as the new leader’s heavy handed tactics quickly turned against the people who were ready to crown him.
Indigenous protesters in Ecuador have begun a two-week march across the country against plans for large-scale mining projects.
Several hundred protesters set off from an Amazon province where a Chinese company has been authorised to develop a huge open-cast copper mine.
Ecuador’s main indigenous organisation, Conaie, says mining will contaminate water and force people off their land.
After selling his supporters down the river, what’s a despot to do? Well, following a familiar playbook, a good starting place was obviously to begin targeting the free press who might criticize him. “Free” is a relative term after all, don’t you know. After one of the largest and oldest newspapers in the region had the temerity to question some of his actions, Correa took the debate to a new level.
The angered president responded by filing criminal libel charges against the paper, Palacio and three newspaper executives, a move designed to shut down the publication and send a message: Forget about freedom of the press in this country. The four men were sentenced to three years in prison, and the newspaper was told to cough up $40 million.
Correa has made a crusade of controlling the media in the country he rules. He has closed or seized TV stations and enacted laws that restrict coverage of elections. He has even asked the Organization of American States to muzzle its media observers and suppress its annual report on press freedom in the region.
The president then went on to sue La Hora, another major outlet, (three times) and continues to rack up a record of suppressing dissent or criticism of his regime in any form.
Is it just me, or are things really backsliding in South America? Or maybe it was never as rosy of a picture as I’d thought or hoped. Ecuador isn’t as much of a major player on the international stage as Venezuela, largely because they aren’t sitting on the same sorts of natural resources and they’re just a smaller nation to begin with. But this is a disturbing trend, and Ecuador’s location on the northwest edge of the continent – in a line with Columbia and Venezuela right below Panama – puts them in a sensitive region. This is one more guy we’ll need to keep an eye on in the future.