PUJILI, Ecuador – A U.S.-trained economist has suddenly become the front-runner in Oct. 15 presidential elections by pledging to "give the lash" to his nation's corrupt political class and delivering an anti-U.S. message similar to that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
On a recent afternoon, Rafael Correa spoke to thousands of Indians in their native Quichua, reminding them that he lived among them two decades ago as a volunteer teacher and development worker, and brandishing a belt as he spoke out against the politicians who have long oppressed them.
"Dale Correa!" — "Give them the belt!" — the crowd responded, a play on the candidate's name.
Correa, 43, pledges to cut foreign debt payments and re-negotiate contracts with foreign oil firms to benefit Ecuador's poor majority. A relative political newcomer, he has risen suddenly in the polls in the last two weeks, alarming Washington and Wall Street — not to mention Ecuador's political establishment.
Correa's rhetoric echoes that of other Chavez allies, including President Evo Morales of Bolivia and Ollanta Humala, the nationalist who came close to winning Peru's presidency this year. Last week, Chavez called President Bush "the devil" in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
"Calling Bush the devil is offending the devil," Correa told Channel 8 television Wednesday. "The devil is evil, but intelligent."
"I believe Bush is a tremendously dimwitted president who has done great damage to his country and to the world," Correa said.
Tall, dark-skinned with blue eyes and exuding confidence, Correa has about 27 percent backing in the polls, 7 points ahead of his closest challenger, Leon Roldos, a center-left former vice president. Conservative former Rep. Cynthia Viteri trails a distant third among 13 candidates.
If no candidate wins more than half the vote — or at least 40 percent with a 10-percentage point advantage over the nearest challenger — a runoff will be held on Nov. 26.
In this small Andean nation notorious for its unstable, corrupt politics — Ecuador has had seven presidents in the last 10 years, three of whom were forced from office — Correa is seen as something of an outsider.
Correa "is new, with a dynamic spirit, and I like that," said Franklin Almachi, a 40-year-old Indian merchant from the village of Guaytambo. "He doesn't come off like the rest of the same old" politicians.
Until recently a professor at Quito's San Francisco University, Correa earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois in 2001.
He was a political unknown in April 2005, when he was appointed economy minister. He was forced to resign after four months when he failed to consult the president before publicly lambasting the World Bank for denying Ecuador a $100 million loan.
Since then, Correa has cozied up to Chavez, Latin America's outspoken anti-U.S. crusader. Correa says that in August he dined with Chavez and spent the night at the home of the Venezuelan president's parents.
Chavez — who has been accused of meddling in elections this year in Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua to boost leftist candidates — has made no public statement about Correa or his presidential bid. Correa denies allegations that Chavez is financing his campaign.
Correa describes himself as a man of "Christian leftist" ideals, telling foreign correspondents on Monday that "my political, economic and social thinking is nourished by the sacred writings and social doctrine of the church."
He opposes resuming stalled free-trade talks with Washington and says he would not extend a treaty scheduled to expire in 2009 that lets the U.S. military use Manta air base for drug-surveillance flights.
Correa also says he will cut ties to international lending institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and has threatened a moratorium on foreign debt payments unless foreign bondholders agree to lower Ecuador's debt service by half.
Correa is even tougher on Ecuador's political class, pledging to hold a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution to increase the executive branch's power.
His political foes say Correa would ruin the economy. But not everyone familiar with his background agrees.
"My guess is that some of the posture he's taking now is because that's the way he hopes to get elected and win votes," said University of Illinois economics professor Werner Baer, who sat on the committee that approved Correa's doctorate. "Once in power, I doubt that he would be virulently anti-American like Chavez."
Baer described Correa as a top-notch economist, and said he would more likely follow the lead of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who spooked investors with radical discourse as candidate, but once in office "became extremely orthodox in his economic policy."