Breakfast With El Presidente

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Friday, March 16

I had a boss once (not at FOX, I hasten to add) whom everyone knew as "the smiling assassin" — nicknamed for his ability to smile from ear to ear, as he ruthlessly fired people. Ecuador's new president, Rafael Correa, reminds me of that boss.

President Correa was nice enough to invite me, FOX News Producer Ron Ralston, and Cameraman Eric Barnes, to breakfast this week. And it was fascinating to watch the man in action. He is smart, charismatic, and smiles endlessly. It's little wonder that he wooed the population and won the election with relative ease. But all that charm hides a steely interior and a willingness to fight for what he believes is right. And what he believes is right, is usually left — as in left wing.

Over a breakfast of fruit, yogurt and eggs, he showed his disdain for President Bush and U.S. policies in Latin America. He reiterated his determination to kick American forces out of their strategically valuable base at Manta on Ecuador's coast, where U.S. pilots fight the war on drugs. He talked openly about restructuring contracts with American and other oil companies in Ecuador, arguing that the Ecuadorian people should get to keep a lot more of the money those companies make. It sounded a lot like listening to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The word nationalization was never actually used, but that was the clear subtext.

During his election campaign, President Correa called President Bush a "dimwit." When I asked him what his opinion of Mr. Bush is now, he took a sip of his coffee, smiled, chided me for my inability to speak Spanish, and then said in perfect English, "What I think of Bush doesn't matter."

True, perhaps, but his failure to use the word "Mr." or "President" spoke volumes. He then went on to talk about President Bush's policies, crediting them with helping the rise of leftist, anti-American leaders in Latin America. "I think his foreign policy is terrible," said President Correa. "But we are very thankful for your Bush. Because thanks to his policies there are a lot of new governments, very successful in the region."

And as he nibbled on his bacon and eggs, Mr. Correa told us again that U.S. forces have no place in Ecuador, so they will be thrown off of the Manta airbase — the place where U.S. pilots fly critically important missions that intercept Ecuadorian and Colombian drug boats. He said the base was useless and if the U.S. wants a base in the region they should put it in Colombia, a nation Mr. Correa has described as a puppet of Washington.

So how will the U.S. deal with this man? It won't be easy. President Correa has huge backing among the people here and is unlikely to cave from any pressure from Washington. That, in fact, according to Ecuadorian political analyst Mario Villagomez would be exactly the wrong path for the U.S. to take. "If you're breathing down his throat, he's going to react and he loves the fight," said Mr. Villagomez. "He's one of those kinds of persons that he's not shy of that and won't shy away from any kind of problem."

And Washington is, for now, heeding those words, taking a soft approach. U.S. officials know all too well that it will not be easy to wipe that dangerous smile off the face of President Rafael Correa.

Wednesday, March 14

Ecuador is a country in crisis. "So what?" you may well ask, "it's only a small South American nation."

Well here's the problem for the U.S.: At the center of the current crisis is a new leftist president who has already formed an alliance with the American-hating Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and is now threatening to kick all American military personnel out of Ecuador. And all this, just as Ecuador becomes increasingly critical in the U.S. war on drugs.

More and more Colombian cocaine is now being smuggled out of Colombia to the south, into Northern Ecuador, largely because of the aggressive and successful campaign waged by the U.S. and Colombian authorities against Colombia's cartels. But the drug lords won't give up easily, and they are now taking their illicit cargo across the porous Colombia/Ecuador border.

From there it is moved to the Ecuadorian coast and onto all manner of boats. Those boats then take the cocaine out into the Pacific in the region of the Galapagos Islands where it is transferred to so-called fast boats that speed up the coastline before dropping their cargo in northern Guatemala or Mexico, from where it is smuggled into the U.S. and on to the estimated six million cocaine users in the United States.

It's not easy stopping those shipments, but the anti-drug operations are helped immeasurably by a small contingent of U.S. personnel at Manta airbase on Ecuador's coast. From that base, U.S. pilots fly drug spotting and interdiction missions. Those missions played a role in more than 60 percent of drug seizures in the Eastern Pacific last year; that's 262 tons of illegal drugs, with a street value of more than five billion dollars.

And now, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa wants the Americans out, and says he will not allow them to stay after the U.S. lease at Manta runs out.

This is from a man who does not back down when he makes a threat. Right now he is facing off against members of his own Congress, as he tries to rewrite Ecuador's constitution and consolidate more and more power in his own hands, just as Chavez has done in Venezuela.

Correa is backing mass protests by his supporters who have tried, with the apparent help of riot police, to intimidate members of Congress and to prevent them entering their place of work. Many of those members of Congress have retreated to the hotel where I am writing, and we are now under a kind of siege —- protestors who support President Correa are lined up outside the hotel, threatening to beat the members of Congress when they emerge.

this country is a tinderbox that seems to the point of exploding into flames. If it does, the fire will undoubtedly destroy Ecuador's democracy, but it may also severely damage America's war on drugs.

... And that's why we all need to pay attention to tiny Ecuador.

Jonathan Hunt has served as a New York-based correspondent for since 2004. He led the coverage of the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal, covered the war in Iraq from Kuwait and Baghdad, and was the first FNC reporter to travel into Fallujah. You can read his bio here.

Jonathan Hunt currently serves as a New York-based chief correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). Hunt joined the network in 2002 as an international correspondent based in Los Angeles.