Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s decision to boycott the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena was ostensibly because of the refusal by the United States and Canada to allow a declaration of support for Argentina’s legally obtuse claim to the Falkland Islands, and for the continuation of the exclusion of Cuba from the Summit, even while Cuba continues to exclude its citizens from basic human rights. But Correa’s abstention may have had a more strategic purpose - to establish himself as the new enfant terrible in the hemisphere and the heir apparent to Hugo Chávez.
For a week, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was not seen in public, and communicated only via his Twitter account and written statements while receiving cancer treatment in Havana, causing speculation as to his longevity. During an earlier Chávez cancer treatment in July of 2011, Correa made an unscheduled trip to Cuba, ostensibly to visit the ailing Chávez, who had returned to Havana for chemotherapy after reluctantly admitting to his constituents back home the seriousness of his disease.
The state-controlled media in Cuba touted the trip as a fraternal visit to a bedridden friend, but intelligence that has come out since then indicates that the meeting was of much greater import - to dub Correa the heir apparent to Chávez, and to prep the Ecuadorian president to carry the mantle of “Bolivarian Socialism” in the hemisphere in the event that Chávez succumbs to his cancer or is defeated in the upcoming election.
Chávez had decided to seek treatment in Cuba’s VIP-only Cimeq hospital, where he would remain under the watchful eye of Fidel Castro, whose interest in seeing improvement in the Venezuelan strongman would be equal to his own. Castro’s half century dictatorship, and his capacity to export his own brand of revolution into the rest of the hemisphere, had been resurrected by the largess of Venezuelan oil shipments, and the probability of losing Chávez as the financier of the revived Revolución had forced Fidel to choose an heir apparent.
Ecuador's Correa, a media-savvy politician that has shown a similar commitment to the movement, was the obvious choice. Castro, who is still revered by the new generation of leftists in the region, had told Bolivia’s Evo Morales back in 2003: "Don't do what I did, don't have an armed uprising. Lead a democratic revolution, like Chávez's, with a constitutional assembly."
But, while Morales may have been Correa’s closest competitor to replace Chávez, he had proven less adept at implementing the constitutional subversion that has become the modus operandi of leftist governments in the region. In contrast, Correa had shown prowess, turning a September 2010 police protest into a supposed coup attempt by shutting down all opposition media immediately following the incident and getting the coup story on the air unchallenged for 48 hours.
By utilizing cadenas - State announcements that were previously used only for national emergencies - Correa has been able to attack individual journalists and media owners by commandeering their own airwaves. And by personally suing journalists and authors that have written negative stories about him or his administration, Correa has created an atmosphere of intimidation among the remaining independent Ecuadorian media.
When he had not been able to silence criticism by verbal attacks, Correa has resorted to outright physical intimidation. In December of 2010, Correa mobilized the special operations unit, GIR (Intervention and Rescue Group), to invade the offices of the magazine Vanguardia, under the guise of collecting a judgment for back rent on the public property of its owner. But, as the Economist magazine reported, the reason behind the action was that Vanguardia had “detailed the involvement of Mr. Correa’s associates with government publicity contracts and gambling operations, and recently published records of transfers from their bank accounts.”
Correa had long shown a disregard for freedom of the press, and for the media’s role as a check on government corruption. When he was inaugurated in 2007, the Ecuadorian State owned a single radio station. Today it owns four, along with three newspapers, a magazine, a news agency, and two TV stations in the country’s biggest markets of Quito and Guayaquil.
The two TV stations were part of a group of 193 businesses seized by Correa from the Isaias Group under the auspices of selling them off to pay debts allegedly owed by a separate business entity. Correa had claimed that the move was an overdue action to remedy a decade old case, but the previous day he had also shut down the Guayaquil-based Radio Sucre for what the government claimed was "unlawful use of its frequency."
The seizure of opposition businesses and media companies, and their subsequent use as places of employment for Correa’s political party members, has been overshadowed by the El Universo case, which had suddenly drawn the gaze of international media outlets when a Correa-affiliated judge issued jail time and $40 million in fines for its directors and its former editorial page editor. But what the expropriation of the Isaias Group’s media properties did was allow Correa to better control the media at a crucial time in which his political initiatives were up for a vote, the passage of which has allowed him to further consolidate power.
And while it was those domestic political machinations that made him the most likely to succeed Chávez, it has been Correa’s connections to the FARC narcoterrorist group, and his embrace of Iran, that has Western security officials most worried about the prospect.
Over the next six months, Correa’s proximity to Chávez, and his complicity with Iran, will determine his and his country’s future. While Chávez has shown a willingness to ship gasoline to Iran, Correa has similarly demonstrated a willingness to open his country’s dollarized banking system to the Iranian regime, providing a way around sanctions that could provide a lifeline to the mullahs as they get ever closer to becoming a nuclear regime.
Any political transition in Venezuela, whether it is induced electorally or biologically, will make Correa the natural inheritor of Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism” movement, and will automatically make Ecuador’s relations with the West an afterthought as he consolidates his position as the new leader of the radical left in the hemisphere in the post-Chávez era.
Jon B. Perdue is the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The War of All the People (Potomac Books).