Charismatic Correa cruises to victory

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IOL pic feb19 ecuador correa Associated Press Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is embraced by his mother Norma Delgado as they celebrate Correa's election victory in Quito on Sunday.

Quito - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa vowed on Monday to press ahead with laws to control the media and redistribute land to the poor as he looks to deepen his socialist revolution after a resounding re-election victory.

Correa, a pugnacious 49-year-old economist, trounced his nearest rival by more than 30 percentage points on Sunday to win a new four-year term. He has already been in power for six years, winning broad support with ambitious social spending programs.

His re-election triumph could set him up to become Latin America's most outspoken critic of Washington as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is struggling to overcome cancer.

But Correa will have to balance his desire for an agenda similar to Chavez's radical socialism with a need for pragmatic negotiations with foreign investors to raise Ecuador's oil production and spur the mining industry.

He focused on his socialist reforms on Monday, saying he'd push through legislation that has been blocked by opposition leaders in Congress.

“The first thing we'll do is to push through key laws that have been left to wither as a way of hurting Correa, but this has actually hurt the country,” Correa said in an interview with regional television network Telesur.

Those include a proposed land redistribution drive to give terrain deemed unproductive to poor peasants and setting up a showdown with large banana and flower producers, much the way Chavez took on Venezuelan ranchers during a decade-long land expropriation campaign.

Correa's plan to create a state watchdog group to determine if media have published inappropriate content also echoes Chavez's controls over television and cable broadcasters, and would extend Correa's vitriolic fight with opposition media.

In addition, Ecuadoreans voted for a new Congress on Sunday and Correa said he expected his ruling Alianza Pais to win a majority. That would help speed his efforts to pass the proposed legislation.

But he is also expected to pass a new mining law that would ease investment terms as a way of helping close a deal with Canada's Kinross to develop a large gold reserve. That will be a major test of his ability to offer investment security while ensuring the state keeps a large portion of revenue.

“Without a doubt this reform will make the country attractive to foreign investors... and help attract large investments,” said Santiago Yepez, the head of Ecuador's mining chamber.

With almost two-thirds of votes counted by Monday morning, Correa had 57 percent support while conservative opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso was in second place with 24 percent.

The election established Lasso, a former banker from the coastal city of Guayaquil, as the face of the opposition. Six other candidates trailed way behind.

Lasso has called Correa a dangerous authoritarian who has curbed media freedom and controlled state institutions.

Even some supporters disapprove of Correa's tempestuous outbursts, fights with media and bullying of adversaries.

His re-election puts him in line to be the de facto leader of the leftist ALBA group of Latin American nations that push state-driven economic policies and oppose free-market reforms promoted by Washington.

Chavez made a surprise return to Venezuela on Monday after two months of cancer treatment in Cuba, but his health is delicate and it is unclear if he will be able to stay in power and continue being the region's leftist standard bearer.

The continued success of Latin American socialism will depend on strong commodities prices that underpin generous social spending, and Correa needs foreign investment to ensure state coffers remain full during his next four-year term.

Ecuador has been locked out of capital markets since a 2008 debt default on $3.2-billion in bonds, and Correa's government has taken an aggressive stance with oil companies to squeeze more revenue from their operations.

Correa's recent statements show that although he wants to maintain many of his radical policies, he also wants to soften his reputation as an anti-capitalist crusader within investing circles.

“The advantages of our country for foreign investment are political stability, a strong macroeconomic performance... and important stimulus to new private investment,” he said last week while hosting the emir of gas-rich Qatar.

Correa's government is also in talks with China to secure funding for the $12.5-billion Pacifico refinery, which would allow Ecuador to save up to $5-billion a year in fuel imports.

“We can't be beggars sitting on a sack of gold,” is a catch phrase Correa has used in recent months to argue that Ecuador needs to attract oil investments and expand a mining industry that has barely begun to tap its gold and copper reserves. - Reuters


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