Now that Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s longtime ruler, is dead, and Lula da Silva is no longer the President of Brazil, Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, is the closest thing South America has to a regional leader. In many cross-national polls, his approval rating—currently at seventy-five per cent—is the highest of any Latin-American head of state. Though Ecuadoran law dictates that this term, his third, must be his last, crowds still chant “Reelección!” wherever he goes.
Last week, in a suite on the eighteenth floor of the Pierre Hotel, Correa said, by way of an icebreaker, “It’s tiring when you have to speak in another language.” He did not seem tired. Even in English, his fourth language, he has a Clintonian gift for schmoozing. He leaned forward in his chair, quoting Ecuadoran proverbs and tracing restless circles on the carpet with a loafered foot. He is handsome in a real-guy way rather than a movie-star way—more Kennedy than Costner. A few dozen people milled around the room, including some of his cabinet ministers, U.S. Secret Service agents, Ecuadoran security guards, and several young men whose brief seemed to be to anticipate the President’s insatiable demand for coffee. Turning to the assemblage, Correa asked, “How do you say, in English, Marxista?” Marque Lethenstrom, an American who lives in Quito and works as Correa’s English tutor, provided the prompt. Correa nodded and said, “We have to recognize what is called, in Marxist economics, the use value, not just the exchange value, of public goods.”
He was speaking about the Yasuní-I.T.T. Initiative, Ecuador’s offer, in 2007, to leave more than eight hundred million barrels of oil in the ground. In exchange for averting a small but significant chapter in the ongoing depredation of the planet, Correa requested $3.6 billion—half of the oil’s market value at the time. Last July, after a six-year-long fund-raising effort yielded less than one per cent of the asking price, Correa announced that he would, reluctantly, allow drilling to begin. “The idea had a solid economic basis,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s a question not of the logic, not of technical issues, not about justice—it’s about power. If you are a rich country and you can use our air supply and our environmental goods for free, you are going to continue using them for free.”
Later, Correa met with the economist Jeffrey Sachs. “Is there any way to revive the proposal?” Sachs asked. “If we could help raise the necessary money, could you prevent the drilling?”
“Absolutely,” Correa said.
“I’d like to look at the numbers,” Sachs said. “But, from what I understand, this is not some crazy idea. In the U.S., in cost-benefit analysis, we assume a social cost for CO2 that is now around forty dollars per ton. Comparatively, what you were offering was very generous.”
Between 1997 and 2001, Correa lived in Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois. “They were very beautiful years,” he told me. “I came here when my older daughter was three and a half years old and the little one was six months old. The Midwest, to raise children, is wonderful.” The experience, he said, left him with “a love for the American people.” It is not always requited. Asked to respond to aTime article in which he is called a “fervent anti-Yanqui nationalist,” Correa laughed. “This is new,” he said. “Can you say again, please? A fervent anti-Yanqui national?”
Lethenstrom, seizing another teachable moment, said, “Nationalist.”
“F-A-N,” Correa said. He has an easy, squinty smile. “Wonderful.”
Since 2012, Julian Assange has taken refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, against the wishes of the United States. For its part, the U.S. has refused to extradite the Isaias brothers, two businessmen living in Miami, who have been convicted of embezzlement by an Ecuadoran court. (The Times has reported that the brothers were major donors to Obama’s second Presidential campaign.) Last June, Edward Snowden requested asylum from Ecuador. I asked Correa whether the Obama Administration had pressured him to deny Snowden’s application. “If they had dared to tell me that, I would have brought Snowden to Ecuador,” Correa said. “We have a sovereign country.”
Correa often speaks about sovereignty, which can be hard to distinguish from defiance. “Vice-President Biden called me,” he said. “He was very kind. He explained to me what Snowden had done to the national security of the United States. I listened, and I told him, ‘Well, if Mr. Snowden requires asylum from Ecuador, we’re going to think about it.’ ” Snowden later withdrew his request.
Despite his support of free-media martyrs, Correa is not a civil libertarian. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “An anti-press attitude” pervades “all branches of Ecuadoran government.” Fernando Villavicencio, an activist and a journalist in Ecuador, claims that his home was raided by police last year. For this and for other reasons, Correa has been variously denounced as a socialist (by the foreign press) and as a fascist (by his brother). I asked Correa where on the political spectrum he would place himself.
“Perhaps you cannot understand Latin-American politics,” he said. “And we do not understand American politics. At the moral level, I can define myself as conservative.” He is an observant Catholic, and he is opposed to abortion rights. “For you, in the States, to be morally conservative is to be right wing. For us, traditionally, ideologies are defined by the material conditions of production. To clarify this with an extreme example: If Pinochet were pro-abortion, that means he was a leftist guy? If Che Guevara were against abortion, that means he was right wing?” In the U.S., Correa said, there is “a social consensus” on economic principles. “So what are the differences that you are left with? Moral issues. For instance, what is the difference, on economic issues, between Democrats and Republicans? More taxes? Less taxes? I have more differences inside my political party. I have myself more differences between what I thought in the morning and what I am thinking in the afternoon.”
According to his official schedule, Correa was due at the Carlyle Hotel for a meeting with Woody Allen. (Mia Farrow had recently toured the toxic pits that resulted from Texaco’s oil spill in the Ecuadoran jungle.) But the meeting was suddenly removed from the schedule, and a new one was printed: “Woody Allen” was replaced with “Actividad Personal.”
I asked Correa a final question. He had announced his intention to retire in 2017, as is currently required by Ecuadoran law. Was it possible that, as the date approached, he would change his mind?
“We never know,” he said, and added that he does not intend to seek another term. “But something that bothers me is to receive pressure from overseas about what we should discuss. Ecuadoran people are free to discuss whatever they want,” including, he said, “reëlection.” Then he smiled and asked about my family. “These are the priorities,” he said.
That evening, I went with Correa’s motorcade to LaGuardia Community College, in Long Island City, for a “cultural event.” A crowd of admirers greeted him on the street; more waited for him inside. As he made his way to the stage, he spent twenty minutes shaking hands and kissing cheeks. He spoke without notes, acknowledging each interruption (“Que viva el Presidente!”) with a smile and a wave. Then he sat in the front row, taking a cordless microphone with him. A parade of singers performed Ecuadoran folk songs, and Correa, buoyed by a constantly refreshed Styrofoam cup of coffee, sang along. Every few minutes, the crowd chanted, “Reelección! Reelección!” His smile did not dim. He stayed until one-thirty in the morning.