Ecuador is no stranger to political turbulence. In the last three decades, 13 heads of state have ruled the country. Some only lasted a few days. Others managed to complete their terms. Two were ousted by popular revolts, and one was ejected by a coup. So the relatively stable rule of President Rafael Correa, who took office in 2007 and was reelected by a 30-point margin in last week’s election, has been nothing if not an anomaly. Correa has become Ecuador’s first president to serve three consecutive terms.

This year's electoral campaign was relatively low-key, and it centered on the president's personality rather than his policies. Opposition politicians called him an "intolerant bully" who clamped down on private media and opponents. But his own electoral campaign focused on his ability to make the dreams of Ecuadorians come true. The campaign's positive image matches Ecuadorians’ overall satisfaction with their country’s direction.  According to polls conducted by Quito's Center for Research and Specialized Studies, more than 50 percent of Ecuadorians say they feel happy about their country's trajectory -- a huge improvement over the years preceding Correa.

That increase is not surprising; the years immediately before Correa’s rise were rough. In the late 1990s, low prices for oil, the country’s main export, and agricultural damages caused by El Niño–powered floods, among other factors, led to a huge economic crisis. Banks shut down or appealed for a bailout. In 2000, the country adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in order to stave off hyperinflation. Pessimistic about the future, hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians migrated abroad, mainly to the United States, Spain, and Italy. Remittances became the second-largest source of foreign currency after oil exports.

After a period of relative stability and growth, though, the global financial crisis hit in 2007 and 2008, diminishing both remittances and exports. But, thanks to Correa's policies, Ecuador miraculously stayed afloat. Since taking office in 2007, he has raised corporate taxes nine times. Oil companies have been forced to renegotiate their contracts, leading to a ten percent increase in state earnings on each barrel. By 2009, things really started to turn a corner, driven by high oil prices. The country, which holds the third-largest oil reserves in South America, now has an estimated output capacity of around 500,000 barrels of crude a day. That accounts for more than 30 percent of government revenue.

Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, invested much of the revenue in infrastructure and social programs. The government built roads, revamped schools, and built hospitals. It also set up programs to provide free education and health care. Meanwhile, from the very beginning, the Correa administration increased efforts to make the monthly cash payment known as Bono del Desarrollo Humano (“human development voucher”) available to more people. The assistance, now a cornerstone of Correa’s poverty-reduction efforts, goes to over eight percent of Ecuadorians. According to the National Statistics Institute, poverty rates have fallen from 64 percent in 2000 (the year the vouchers were introduced) to 27 percent today.

Unfortunately, these advances mask several nefarious aspects of Correa’s rule. Domestic critics have accused the president of being a despot and are afraid that a third term will further concentrate power in his hands. Fresh off his victory, and backed by a two-third majority in the legislature, the president might just be able to succeed in grabbing more power.

Soon after his election on February 17, Correa told foreign reporters that he would carry out several reforms to Ecuador’s constitution. (He already revised the constitution in 2008 to run for second and third terms.) Some observers worry that Correa intends to make it easier for himself  to stay in power after his third term ends in 2017. Critics say he is power hungry. But supporters believe that he simply needs more time to carry out all the reforms he promised when he first came to power. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has accused the government of abusing antiterrorism laws that date back to the 1970s, to incarcerate indigenous leaders that have protested the government’s confiscation of natural resources on their lands.

What is more, press organizations have also accused the Correa government of restricting freedom of expression. The president, who dubbed the press his “greatest enemy,” has pursued several lawsuits against local private media. In 2011, Correa filed a libel suit against El Universo, a national newspaper, after Emilio Palacio, a former editor, wrote a column calling the president a dictator and accusing him of being responsible for the deaths of several people during an alleged coup in September 2010. The newspaper's three directors and Palacio were sentenced to three years in jail and fined $40 million. In the same year, Correa filed a $10 million suit against the authors of a new book, Big Brother, which detailed government contracts that benefited the president's older brother, Fabricio. The president won this suit too but he later pardoned all those responsible in both suits during a televised address to the nation in February 2012. He might now have enough support in the assembly to pass a controversial press law, on the government's agenda since 2009, that would establish a government-led media. Critics say that the president has already appointed allies in top judicial positions to help him prosecute and persecute journalists and protesters.

On the foreign policy front, Correa's Citizens’ Revolution, as it has come to be called, has led to a more antagonistic posture. In 2008, Correa defaulted on foreign debt, calling it "immoral and illegitimate" and describing international lenders as "monsters." A year later, he failed to renew a contract that allowed the U.S. military to run a base on Ecuadorian territory. There was no major reaction from the United States. Only when Correa expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges in 2010, after WikiLeaks released a cable in which Hodges expressed concern over corruption among Ecuador’s police, did the United States temporarily suspend diplomatic relations with the country. Relations were reestablished a year later. Just last year, though, Correa upset the United States, Britain, and Sweden when he granted asylum to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Correa has seemed intent on broadcasting that Ecuador is a sovereign state that will stand up to the big guys -- a popular stance in a country that has often felt like an underdog. Much like his ally Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Correa also warmed up to Iran and China, something that has gone relatively unnoticed among average citizens.

It would be one thing if Correa had the muscle to back up this rhetoric. For now, however, that does not appear to be the case, which will only spell trouble for Quito. "Ecuador has a limited weight when it comes to foreign policy, which means that it doesn't have much influence in regional or multilateral negotiations,” Michel Levi, a foreign affairs professor at Quito's Andina University, told me. “This is something that can be clearly seen from abroad but that the government doesn't fully understand." Although that truth will not undermine Correa’s popularity at home, he may find it harder to negotiate his way with the European Union to get a good price for banana exports, for example, which could lead to financial problems.

Even worse, since Ecuador defaulted on its debts in 2008, China has been the country’s only lender. Ecuador overspent on social programs and now owes China at least $3.4 billion -- a fact that worries critics who believe Correa's social policies are financially unsustainable.  Correa might try to dig himself out of the hole by doubling down on mining and oil production. His choice for vice president, Jorge Glas, previously the minister of strategic resources, indicates as much. Past allies, including the former oil minister and presidential candidate Alberto Acosta, say that the increasingly authoritarian Correa has betrayed his party's socialist roots by deciding to carry out large-scale mining and expand oil exploitation in untouched areas of the Amazon.

Given Ecuador's turbulent history and the lack of a proper opposition, it is likely that a majority of Ecuadorians will stick by their president -- not only the poor, who are benefitting from social programs, but also the young and talented civil servants, who are benefiting from economic growth. For now, matters of press freedom and long-term financial strength are worrying outsiders more than Ecuadorians, who are happy for a moment of stability, no matter how shortsighted their president.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now