Tom Clancy couldn’t have scripted it any better.
In a continent in which small-town mayors regularly enlist a small army of bodyguards to inflate their self worth, the recent events in Ecuador were refreshingly old school. President Rafael Correa’s decision to walk out alone into a crowd of protesting police officers was a throwback to the days when machismo actually meant something, when respect was earned by bold action and not by how many thugs a leader carries on his arm.
Whether you think Correa was reckless, impulsive, daring, or gutsy, what unfolded was something no one could have predicted:
As his legend grows, it becomes more difficult to sort through the stories, but the events transpired something like this: In an effort to balance the budget, Correa cut police pensions and benefits, which resulted in riots. In an attempt to explain the measures, the brazen Correa confronted the officers outside his compound. Insults were hurled and the notoriously fiery president lost his cool. In the ensuing chaos, a clash broke out and the president was tear gassed, captured, and taken hostage in the basement of a local hospital for over twelve hours until an elite Special Forces unit broke him free.
What does this incident mean to the rest of the world? It serves as both a warning and an opportunity. President Correa is a populist who has a tumultuous relationship with big business, particularly foreign investors. Although he has balanced a nationalistic administration while maintaining a cordial relationship with Washington, his rhetoric indicates frayed nerves when it comes to foreign investors' meddling in Ecuadorian politics. As Correa is a friend of Venezuela’s rebellious President Hugo Chavez, the last thing America should do is to push him closer to Chavez by coming across as imposing on his country.
On the other hand, after decades of hostility, South and Central America are slowly warming to America, mainly due to economic interests. Ecuador, along with neighbors Peru and Brazil, all realize the financial benefits of doing so. Even Colombia, a longtime unstable and dangerous nation, has hopes of securing more investment. Relations with America - save for Venezuela - are improving, but bad blood still lingers in the memories of many who recall the CIA’s meddling in Nicaragua and suspected activities in Paraguay. Speculation that America is stirring resentment in Ecuador, just like they did a year ago in Honduras, is bad enough. But, accusations that the Obama administration is being pushed by oil countries to delegitimize Correa for easier access to Ecuadorian oil could trigger a massive anti-American wave throughout the region.
Ecuador is the opening Obama needs to quiet the likes of Chavez and show that America is eager to build positive and trustworthy relationships throughout the region. The best action for the U.S. is to support President Correa and his policies before Correa considers expelling the U.S. and other foreign influences as Chavez did.
It will be better for the security of the region and for American interests if Correa’s life story is chronicled as a typical biography with one minor incident and not a political thriller filled with suspense, pre-mature death, and endless conspiracy theories.
Photo Credit: Yamil Salinaz Martinez