Ecuador: Another Progressive but Contradictory President, Oil Fed Economy Boom, Assange

progressive organization in Ecuador

Quito   A couple of days filled with meetings with the leadership of Rupture 25, an progressive political party in Ecuador working on its field operations plan for the upcoming national election next February as a crash course in the subtle politics of the country, exposing some of the contradictions in the general world view on the left branded President Rafael Correa and the hackneyed narrative about this group of current national leaders.  Correa, a former economics professor, has done an outstanding job with the economy with robust annual growth rates during the current global recession.

No small amount is driven by oil.  There is a long term sourcing contract with the Chinese who will buy much of what is produced from the country from 2015 to 2030.  A new refinery is being built with their loans, now totally $8 billion last year.  Spain which was investing $250 million a year, is now investing less than $2 million given the hardships in that country.  At lunch today, we watched a large delegation of Korean business people leave from the backroom.  They are also big players here.  There is talk to moving away from the oil economy, but that takes years as well.

Similar to the conversations we had recently heard in Bolivia, there was some disappointment by progressives inside the country with Correa.  One observer felt that 90% of what Correa was doing, particularly with the economy, was great, but that “10% is driving people away,” and this particularly had to do with human rights, press freedom, and other critical democratic norms.  Rupture 25 had been in a coalition with the President’s party, heading four departments, with 100 members working in government, and 90 left en masse in protest of policy directions.

Julian Assange and the Correa nose thumbing move to provide him sanctuary in London was a non-issue and a yawner in Ecuador.  Many felt this was just another split screen perspective that played huge worldwide but had no impact inside the country.

Nonetheless, there was no indication despite a number of parties assembling in the field and candidates including some very well financed, including a banker with a network of over 1000 microlending branches around Ecuador, that Correa was in any serious trouble facing re-election.  I listened to one conversation where the argument was whether he would win in the first round or have a runoff, but consensus seemed to say he would be back.

The politics seem less right or left, but open government versus consolidated and centralized power.  There’s mandatory voting (hurrah!) and a robust and contentious election ahead, and this will be another country worth watching as a harbinger of the future.

Quito North -- part of the party's priority base work in Quito

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Finally Real Hope for Homeowners Facing Foreclosure…in Ireland!

the view in Quito

Quito   Last night sitting in Casa Damian, an amazingly good Spanish restaurant in Quito, with two companeros, one of whom was a former chief adviser to the President Rafael Correa now working for the government on how to revise the procedures and update the judicial system and the other a former communications and policy adviser in the Labor Department, they started talking about real estate prices in central Madrid, which both of them had visited recently.  These conversations are now normal and expected around the globe as people everywhere try to parse the worldwide housing crisis.  One who had been in Madrid three months ago on business commented that it was now possible to buy a 900 square foot apartment beautifully located in central, historic Madrid for as little as 60,000 Euros.

Admittedly this is the kind of conversation also routinely held by people who don’t have 60,000 Euros in their pockets, but given that the price was perhaps a quarter to a third of what it had been, my friends were drooling.  They were doing so in just the way people in the United States do who realize for $40,000 they could have a house with a pool in Phoenix or nearly a mansion for $150,000 in Vegas if they liked to gamble and sweat.  But, an apartment in Madrid, well, that would be something.

Finally thanks to one country finally looking global banks in the eye, they might not be having this conversation so often in Dublin soon, because Ireland has finally done what all of us have argued should have been done in the United States, Spain, and elsewhere and force banks to write down mortgages to market value or at least borrower affordability to allow homeowners to stay in their homes and make their payments.  According to the Times Dealbook, Ireland has done so in a very shrewd way.  Rather than begging the banks to give a brother a break, which has been the USA non-policy, in Ireland they have locked the backdoor on the banks, forcing them to finally get realistic about the mortgages by moving to reform the bankruptcy laws and making it easier for citizens to reorganize their finances, which would mean walking away from the mortgage or getting a payment they can really handle.

Given the stalemate between banks and the government in Ireland (read USA, Spain, and elsewhere!), the Times argue they had little choice:

In many ways, Ireland has to try something audacious. House prices are still 50 percent below their peak, compared with 30 percent in the United States. And more than half of Irish mortgages are underwater, meaning the house is worth less than the outstanding debt. While some of those borrowers can afford to keep making payments, more than a quarter of mortgage debt on first homes, roughly $39 billion, is in default or has been modified by lenders.

Unfortunately in the USA, we lost the fight to reform bankruptcy laws here with little help from our friends in the White House or Congress, and decided to allow “ghost” banks, bailouts, and a lingering housing crisis hang like a sword over millions of homeowners trying to keep afloat.  Ours was a policy based on “hope” things would miraculously get better, despite the little choice we had.

The Irish may have just stepped forward with a real plan that might tilt the world back toward homeowners and away from banks. Maybe there’s hope for the USA, Spain and other countries and their homeowners yet?

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Alternative Universes Collide between North and South on Hugo Chavez Re-election

Quito  Landing in Ecuador after 11 pm and clearing customs, Hugo Chavez’s press conference was on all of the television sets as we exited the airport.  The first question I was asked as I headed for the hotel was whether or not I had heard that Chavez was re-elected.  This was big news in Ecuador, and I would dare say throughout Latin America where Chavez has been a defining figure for the last decade, who has walked with big steps throughout the region.  You would not have known that from reading the United States papers though.  The Times using a covey of reporters focused mainly on the opposition and its prospects despite what many, including even CNN, reported a surprisingly strong victory of nearly 10% over his opponent in a race that some pollsters had been calling even.  After a front page story on Sunday recognizing that Chavez’s strength might be the huge support for his social programs, almost seemed disappointed over his victory in their own brand of foreign policy.

No doubt there are serious issues in Venezuela that need to be addressed and Chavez’s health and prospects are absolutely a cause for concern, but it is interesting how different the perspectives on him and his election are between north and south.  In Bolivia recently with the Organizers’ Forum, we heard his name repeatedly.  People talked about “Chavez checks,” as they called them, of $10,000 USD each that Venezuela had given to rural communities to use at their discretion for economic development in their areas.  Both Ecuador and Bolivia have left-leaning governments which have been strong allies of Venezuela and beneficiaries of the better times when oil prices were soaring for Chavez so their interest was intense.  With elections coming next year for Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, it would not be surprising for people here to be looking for signs of which way the regional winds are blowing politically.

Without knowing all of the ends and outs of Venezuelan politics,  I would venture that there are still some things worth noting, whether or not the global south and the global north can agree.

  • Interestingly, there has not been one allegation about the election having been anything other than fair and above board, as opposed to the past where this was a constant refrain.  All reports is that voting stayed open as long as people were there and that the electronic system, though new, worked well, and gave no cause for any allegations of irregularities.  That must stick in some craws, I’ll bet.
  • There’s a global lesson in the chagrin of the Times’ story yesterday that people might in fact vote for Chavez in Venezuela because they wanted to see their social programs continue.  There are senior citizens voting in the United States who want to protect Social Security and medical programs.  Hello?  Why is it strange that beneficiaries of public services might make electoral decisions based on whether or not they believed government served them?
  • Voting participation rates of 80 to 90% in Venezuela which everyone concedes showed huge interest in this election make a difference!  This is part of the reason why Republican voter suppression efforts in the United States are so important to them.  If you keep the beneficiaries of public services away from the polls, then your opposition to public services has a better chance of winning, but if, as in Venezuela’s election, you turnout as much of the vote as possible, then the 99% of that country will raise their voices, leaving the critics to be satisfied with 45% rather than 55% when majorities are what matter in democracies.

Seems to me politicians and their parties could learn something important here about the connections between services, benefits, voting participation, and elections, but maybe that’s just me?

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Whither Wikileaks? Assange Taking his Show on the Road to Ecuador?

Toronto   Quito is a fascinating mile-high city and Ecuador is a very interesting country.  I have many friends there and have worked with them for years to try and figure a way that ACORN could support organizing there.  One day, as we say!  I also have a lot of respect for President Rafael Correa and his efforts to shape a progressive government there.  It’s a difficult project and though his performance may not have been perfect in every regard, his project has been worthy of praise and support.  Some years ago I was honored to speak at a conference he organized on the future of progressive movements and to attend my one and only official state dinner anywhere in the world.

But having said all of that, I have to wonder what in the world Julian Assange, “principal founder of Wikileaks” as the Times called him, might be thinking he might do in Ecuador if by some wild miracle he was able to both get the asylum he is seeking now as he is holed up on the lam in London in their apartment sized consular headquarters trying to jump hundreds of thousands of dollars of bail put up by some of Wikileaks last and truest believers?  Is this crazy or what?

Assange has never been one to simply walk a straight and narrow path and god knows I do believe he is sincere that he at least believes that “they” are trying to get him, but he must know over the last year he has been little more than a bird in a gilded cage and now with this last stunt he is categorically signaling that Wikileaks is totally dead.  For Assange, as all of us who have supported him must now be clear, it’s all about him now!

Wikileaks had already been crippled by Assange’s decreasing ability to generate any resources to support its work and his distracted and diverted attention to having to spend most of his time and energy trying to save himself from extradition to Sweden.  Now clearly he couldn’t raise a dime for Wikileaks or anything he might be managing with a ski mask and a gun.

His sudden sneak out to the Ecuadorian consular office seems a total admission that Wikileaks is now history, no matter how valuable and worthwhile in its moment, and that he is ready to become the Bobby Fisher of the progressive forces, just a crazy voice yelling from the deep forest, crying to be heard every couple of years.

Assange is a bright guy and when on his game, brilliantly effective.  I read an interview with him a couple of months ago that was hugely insightful in looking at the future, if one filtered out all of the weird and paranoid rants.  And, I’ll give him this, some of his paranoia over time was no doubt justified, but, frankly, that was then, and not so much now.

I wish that Assange would have gone to Sweden, faced the music, weathered the storm, and reemerged wiser and more effective.

If he miraculously gets asylum from Correa, and then somehow manages to catch a flight despite the Interpol red tag and other problems, I can’t imagine exactly what he will do in Quito other than learn and perfect his Spanish.  He doesn’t seem to be the settle down and move forward kind of guy who would just fall for a lovely senorita in Quito and call it a day.  He certainly won’t be able to resuscitate Wikileaks.

What could he be thinking?  And, why?  And, how disappointing for the rest of us that hoped Wikileaks would continue to make a contribution.

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