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Correa: Brash leftist who stabilized Ecuador

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Often described as charismatic and hard-working, but also brash with authoritarian tendencies, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa admits it himself: he wasn't elected to be Mr. Nice Guy.

Elected to a final, four-year term in Sunday's presidential election, Correa has brought stability to this notoriously unstable nation, which shuffled through a staggering seven presidents in 10 years before he took office in 2007.

He has become a forceful voice of Latin America's left, befriending ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez while leading a softer socialist "revolution" than his more radical ally.

"The characteristics of my personality are positive for Ecuadorans. I am decisive, direct, objective, rational," the US-educated economist said. "But if I don't please someone, what can we do?"

"They didn't elect me to be Mr. Nice Guy to please everybody, but to move the nation forward. And we are undoubtedly making history," said Correa, 49, who was constitutionally limited to this last run at the presidency.

Correa has become popular in this Andean nation of 15 million people through social programs funded with the OPEC nation's oil proceeds, and his job approval rating has soared to 80 percent.

Partial results gave him 56.7 percent of the vote -- and a roughly 30-point lead over his nearest rival, banker Guillermo Lasso -- with just over a third of ballots counted.

"People feel that there is someone steering the ship and this generates trust because it brings more work," sociologist Hernan Reyes told AFP.

"He generates trust with the level of work he delivers, the demands he has on his subordinates and the amount of finished public works," Reyes said.

Correa has insisted that he is not "anti-capitalist or anti-Yankee," stating that the left has committed the mistake of denying space to the market and capitalist economy.

But he has also antagonized big business and media groups, seizing the assets of bankers involved in corruption scandals and accusing private news organizations of conspiring to destabilize him.

And his plans for large-scale mining have angered indigenous communities.

Correa was born into a lower middle-class family in the southwestern port of Guayaquil, the country's industrial center. His father spent time in jail in the United States after he was caught carrying narcotics as a "drug mule."

He was able to study thanks to scholarships which took him to the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, before earning a doctorate's degree in economics from the University of Illinois in the United States.

He became finance minister in 2005 but was swiftly fired after three months because of his diatribes against international financial groups.

Once he became president, he forced oil companies to renegotiate contracts in order to bring more money to state coffers. He refused to pay part of the country's external debt in 2009 because he considered it inflated.

He has also irked the United States, ending an agreement that allowed the US army to use a Pacific coast base for anti-drug operations.

In 2011, he expelled US ambassador Heather Hodges after WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable in which the diplomat said Correa chose a corrupt general to head the police.

In another act of defiance last August, Correa granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at Ecuador's embassy in London.

His relations with its neighbor Colombia have also been rocky at times. In 2008, he broke off ties with Bogota for 20 months after the Colombian military attacked a Marxist FARC rebel hideout inside Ecuador.

Correa faced his toughest test in September 2010, when hundreds of police officers rebelled over a new public wage law.

He even dared the police officers to kill him, opening his shirt to bare his chest at them and shouting: "If you want to kill the president, here he is, kill him!"

The officers roughed him up and he ended up in a hospital, where he was holed up until the army intervened to rescue him from the rebellious police officers.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130217/correa-brash-leftist-who-stabilized-ecuador