Byline: Jose R. Cardenas, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returning to Cuba this week for more treatment in his battle with cancer, much speculation has begun about the future of his authoritarian, anti-American populist model in Latin America. Will his movement die with him, or will someone be there to pick up the banner when the strongman falls?
Well, if there is anyone who has been auditioning for the job of new standard-bearer, it is Ecuador's Rafael Correa. Although he hasn't generated the same international attention as the Venezuelan caudillo, it hasn't been for lack of trying.
Mr. Correa may not have Mr. Chavez's vast oil wealth (although oil-producing Ecuador is a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) but he has enough. In any case, what the brash U.S.-educated economist does share with Mr. Chavez are a number of disturbing and destabilizing characteristics that threaten democracy at home and regional stability.
The hallmarks of their reigns have been class warfare, polarization and intolerance of dissent, and both have rammed through new constitutions that trample on separation of powers and rule of law.
Aping Mr. Chavez, Mr. Correa also has waged a political war against Ecuador's independent media, which The Washington Post calls the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media under way in the Western Hemisphere, and he, too, has expelled the U.S. ambassador in a fit of pique designed to play to the mob.
But more troubling is that Mr. Correa has mimicked Mr. Chavez's habit of maintaining close ties with dubious international pariahs such as Iran and displaying a lax attitude toward transnational criminal organizations that directly undermine inter-American security.
In the case of Iran, with Mr. Chavez acting as interlocutor, Mr. Correa has cultivated strong ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has abetted Iran's campaign to evade United Nations sanctions over its nuclear program. Mr. Ahmadinejad was a special guest at Mr. Correa's 2007 inauguration, and in their most recent meeting in January, Mr. Ahmadinejad called Mr. Correa his brother, while Mr. Correa added, We have to accelerate and deepen our efforts and deepen our financial and commercial relations for mutual benefit. …