Ecuador's Populist Leader Still Strong

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In December, Edita Matailo's husband stopped sending money home to Ecuador after he lost his construction job in Spain. Since then, her support for Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has only grown stronger. "He is the only one who cares about the poor," says Mrs. Matailo, sucking on a popsicle on a recent day as she sits with her children and a friend in San Jose de Moran, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Quito. "If it weren't for his subsidies, we would not be making ends meet." Her words could have been spoken in Caracas, Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has poured billions into social programs for the poor, or in rural Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has handed new powers to long-oppressed indigenous people. And it is such sentiments that have given Mr. Correa a clear advantage, according to several polls, in today's presidential elections. But unlike his peers in the region, Mr. Correa is more difficult to categorize. Despite fiery rhetoric against the US and the wealthy, and social spending that mirrors popular efforts by leftists across Latin America, many political observers say Correa sits on neither the left nor the right. "Correa has two blinkers on. He turns his car signal on the left, but he turns to the right," says Augusto Tandazo, an adviser to Correa during his 2006 campaign. "There is a double discourse that is contradictory. We have to ask ourselves, 'Which of the two Correas is it?' " Correa has increased subsidies to the poor and invested in health, education, and infrastructure projects. Last year, he rewrote the Constitution and gave the state greater control over the economy. He defaulted on some of the nation's foreign debt, calling the terms unfair. He expelled US diplomats for "interfering" in Ecuadorian affairs and has cozied up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also has refused to allow the US to renew its military lease at the Manta base. All this has helped push him to the front of elections, capturing nearly 50 percent in a recent Cedatos-Gallup poll. His closest rivals, Alvaro Noboa and former President Lucio Gutierrez, register support just in the teens. "The lower classes feel vindicated, as Correa has proven to be a good avenger against the oligarchy," says Pablo Andrade, a political scientist at Andina Simon Bolivar University in Quito. "The meaning of the left is not clear in Ecuador, but [part of it] is the reaction against neoliberalism that has built up over the last 50 years." At the same time, Correa has maintained his distance from leftists in the region. He has not joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, for example, a Chavez alternative to free-trade policies he says are dictated by Washington. And while Mr. Chavez and Mr. Morales have decried international finance institutions, Correa has turned to them for loans, says Mr. …