Leftist nationalist assuming presidency in Ecuador

Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Bolivia's Morales gather to welcome Rafael Correa into Latin America's club of left-leaning leaders.

Leftist Rafael Correa is promising to battle Ecuador's widely discredited political establishment after taking office Monday in a ceremony that is drawing some of Washington's fiercest critics. US foes including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Iran's hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were gathering to welcome the US-educated economist into Latin America's club of left-leaning leaders. Correa, 43, won a November election runoff as a charismatic outsider who pledged to lead a "citizens' revolution" to make the country's democracy responsive to its poor majority. Correa says his first act as president will be to call a national referendum on a special assembly to rewrite the constitution - a move he says is vital to limiting the power of the traditional parties that he blames for the country's problems. That could quickly put him on a collision course with Congress, which is dominated by those same parties. Lawmakers have dismissed the last three elected presidents, violating impeachment proceedings, after huge street protests demanding their ousters. During his campaign, Correa attacked Congress as a "sewer" of corruption and ran no candidates for the legislature. And he said last week that the newly installed congressmen "do not represent anyone other than their own interests and the bosses of their political parties and that is not democracy." Congressman Luis Fernando Torres, of the conservative Social Christian Party, shot back: "If Correa wants war, he'll get war." Correa is banking on winning control of the constitutional assembly, which would have the power to close Congress. On Sunday, Correa urged cheering supporters in the remote Andean village of Zumbahua, where he lived briefly 20 years ago as a Catholic social worker, to help him "conquer the majority in the assembly, to control it with 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent!" Correa had traveled to the impoverished community for a ceremony in his honor, in which he received a streamer-draped scepter signifying authority in Indian communities. Five Indian priests wrapped him in colorful ribbons, shook sacred herbs over his head and called upon the spirits of earth, moon and sun to provide his four-year term with positive energy. Thousands of people, most of them Indians, jammed Zumbahua's central square for the ceremony, a mix of Catholic and Indian rituals to mark the beginning of Correa's term. "I will never fail you," he told the crowd to thunderous applause. "Let us make a true democratic revolution, constitutional but still a revolution ... radical, profound and quick changes to the current model of so much exploitation, of so much injustice." Correa was joined at the ceremony by Chavez and Morales, fellow leftists and his closest allies in the region. All three were given heavy wool ponchos typical of the Andean highlands. Leftist presidents from Brazil, Chile and Peru were also planning to attend Correa's inauguration. Correa has rejected a free trade pact with the US, saying it would hurt Ecuador's farmers. And he has said he will not extend the US military's use of the Manta air base on the Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights when a treaty expires in 2009. Correa's view that Ecuador's democratic system benefits parties, not people, attracted voters disgusted with the corruption and greed of the political elite. More than 60 percent of Ecuadoreans live in poverty. "This democracy is the property of 13 million Ecuadoreans, not a bunch of caudillos, not a group of political mafias," Correa said recently. He says his political reforms aim to make elected officials more accountable, including having congressmen represent districts instead of being elected in a national vote. He supports allowing a recall of elected officials. Correa also wants to strip the parties in Congress of their power over the judicial system. Currently the parties name members of the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Election Tribunal and appoint key officials such as the attorney general. But some Ecuadoreans worry that Correa's real goal is to consolidate political power in the presidency as Chavez and Morales have done. They say he has shown early signs of not respecting the opinions of his political opponents, even moderate ones. "He is leaving no room to negotiate, to reach an understanding," said Benjamin Ortiz, head of a Quito think tank. "He wants to steamroll over everyone."