Rafael Correa
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the tiny, poor Andean nation of Ecuador, three-quarters of the population lives in poverty—and its president, Rafael Correa, has been center stage in the NSA leaker drama. That's because Edward Snowden, still hiding in a hotel in a transit area at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, mentioned Ecuador as a country in which he would seek asylum. (Chances of that have diminished over the last day or so as geopolitical machinations have caused both Correa and Russia’s president President Vladimir Putin to cool their ardor for the 30-year-old unrelenting dispenser of America’s secrets.)

If Snowden does end up in Ecuador, he will be the second young man without a country—Snowden calls himself a “stateless person,” blaming the US for revoking his passport—to reap the hospitality of Ecuador’s president. (WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, a 41-year-old Australian, has been stuck for the last year in Ecuador’s embassy in London. Assange has been the biggest booster of asylum in Ecuador for his American counterpart.)

My interest in Correa and his up-from-the-bootstraps rise was sparked by the admittedly parochial fact of his tie to the University of Illinois in Urbana. He earned both a master’s degree (1999) and a PhD in economics (2001) from my alma mater. And so I followed the election in 2006 of Correa, now 50, a poor boy from Guayaquil, an industrial port and Ecuador’s largest city, who became an economics professor and finance minister (for only 106 days in 2005 before being fired by then President Alfredo Palacio for publicly blasting the World Bank). His father had spent three years in prison in Atlanta for smuggling cocaine into the U.S. and later, back home,  committed suicide.

Correa’s U of I dissertation focused on the impact of globalization on poverty in Latin America. Werner Baer, one of the U of I economics professors who sat on the committee that granted Correa his doctorate, predicted, wrongly, that Correa’s Hugo Chavez-like anti-American rants were intended to get votes and that he would govern as more of a moderate—even as a believer in a market economy. Baer, who specializes in Latin American “development economics,” with what seems a subspecialty in Brazil, was in Brazil when I contacted him Sunday to see if he could share memories of Correa. He agreed to an interview and I emailed him questions,  but I did not hear back by post time. Correa described his time in the cornfields of Illinois (about as different a topography from his native land as one can imagine) as the “happiest” years of his life.

In 2009, some three years after Correa won his first race in a runoff against Alvaro Noboa, a billionaire banana baron and Ecuador’s richest man, the leftist populist president returned to the U of I  to accept that year’s “International Alumni Award for Exceptional Achievement” from the University. Not all alumni considered Correa an appropriate recipient.

Correa had promised that, if elected, he would whip Ecuador’s elite with his belt (his last name means “belt” in Spanish). He promised close ties with Venezuela and China—the latter the biggest purchaser of Ecuadorian oil and holder of $3.4 billion Ecuadorian debt—and cooler ones with the U.S. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended Correa’s first inauguration in 2007. 

Correa entertained his fans and infuriated his critics with a stream of stridently anti-American comments, calling  George W. Bush a “tremendously dimwitted president” and riffing on his friend Hugo Chavez’s famous description of Bush as the devil: “Calling Bush the devil is offending the devil.”  He said that the U.S. could continue to use an air base in Ecuador if Ecuador could establish one in Miami. An opponent of free-market policies and globalization—a campaign promise had him shifting the country to what he calls 21st century socialism or a “socialist revolution”—he engineered a rewriting of the constitution (which gave the executive more power and Correa more terms).

Correa is a character writ large, a younger brother to Venezuela’s Chavez, tenacious in his plan to grab the late, charismatic leader’s nationalistic mantle. (Correa dedicated his reelection victory earlier this year to Chavez.)

As Snowden and Correa leaped onto the world’s stage, Correa, who opposed a free trade agreement with the United States,  called U.S. congressmen who threatened to end favorable trade practices with Ecuador "brats." But for all Correa’s anti-capitalistic talk, his reasons for apparently backing down on welcoming Snowden—he refuted claims that Ecuador had provided Snowden with safe-passage papers that would have allowed him to travel, and said that Snowden’s fate lies in the hands of Russia—has everything to do with his nation’s economy. Oil is Ecuador’s major export, but it also exports cut flowers, frozen broccoli and canned artichokes, and when those congressional “brats” threatened  to stop trade preferences for Ecuador, Correa put some distance between himself and the increasingly isolated leaker.

Correa went public with a description of a “cordial” telephone call from Vice President Joe Biden who pressured Correa not to grant Snowden asylum. Correa punted by telling Biden that he could not decide on Snowden’s asylum request until Snowden entered an Ecuadorean embassy or until he entered the country, and promised to take the U.S. position on Snowden into account when considering his request for asylum.

It might not come to that: Reuters quoted Correa as saying that “it’s up to the Russian authorities if he can leave the Moscow airport for an Ecuadorean embassy.” But if Snowden can make it to an embassy, Correa will have to keep navigating the straits between populism and internationalism, as he has since leaving downstate Illinois.