Why Ecuador’s Rafael Correa Is Good For Expats
Although Rafael Correa has been a controversial figure in his six years as president of Ecuador, most of the country’s English-speaking residents will tell you that their lives are better because of him.
Almost certain to be re-elected to a second full term, Correa has pledged to continue the extensive agenda of public welfare and infrastructure projects already under way. These include expansion and reconstruction of the country’s highway and bridge system, construction of new hospitals and hiring more doctors to support the country’s Social Security health care system, and a top-to-bottom overhaul of public education. In all, spending on public projects has increased 300% since Correa was first elected.
Frequently criticized for his left-leaning politics, opposition to free trade agreements with the U.S. and the EU, and, more recently, his grant of asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Correa says he is working to reverse years of neglect of the country’s public services and infrastructure.
He frequently invokes Alexander von Humboldt, the early 19th-century Prussian explorer and naturalist who described Ecuador as a “beggar sitting on a bag of gold.” Ecuador must use its resources, he insists, to improve the lives of its citizens. With his background in economics, Correa knows that because those resources, especially oil and gas, are finite, the country needs to build a future based on an educated, healthy, and prosperous citizenry.
The government’s public projects, in fact, are funded primarily by oil money. After Correa restructured contracts with oil producers in 2007 and 2008, he dedicated billions of dollars to public works. Other public funds are the result of increased revenues generated by higher levels of tax collection. Although his critics say he is spending too much, Correa points to a healthy national balance sheet that shows a growing GDP and a low level of debt.
Among the public projects currently under development or on the drawing board are:
- Cuenca‘s new light-rail system that begins construction in February. The European-designed system will transport 120,000 passengers a day when it’s completed in early 2015.
- A new national research complex, dubbed the “city of knowledge,” under construction east of Quito. Based on the North Carolina Research Triangle concept, Correa expects the center to attract scientists and researchers from around the world.
- A three-fold expansion of the nation’s Social Security health-care system, including the addition of new facilities, equipment, and doctors. Expats under the age of 60, by the way, have the option to buy in to the Social Security insurance program for less than US$70 per month.
- The reconstruction of the nation’s railway system that was abandoned by previous governments following El Niño-produced landslides that destroyed most of the tracks 15 years ago. The first leg of the rebuilt system opened in December between Ambato and Riobamba and tracks are currently being extended to Quito.
- A new national education university, just north of Cuenca, designed to provide world-class training to school administrators, policy makers and teachers, from primary school through the university graduate levels. The government has begun to recruit educators from other countries and announced in October the hiring of more than 100 Ph.D.-level professors from Spain.
In addition to the headline-catching projects, increased public spending has shown results in other areas as well: In 2012, Ecuador achieved the lowest poverty and illiteracy rates among all nations of South America’s Andean region; national and local police departments have added thousands of new officers; and hundreds of top Ecuadorian students are now receiving a free education, at government expense, at the world’s top universities, including Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, London School of Economics, and the Sorbonne.
Certainly, major challenges confront Rafael Correa, and he will no doubt continue to be a lightning rod for criticism, both within Ecuador and internationally. He faces a nasty fight with the country’s teachers’ unions, which are opposed to higher teaching requirements. Many of his oil- and mineral-extraction policies have angered indigenous groups. In addition, his over-sized ego and big mouth continue to get him in trouble with the media.
His plans for Ecuador, however, are borne of an international perspective reflecting his education and years of living Europe and the United States (he earned his undergraduate degrees in Belgium and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois).
Correa says his goal is to position Ecuador among the first rank of Latin American countries by the time he leaves office. Based on early results, he seems well on his way to achieving it. And Ecuador’s growing number of expats can only appreciate his successes.
Editor’s note: David Morrill, a former syndicated columnist and magazine editor, is one of Cuenca’s pioneer expats. He co-founded the city’s first English-language real estate company and is president of Trans Andean Trading Company.
You can meet David at our Live and Invest in Ecuador Conference starting Feb. 13. He will be hosting his ever-popular (and always booked) Cuenca real estate and orientation tour immediately after the event.