Ecuadorian president vows to reform Constitution, renegotiate foreign debt


Wed, Jan 17, 2007 - Page 7

Leftist Rafael Correa swiftly moved to implement radical reforms following his inauguration as Ecua-dor's eighth president in a decade, calling for a national referendum on retooling the Constitution and vowing to renegotiate the country's foreign debt.

In a ceremony on Monday that drew some of Washington's fiercest foes, the 43-year-old US-educated economist raised a sword given to him by Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez and was sworn in as the newest member of Latin America's club of leftist leaders.

Correa, a charismatic political outsider who won election in a November runoff, said he would work for an "economic revolution" in Ecuador that would emphasize the renegotiating of foreign debt, "paying only what we can after attending to the needs of the poor."

And in keeping with a campaign promise to seek a new constitu-tion, Correa issued a decree calling for a national referendum on March 18 on the need for a constitutional assembly. Correa says a new constitution is vital to limiting the power of the traditional parties that he blames for the country's problems.

Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, said the end of the "long neoliberal night" was at hand, declaring the free-market policies promoted by Washington since the 1980s failed to help Ecuador develop.

His remarks drew applause from several US antagonists, from Chavez to Bolivian President Evo Morales and Iran's hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as from more moderate left-leaning leaders from Brazil, Chile, Peru and Nicaragua.

Correa said some of the debt arranged by previous governments was the result of corruption and that an international tribunal should be set up to decide what debt should be repaid.

In September, Correa said the nation cannot afford its US$2 billion debt service, representing 7 percent of the country's GDP.

"Ecuador cannot pay more than 3 percent," he said at the time.

On Monday, accepting Cha-vez's gift of a replica of liberation hero Simon Bolivar's sword, Correa addressed the gathered leaders and said they all now share a new responsibility.

"The people won't forgive us if we don't advance the integration of our America," he said.

The eighth president in 10 years for a nation marked by chronic political instability since it returned to democracy in 1979, Correa also launched a blistering attack on the political class.

Ecuador has "a perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society," he said.

"Our leadership has failed. We want a democracy where our voice is heard, where our representatives understand that they are there to serve us," Correa said.