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Correalina, the way to spell ‘protectionism’

BY LAWRENCE DE GEEST | MARCH 24, 2009 7:30 AM

There are those in Ecuador who say that life is too short to be the bull in a bullfight. But in South America, the lessons of the bullfight are fading as the popularity of the sport wanes and the popularity of Ecuadorian President and economist Rafael Correa rises. The 2008 Feria de Quito — the 10-day celebration of the founding of Quito and largest taurina competition in the Americas — saw more anti-bullfighting advertising and less television and radio coverage than in previous years, while trade barriers imposed by Correa ensured that the only expensive imports entering the country were Spanish matadors. Correa does not publicly praise or condemn bullfighting and regularly ignores warnings from the World Bank against protectionism. But his most fervent supporters do not mind. Largely illiterate, unemployed, and preferring Ecuavolley (a variation of volleyball played with a football) to bullfighting, they maintain that Correa should be trusted. Sadly, they are likely to be disappointed.

Correa took power of the historically unstable South American polity in 2007 promising reform and rejuvenation, but his “citizen’s revolution” has since found itself facing unfavorable circumstances in the role of the bull. High unemployment, inflation, and public debt, combined with an overdependence on oil revenues and remittances, make Correa’s promises of wealth redistribution and free education through university increasingly untenable. His self-appointed ministers assure the people that improvement will only come through government intervention, and in this, he has endeavored zealously. His trade barriers are the toughest in the world — they restrict the entry of 627 types of goods, many of which are not produced in Ecuador. The World Bank now worries that neighboring countries will adopt similar policies and undo the pained efforts of trade organizations such as MERCOSUR and the Andean Community, and with reason: The International Monetary Fund — which has loaned extensively to Ecuador — recently reported the first contraction in global trade in 30 years.

Correa wants a society of entrepreneurs to re-engineer Ecuador into a regional leader, and novice microgravity and aeronautics programs, the first of their kind in Latin America, are frequently championed. But like oil, entrepreneurship is a scarce resource. Ecuadorians with capital and innovative ideas are discouraged by potential government interference, and many foresee an increase in black-market activity as a result. To them, these are ominous signs of past decades. Rather than reform and rejuvenation, Correa has led Ecuador back to its querencia, the place in the bullring in which the bull feels most secure and laboriously protects. Such security is short-lived — the bull who holds his querencia is a bull who dies of his own accord.

Policymakers argue that no economy in today’s world can survive alone. If so, then Correa must abandon his present thinking. It may even be time to for him consider reinstating a new domestic currency to replace the weakening dollar, adopted in 2000 to alleviate hyperinflation. But he may be president until 2017, and for now, he does not appear to be changing his course. Since the credit crisis began, he has expelled U.S. diplomats and foreign businesses, refused to pay interest on the nation’s foreign debt, shut down the U.S.’s anti-narcotics trafficking operation, seized two private television stations, banned live-bullfight broadcasts at the Feria de Quito, and even distanced himself from allies Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. In bullfighting, original techniques are named after their matador’s, such as manolitina or dosantina. Much as “21st-century socialism” has been attributed to Chavez, “21st-century protectionism” may one day be remembered as Correalina.


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