Rafael Correa, upon his inauguration as Ecuador’s president on Jan. 15, immediately called for Congress to approve a referendum for a constitutional assembly which he sees as crucial for “a profound transformation” of the country. While campaigning, Correa promised a new constitution, demanded that U.S. troops leave the country and condemned Washington-backed “free trade” agreements.

Despite 80 percent popular support for the assembly, Ecuador’s Congress, controlled by right-wing parties, had rejected the proposed referendum as unconstitutional. Since Jan. 30, widespread demonstrations, led by indigenous groups, have kept the issue open.

Marchers descended upon Congress on Feb. 12, demanding immediate action on the referendum. Indigenous leader Humberto Cholango told the crowd, “We can’t keep on leaving things up to a discredited, neoliberal political sector,” referring to those who advocate NAFTA-like pacts, privatization and public austerity.

Correa promised, if need be, to bypass Congress and set up a special entity to authorize the referendum. The next day, however, Congress, in a compromise, approved the referendum.

The government has also had to deal with a border dispute with Colombia, a U.S. ally. On Dec. 11, Colombian airplanes, fumigating coca plants in Colombia, dispersed the herbicide Glyphosate over inhabited areas in Ecuador, repeating the incursion on Feb. 5. Colombia called off further spraying five days later, after Ecuador announced plans to go to the International Court at The Hague.

The Correa government has outlined a “foreign policy peace initiative” on border problems, especially the humanitarian crisis affecting 250,000 Colombians displaced by that nation’s civil war.

Correa became Ecuador’s eighth president in 10 years after a 57 percent runoff victory on Nov. 26. Speaking partly in the Quachua language, he joined thousands of indigenous people on Jan. 14 for a symbolic inaugural ceremony. “This nation is one of the five Latin American countries with the least investment per inhabitant,” he said, and he has prioritized education, health care and support for the most vulnerable as his goals. Women occupy seven of 17 cabinet posts in his government.

“The neoliberal night is reaching its end,” Correa declared. “A sovereign, dignified, just and socialist Latin America is beginning to rise.”

President Evo Morales of Bolivia, on hand for the ceremony with Venezuelan President Chavez, responded, “The struggle of the Cuban people and Fidel against imperialism was not in vain.” According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, Correa is “taking on responsibility for Indo-America socialism epitomized by José Carlos Mariátegui,” a Peruvian Communist leader of the 1920s.

Under Correa, Ecuador plans to cut its ties with the International Monetary Fund. On Feb. 2, officials announced a 10 percent reduction in foreign debt repayments, allowing for a 6 percent funding increase for social services. Ecuador owes $11 billion, approximately 25 percent of its GDP, to foreign lenders.

In response, Thomas Shannon, U.S. undersecretary of state, advised caution. President Correa, he suggested, should “not place Ecuador in conflict with institutions and countries it needs and that can provide the most help,” adding, “We have an idea of how to do it, based on our experience [which] we are inclined to share.”

According to Correa, Ecuador will re-evaluate foreign debt obligations. He has proposed “an international debt arbitration court” to determine “legitimate foreign debt” and use of the “Bank of the South,” proposed by Venezuela, as repository for monetary reserves.

Under agreements ratified Feb. 9, Venezuela will help modernize Ecuador’s refineries and hydroelectric facilities, process 100,000 barrels of Ecuador’s oil on a daily, no-cost basis, and allow Petroecuador to drill for oil in Venezuela.

A cloud of tragedy, however, pervades these new beginnings. Defense Minister Guadalupe Larriva died Jan. 24 when two helicopters collided during military exercises near the Manta U.S. Air Base installation. She, her 16-year-old daughter, and five officers were passengers. All died.

Larriva, head of Ecuador’s Socialist Party, had condemned Ecuador’s military ties with Colombia, projected military reforms, and confirmed U.S. troop departure from Manta in 2009 when bilateral agreements expire.

President Correa fired Army chief Pedro Machado because of the crash, which, according to an international team, was not caused by mechanical problems. Observers liken Larriva’s death to that of leftist President Jaime Roldos in 1981. His aircraft also crashed under mysterious circumstances.

Lorena Escudero replaced Larriva as defense minister, joining female counterparts serving in Argentina and Uruguay. At Larriva’s funeral, Rafael Correa bade farewell: “Guadalupe, you liked hearing this, from the song for Comandante Che Guevara: ‘Until victory, always.’”

atwhit @ megalink.net