Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tipping Point

...And I don't mean Gladwell's 2005 book about how ideas spread. I'm referring to Rafael Correa's decree of last Thursday, which forbids the dissemination/broadcasting of any video tapes which his government has made, without the permission of the tapers or tapees, if I may invent some new words.

Correa's decree came out just as one of the fired PRIAN diputadas, Gloria Gallardo, was going to release long parts of the famous, first "Pativideo" of conversations between Finance Minister Ricardo Patino and some financial consultants (including an ex-Minister of Finance from the Palacio government) regarding the ins and outs of bond market manipulation and how one might benefit from it.

In fact, from the parts of the first tape that have already been released, plus public statements of the Patino's Vice(!)-Minister, it's clear that Patino y cia sought to bring down Government of Ecuador bond prices in February by having the VMin say that the GOE wouldn't make interest payments on the bonds. Venezuelan banks then came in bought the bonds at artifically reduced prices and then a few days later Patino said that the GOE would/would pay interest, at which point, bond prices jumped out and the Venezuelans sold out, realizing a nice fat profit in the space of less than a week.

Since the first Pativideo came out, a second one has emerged showing Patino with Jorge Cevallos, President of the Congress, discussing exchange of pork projects for Manabi Province in exchange for votes in favor of the Constituent Assembly. In that tape, the two men are almost comedic in their overacted, winking, "I don't know you, you don't know me", style of negotiating political favors. Again, the tape shows Patino engaging in sleazy conversations, this time with a guy who's widely viewed as weak and politically pliable by the government.

The media and cocktail chatter is that there are many more video tapes out there, made by Patino and possibly others in the Correa government. It was made clear some time ago that the first two tapes were made without judicial authorization and without the knowledge of the other (non-Patino) participants, which is a crime in this country as far as I can tell.

Patino brushes off the legal aspects of video recordings, saying that he himself was trying corrupt bankers and creditors and that the conversations were all hypothical, and besides, he had President Correa's approval to make the tapes. I'm not a lawyer, but my guess is that if I'm right in that the video-recordings were illegal to begin with, Correa's ok of the whole thing makes him an accomplice to a crime.

Whatever the legalities of the whole thing, Patino comes across as corrupt and sleazy in the tapes, and his clumsy defense of the tapes show that he's not only corrupt, he's incompetently corrupt.

There's also been growing talk, as I say, that there are many more tapes floating around showing other political figures, in government and outside of it, engaging in questionable conversations and/or activities. This whole thing has been simmering for weeks now, and now, just as Congress moved to enjuiciar (impeach, or move to censure) Patino, and Gallardo prepared to release more of the first tape, Correa comes out with his decree that's clearly intended to muzzle the media and his political enemies while protecting Patino and himself.

Correa's moves are so transparently motivated that in other circumstances, he simply might be viewed as idiotic and/or amusing. The fact is, though, that he's the President of the country, and the decree represents his first overt move toward censoring the media here. Correa issued the decree last Thursday during a trip to Spain, wherein he took every opportunity to attack the Ecuadorian media as lying and corrupt. That same week, he attacked the Spanish media for criticizing him ( the usual: You're liars, infringing on Ecuadorian sovereignty, etc.) and said as well that if any Ecuadorian tv station came out against him like RCTV came out against Chavez, he'd shut the tv station down. Correa clarified that he meant if any station committed seditious acts, he shut them down, but the clarification didn't make Ecuadorian media folks feel any better.

I've mentioned Correa's antipathy to the media in earlier postings. His conflicts with the press (and it's much more Correa attacking the press; the press, in the main, has been pretty temperate in its responses) are much more than personal ire. Rather, there's a method to his madness. His attacks have resulted in a general decline in the public's opinion of the media (to be fair, public opinion of the press was never that high), and that's just what Correa wants because he wants to neutralize another institution - the press - that stands between him and control of the country.

Correa has managed to compromise the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Constitutional Tribunal, key actors in govenance and democracy in Ecuador. He thought he had the Congress in hand as a result of the firing of 57 opposition deputies, but some of the replacement deps have voted their conscience and against Correa on several of his key initiatives, so his response is to argue that the Constituent Assembly can and should dissolve the Congress as soon as the CA is convened. Correa has been very clear that he expects to control the CA and that he expects the CA will restructure governmental insitutions and the economy itself so as to give control over these systems to "the people".

Among other things, Correa and his first Press Officer, Monica Chuji, have opined that the media system needs to be revamped so as to give "the people" more of a voice in what's said in public print and over the airwaves. Various media and press reps have not taken kindly
to that kind of talk but as I say, the overall media response to Correa has been relatively muted.

Muted until last week's decree banning publication of more videos, that is, and that's where we come to the crux of the matter: Has Correa become so powerful that he'll be able to cow the media into doing what he wants? Or will the press publish/release tapes that could very well bring down the Correa government?

Briefly, it's a little bit like when Richard Nixon stonewalled on releasing White House tapes. Everyone knew that if he got away with stonewalling, he'd be able to do anything. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him to release the tapes and that was the end of Nixon.

Here in Ecuador, the talk is that there are tapes out there that are just as dangerous to Correa as Nixon's tapes were to him. Correa's sudden ban on releasing those tapes have alerted people here just as happened 30 years ago in the States; everyone realizes that there must be something terribly important in those tapes to Correa. Just as important is what the press will do about them.

The press has come out (at least some of them; they're not a monolithic group, that's for sure) totally against the decree and they say they'll challenge the decree in courts, although since the Tribunal Constitutional is in Correa's pocket it seems, it's doubtful that such a challenge would go anywhere.

And that's where we stand right now, on the afternoon of July 17.

So the tipping point is this: Will the press blink and accept the decree or not? If they do, then in my opinion, they've started down the slope to censorship here in Ecuador, and Correa will have won the ballgame. If the press really is serious about opposing the ban, though, they (in my opinion) should get as many tapes out as widely as possible, as soon as possible, whatever the consequences.

Whichever way it is, though, censorship (perhaps self censorship is better phrase) or full disclosure, we need to know and we need to know soon.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Correa's Mouth

One thing I appreciate about Rafael Correa's mouth: He can't keep it shut. I'm guessing that a lot of people in Ecuador are like me in that we look forward to each Saturday morning and the Presi's radio program wherein he pronounces, expounds, fulminates (and fumes), insults, threatens, jokes, and generally makes an idiot of himself.

These last couple of weeks, Correa's continued his insults and threats of lawsuits against the press, accusing them, as usual of being corrupt, mediocre, and mendacious. In a new twist, the President has told the people that if they want (real, true) information, they should go to his website and/or read his press releases. No, really, that's what he said.

As well, in last Saturday's memorable program, which took place in Cuenca, he called a local lady reporter there a "gordita horrorosa", because he didn't like the questions she was asking. He then went on to characterize the press in Ecuador as "bestias salvajes", although he did try to cover/excuse himself by saying that he was merely using same phrase that PM Tony Blair had used in referring to the media in Great Britain.

Over these same last two weeks, things have not gone well for the President and his government in Congress in that two of his proposed laws dealing with the banking system and its policies, and the energy sector, were either rejected (energy) or modified drastically (banking). As I mentioned in my last posting, Correa has not taken kindly to those setbacks and he's said that he believes that the Constituent Assembly, once in session, should disslove Congress.

In a further development on the banking law, Correa vetoed parts of the modifed bill sent him, and over the last couple of days, Congress came up with the votes to override his veto. Interestingly, the veto override has been made possible because of votes coming from the "Bloque de Dignidad", the group of roughly 40-50 Diputados (depending on how you calculate the group) who replaced the famous fired 57 in April.

Most, if not all, of the Bloque had been viewed as allies of Correa because they had dared to replaced the fired guys, and it was generally assumed that the Bloque would pretty much do Correa's bidding. Well, it hasn't worked out that way, and quite a few of the Bloque people have shown themselves to be capable of defying Correa's wishes. Many of them maintain that they owe their allegiance to their constituencies and their consciences(!), not to Correa.

Correa has responded by characterizing all Diputados who voted against him as having sold themselves to the bankers, and he's promised to name all Diputados whom he says have been bought, on his next Saturday radio program scheduled for this morning, as it happens.

I've noticed that Correa and his team are absolutely terrible lobbyists, when it comes to negotiating with Congress and its members. The banking law experience is the most recent (but not the only) example of this. Two of Correa's appointees to the Bank Board spent a lot of time on the floor of Congress, but instead of schmoozing with swing voters or trying persuade some of the oppo to come around to their point of view, they engaged in heavy handed, threatening manuevers with mostly Bloque de Dignidad people. I must say that I was surprised at how a lot of the Bloque people stood up to the Correa reps, essentially telling them to get lost; indeed, at one point in debate this week on the veto override, the Correa people were directed to leave the floor so as allow the Diputados to do their job.

The net effect of Correa's mouthing off and his heavy-handed, threatening approach to dissent has been to broaden and harden opposition to the man, for which I am glad. Many people have not taken kindly to Correa's general and personal attacks on the press and indeed, anyone who differs with him. More and more op-ed commentary is anti-Correa and now, post CA referendum, people are beginning to wonder about Correa's avowed intention of controlling the Constituent Assembly and its results.

Correa's emotional immaturity (perhaps lack of emotional intelligence is a better phrase), his style, and his tactics are only just now getting widespread attention (and rejection) within the world of political commentators, although he's been clear and open on many of his political objectives for the country since the beginning.

While many of his objectives are laudable and in some cases, even necessary, in my opinion, Correa's arrogant, insulting, and overbearing attitudes are alienating more and more of the electorate here. That growing popular alienation, generated by Correa's own words and actions, represents a real and growing threat to Correa's agenda and Correa's own tenure. He and his agenda would be very well served if he were to keep his mouth shut and his mind open to the views of others; if he doesn't his popular base will shrink to the point where he becomes irrelevant to the political future of the country, and that would be a shame.