The U.S. Embassy in Ecuador recently announced that it had delivered $1.2 million of donated military equipment to the Ecuadoran military, a year after Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa ordered the closing of a U.S. air base in the country. In an e-mail interview, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, explains Ecuador’s bilateral relations with the U.S. and its regional foreign policy.
WPR: How has the closing of the Manta air base impacted U.S.-Ecuador relations, and in particular military-to-military cooperation?
Shifter: The closing of the Manta base was long expected and therefore its effect on U.S.-Ecuadoran relations has been minimal. The decade-long agreement had been unpopular in Ecuador. The terms were viewed as unfavorable to Ecuadoran national interests, especially in light of the spillover in drug and insurgent-related violence from Colombia’s internal conflict. The U.S. has compensated for the Manta base with a new defense cooperation pact with Colombia (that generated considerable controversy), yet military-to-military ties between the U.S. and Ecuador have not significantly suffered. The effect of the Manta base closing should not be overstated. After all, during the Cold War the U.S. never had a base in South America.
WPR: More generally, how has President Rafael Correa repositioned Ecuador’s regional foreign policy?
Shifter: President Correa has tried to be more assertive and independent in his regional foreign policy. He has been a key player in such South American arrangements as the Brazil-led UNASUR. After some time, the Correa administration eventually decided to join the Venezuela-led ALBA alliance. There is some commonality between Ecuadoran and Venezuelan foreign policy, yet Correa has also had a number of differences with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and has sought to chart his own course. To be sure, there has been a lot of strain with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, particularly after Colombia’s military incursion attacking a FARC camp in 2008. But recently Ecuadoran-Colombian relations have been more relaxed and have improved.
WPR: What accounts for Correa’s more balanced approach compared to other leaders of the Latin American populist left, like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales?
Shifter: Correa’s background shares little in common with that of Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. He is an economist by training, with a doctorate from the University of Illinois. In some respects, he is quite pragmatic in his approach to a variety of issues, including Ecuador’s mining law, which drew a lot of criticism from the left in that country. The country’s complicated economic realities also force some political moderation and accommodation. Ecuador is an oil producer, but not in the same way that Venezuela is. Correa understands that he needs to diversify and broaden economic and political relationships. He can’t afford to be as belligerent as Chavez sometimes is. Moreover, despite some similarities, it is useful to distinguish clearly among Chavez, Morales and Correa. They differ in political style and policy preference. The countries they lead have very different constraints and possibilities.