* Combative Correa widely supported for social spending
* Critics call him authoritarian bully who weakens economy
* U.S.-trained economist leads "Citizens' Revolution"
By Eduardo Garcia and Brian Ellsworth
QUITO, Feb 17 Ecuador's President Rafael Correa
held his first cabinet meetings more than 35 years before he was
As an 8-year-old in the bustling port of Guayaquil,
according to his brother, he would play head of state with
friends who gathered around him to serve as ersatz ministers
taking his orders.
The innate charisma that he showed as a schoolboy has helped
make Correa one of the Andean nation's most popular presidents,
celebrated as a champion of the poor by supporters from
windswept highlands to sweltering Amazon jungle.
The country of 15 million gave Correa a sweeping re-election
victory on Sunday, according to early official results, allowing
him to continue a "Citizens' Revolution" focused on fighting
poverty and expanding the reach of the state.
Yet critics might see in those childhood games the
authoritarian traits of a leader they now accuse of hoarding
power: he somehow always managed to be the chief.
"I used to say to his friends, 'when you play cops and
robbers, sometimes you're the cop and sometimes you're the
robber,'" said Correa's brother, Fabricio, once a close ally who
is now a fierce critic after a theatrical falling-out.
"'But you guys are always the stooges and he's always the
president,'" he said in an interview.
A savvy political operator, the 49-year-old Correa has built
up solid support by boosting state spending on health and
His strident anti-American rhetoric and showdowns with Wall
Street investors and oil companies have helped him build the
image of a populist crusader battling elites in the name of the
To detractors, however, Correa is a dangerous and impulsive
authoritarian who brooks no dissent and persecutes adversaries
while squashing free speech and free enterprise alike.
They say his political success has come from a vast
expansion of presidential powers and indiscriminate use of
government coffers swollen by rising global crude oil prices,
higher taxes, and financing agreements with China.
After winning a new four-year term on Sunday, Correa is set
to be in power for a decade, a remarkable feat in a country
where military coups and violent protests had turned the
presidency into more of a revolving door than a stable
It may also give Correa a bigger leadership role in a
coalition of left-wing leaders in Latin America as Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez, for years the region's main agitator
against U.S. power, struggles with life-threatening cancer.
Though Correa has said he is not interested in replacing
Chavez, he is likely to continue replicating the Venezuelan's
ferocious verbal bashing of the U.S. "empire."
He has canceled U.S. anti-narcotics flights from Ecuador,
and in 2011 he expelled the American ambassador.
Last year, he set his government on a new collision course
with Western powers when he allowed WikiLeaks founder Julian
Assange to take refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London, saying he
feared Washington wanted to persecute the former computer hacker
for leaking thousands of secret U.S. cables.
HERO FOR THE POOR
Driving Correa's diatribes about corrupt media and immoral
bankers is a profound anger over poverty, which he witnessed up
close in 1987 while volunteering with a Roman Catholic
organization in the remote Andean village of Zumbahua.
He spent a year living in a tiny room in a dilapidated
building, playing guitar and sharing meals with the local Kichwa
indigenous people while learning their language.
The malnutrition and lack of basic healthcare he saw in
Zumbahua was a stark contrast to his own lower middle class
"The time he spent here left a mark on him. He saw that
these people were trapped in poverty. He would go around saying
things were going to be different when he became president,"
said Pio Baschirotto, a 71-year-old priest who works in Zumbahua
and is friends with the president.
Correa went on to study economics in Belgium, where he met
his future wife, and in 2001 completed a doctoral thesis at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that argued against
the free-market reforms that swept Latin America in the 1990s.
The father of three won the presidency in late 2006 on
promises to tackle poverty by boosting the state's share of the
OPEC nation's oil industry proceeds and increasing government
spending on social welfare.
Since then he has doubled spending on education, linked
remote villages to big cities by turning muddy dirt paths into
proper roads, and expanded access to healthcare by building 20
new hospitals and revamping some 500 clinics.
"We've done a lot. ... Our roads are envied throughout the
Americas, ports, airports, hydroelectric dams. For sure, things
have changed," Correa said when he kicked off his re-election
bid in November in front of thousands of supporters.
"But there's a long way to go and that's why we're here."
An avid cyclist, Correa filmed one campaign spot showing
him changing out of a sharp suit into biking clothes and then
riding his bike over mountain peaks and past tropical fishing
villages to show the improvement of roads under his leadership.
Supporters say Correa's charm and heavy state spending have
helped him put an end to the political turmoil that ousted three
predecessors in the decade before he took office.
But critics say the key to Correa's longevity is that his
allies drafted a new constitution in 2008 that expanded the
reach of the presidency, made it easier for him to put allies in
key posts and has allowed him to run for two consecutive terms.
He also bypassed Congress by calling a referendum on an
overhaul of the justice system in 2011 that critics say boosted
his power over courts. The opposition-controlled legislature
would have likely rejected the reforms.
At the same time, he expanded the use of adulatory state
media to burnish his image, began calling critical reporters
"dogs" and "hired assassins," and sued two opposition newspapers
Business leaders say his expansion of state control over the
economy and creation of onerous taxes has weakened the private
sector while fostering corruption, an approach his rival
Guillermo Lasso calls "franchise socialism" because of its
similarity to reforms in allied Venezuela and Bolivia.
Allies who helped him win the presidency quickly found there
was no room for dissent or even disagreement. Within two years,
Correa elbowed as many as 10 people out of his inner circle.
"We were like brothers. Sometimes neither of us was able to
say who had said something first," said Alberto Acosta, a
political mentor who said he fell out with Correa over the
president's plans to expand the mining industry at the expense
of the environment.
"I don't know him anymore ... he has become authoritarian,
domineering and arrogant. He's a caudillo now," said Acosta,
using a label often given to autocratic rulers in Latin America.
One of his most bitter brawls was with his own brother,
Fabricio. The two campaigned together in the election that swept
Correa to power, and they had been close since childhood.
The president openly broke with him in 2010 following
accusations that Fabricio Correa's engineering firm had profited
from government contracts that violated anti-nepotism laws.
The elder Correa denies the charges and says the
relationship broke down when he complained about irregular
contracting practices. He says he learned via the vice president
that his brother had barred him from the presidential palace.
"He turned into a fanatic," said Fabricio Correa. "He
believes he is a messiah, and he always envisioned a
totalitarian system because he believes that's the only way to
help the poor."
The president has ready responses to such charges.
"They say we're obsessed with power. Yes! We're obsessed
with the power to serve the citizens, especially the poor," he
said last month when he celebrated six years in office.
"We're obsessed with the power to build more schools, more
hospitals, more roads, more bridges."
Supporters and rivals alike complain that Correa's sharp
temper and hostile attitude have led him to pick unnecessary
fights and to implement policies based on confrontation.
His most notable showdown was his 2008 decision to default
on $3.2 billion in global bonds, even though Ecuador had the
funds to continue making payments. Correa insisted the debt had
been illegally contracted under previous governments.
Ecuador later repurchased the debt at a steep discount in an
aggressive operation that turned Wall Street's rough-and-tumble
playbook back on the investors themselves - but also locked
Ecuador out of global capital markets.
He also forced oil companies to sign contracts to give the
state greater income, pushing out Brazil's Petrobras
in the process, and bullied mobile phone carriers into paying
more for their operating licenses, deterring potential
"His biggest defect is his biggest virtue: he fights for
what he believes without thinking about the consequences," said
Correa's friend and former minister, Susana Cabeza de Vaca.