* Combative Correa widely supported for social spending
* Critics call him authoritarian bully who weakens economy
* U.S. trained economist seen winning new term in office
By Eduardo Garcia and Brian Ellsworth
QUITO, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa held his first Cabinet meetings more than 35 years before he was elected.
As an 8-year-old boy in the bustling port city of Guayaquil, according to his brother, he would play head of state with his 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.
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.
Despite polarized views on Correa, opinion polls show the country of 15 million people is almost certain to hand him a new term in a presidential election Sunday. That would allow him to continue his “Citizens’ Revolution” that vows to fight grinding poverty and expand the reach of the state.
A savvy political operator, the 49-year-old Correa has built up solid support by boosting state spending on health and education.
His aggressive 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 poor.
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 prices, higher taxes, and financing agreements with China.
A victory on Feb. 17 would give him another four years in office, extending his tenure to 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 institution.
It could 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 agent provocateur, 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 ex-computer hacker for leaking thousands of secret U.S. cables.
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 health care he saw in Zumbahua was a stark contrast to his own lower middle class upbringing.
“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 hiking 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 health care 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, the usually tanned Correa is an effective campaigner while visiting poor rural areas, or dancing at local festivals.
Polls before the election show him taking between 50 and 60 percent of the vote. That is at least 30 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, banker Guillermo Lasso, who is one of seven candidates fielded by the fractured opposition.
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 for libel.
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 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 strongmen rulers in Latin America.
Ecuadoreans will also choose a new Congress in the elections Sunday. Correa’s Alianza Pais party hopes to win more than 50 percent of seats, up from 42 percent now. That would let him pass laws without having to negotiate with the opposition.
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’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. “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 investors.
“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.