Ecuador Campaign Spiced by Anti-U.S. Rhetoric

Anti-American sentiment is widespread in the Andean nation of Ecuador. And the leading presidential candidate, U.S.-educated economist Raphael Correa, has tapped into this rich vein. His challenger is the country's richest man, Alvaro Naboa.

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Presidential elections in Ecuador today pit a candidate who admires Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez against a wealthy banana magnet and free market advocate. NPR's Julie McCarthy visited the Ecuadorian highlands and sent this report on attitudes among the country's large indigenous population who have helped push three of the last presidents from power.

(Soundbite of cow)

JULIE MCCARTHY: Ecuador's central Andean Valley snakes past magnificent snow-capped peaks, many of them active volcanoes. Tiny villages are nestled in this wild rain-lashed landscape, where indigenous people eke out an existence herding animals and cultivating inhospitable soil.

(Soundbite of animals)

MCCARTHY: A mud-splashed shepherdess drives her flock of lamas past the home of community leader Joselino El Ekitchay(ph). His dank one room house, where he lives with his wife and four of his nine children, doubles as a general store. The cardboard roof leaks in the frigid rain falling on the misty hills. Joselino says people own the land here but have no access to credit to make it profitable. He says the peasants here are looking to Raphael Correa, a 43-year-old American-trained economist and anti-poverty crusader, to change that.

Mr. JOSELINO EL EKITCHAY (Community leader): (Through translator) All the presidents before have stolen (unintelligible) they only care about their personal interests. They are corrupt and don't value poor camposinos(ph).

MCCARTHY: But Correa does, residents chime in. He came last week, they say, promising a local bank where they could borrow money. Painted lettering spells out Correa's name on house after ramshackle house. These residents, who speak Quichuan(ph) first and Spanish second, have not forgotten the time, 20 years ago, when Correa lived among them, volunteering and helping them better manage their finances and crops.

(Soundbite of washing dishes)

MCCARTHY: Joselino's wife squats in a corner cleaning chickens, while community president Alfonso El Ekitchay(ph) explains how he must travel to the market in Quito to haul sacks of potatoes for $50 a week. He says Correa's exposure to the miseries of life in the highlands equip him for the highest office.

Mr. ALFONSO EL EKITCHAY (Community President): (Through translator) We trust Correa. He speaks Quichuan, Spanish, English and French. We trust he has a good heart. His rich challenger, Alvaro Naboa, will never care about us. We are sure if Correa gets elected, he will put us on the same level as the people in the city.

(Soundbite of crowd)

MCCARTHY: Back in Quito, his supporters chant for Correa as he bounds onto the stage for a news conference. He says he'll renegotiate all foreign oil contracts and opposes a free trade agreement with the U.S. Correa's opposition to a military agreement that allows American forces to operate on an Ecuadorian air base draws loud applause. The candidate tells the foreign press he won't renew the accord in 2009 because it violates the nation's sovereignty by allowing U.S. troops on Ecuador's soil.

Mr. RAPHALE CORREA (Presidential Candidate, Ecuador): In having foreign soldiers in any country is not (unintelligible) not accept an Ecuadorian base in Miami, for instance?

MCCARTHY: Polls show Correa's closest rival is Alvaro Naboa. One of the country's richest men, he vows to attract foreign investment and trade. The banana magnate is seen as a representative of the old guard, but his campaign also appeals to the poor, whom he pledges to help with his own wealth. He finances mobile medical clinics run by his wife, a doctor.

Mr. ALVARO NABOA (Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate): (Speaking Spanish)

MCCARTHY: The three-time presidential candidate hands out small loans and wheelchairs to individuals who join him on the stage. What this crowd on the coastal region sees is concern for the underclass citizens of the highland call a rich man buying votes. But a win by Rafael Correa would follow the rise of other leftist leaders in Latin America, something that Naboa's supporters say their country cannot afford.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Quito, Ecuador.

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