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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ecuador's Correa facing ire over Colombia dispute

By Alonso Soto

QUITO, April 23 (Reuters) - President Rafael Correa's popularity will likely suffer if he further prolongs a dispute with Colombia because Ecuadoreans want him to focus instead on fighting inflation and spurring an anemic economy.

Correa, who has used much of the political capital from his popularity to exert control over Ecuador's institutions, initially boosted his high ratings seven weeks ago with a tough response to Colombia's bombing of rebels inside his country.

The leftist leader severed diplomatic ties with Bogota and rallied regional leaders to condemn President Alvaro Uribe.

But now he is the main obstacle to ending a dispute that the rest of Latin America, including his chief ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, thought was over just days after it began when Uribe shook Correa's hand at a summit.

Correa, whose confrontational style discomfits many Ecuadoreans, still refuses to restore ties or even talk with his conservative counterpart, limiting his comments to a public discourse laced with accusations such as "bare-faced liar."

Correa says he can no longer trust Uribe and has so far shrugged off pleas from the Organization of American States -- the Western Hemisphere's top diplomatic body -- to move on.

That poses a risk to Correa's popularity and means tensions will remain between two neighbors over Marxist Colombian rebels who finance their war against the state with drugs and launch bombings, kidnappings and army ambushes from the border area.

Ecuadoreans are increasingly focused on the problems of a slow-growing economy rather than a dispute that is unlikely anyway to escalate into an armed conflict.

"It is not that I'm unpatriotic, but what our people want is lower prices and more jobs, not a war with Colombia," said Patricio Gomez, a 25-year-old computer salesman.

Correa is expected to have to stand for re-election this year due to a change in the constitution. And when they vote, most Ecuadoreans will be focusing on sharply higher prices for staples such as bread and milk and an economy that is generating few new jobs.

The economy grew by less than 3 percent last year due to scarce foreign investment, and lengthy floods in the agricultural coastal region are likely to hurt growth in 2008.


Correa and Uribe are both are strong-willed, highly popular, and used to confronting their opponents head-on.

Still, pollsters say Correa will lose at home by continuing to seek a diplomatic victory.

"If there is no solution to this issue in sight, it will likely take a toll" on Correa's image, said Santiago Perez, an independent pollster often hired by the government. "The dispute is irrelevant and little understood by Ecuadoreans ... Employment, poverty and (food) prices are the key issues.

"Correa's popularity is unusual in the unstable oil-exporting nation that saw three of his predecessors toppled in just over a decade when Congress and the military sided repeatedly with street protesters.

Correa has pledged to help the poor and uproot corruption from traditional power centers such as the legislature.

He has used his popularity to wrest influence from institutions. He emasculated Congress with a new assembly and, this month, he did what would have been unthinkable for previous governments -- attacked the powerful military.

He railed at the armed forces over their handling of intelligence on the raid, replaced his defense minister with a close palace aide and prompted resignations byt top generals.

According to the country's most influential pollster Cedatos-Gallup poll, Correa's popularity bounced at the height of the Colombia crisis in mid-March to 66 percent, up from a low of 54 percent the previous month.

But that support began to erode as the spat dragged on, dipping to 62 percent by April.

"It seems the government attention is focused only in Colombia, and Ecuadoreans are not too happy with that," said Cedatos' head pollster Polibio Cordova.

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