Saturday, July 28, 2007

Correa's War : Ecuador

By Mark Weisbrot

Guardian (UK) - July 26, 2007

In Ecuador a reforming government is battling against a
hostile opposition media as well the country's corrupt
political class

In his recent book The Assault on Reason, former vice-
president Al Gore describes how "the potential for
manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially
discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even
more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media
Machiavellis." The concentration of broadcast media
ownership is indeed a real threat to democracy, as we
learned the hard way when more than 70% of Americans
were convinced, falsely, that Saddam Hussein was
involved in the attacks of September 11 - thus enabling
the launch of a disastrous and unnecessary war in Iraq.

The problem is even worse in Latin America, where
monopolised TV media provides a much larger share of the
news that people receive, and is even more shamelessly
manipulated for political purposes. In Ecuador,
President Rafael Correa, an economist with a PhD from
the University of Illinois, was elected last November
with a broad mandate for economic reform, pro-growth
development policies, and poverty alleviation. One of
his government's first acts was to double the monthly
stipend for single mothers, the disabled and elderly

Although Corrrea ran without a political party or
candidates for the congress, his mandate was strongly
reinforced when the government won a referendum to draw
up a new constitution by an even larger margin of 82%.

As in a number of other countries in the region, which
has seen a record economic failure over the last 25
years, voters endorsed the sweeping institutional and
political changes they saw as necessary to enfranchise
the majority.

But on May 21 the opposition media launched an assault
on President Correa's finance minister, Ricardo Patino.

In a seven-minute grainy video clip from a hidden
camera, they showed the minister meeting on February 12
with two representatives of a New York investment firm,
as well as a former finance minister. Patino talks about
"scaring the markets", in what looks like a plot to
manipulate the country's bond market. The clip, taken
out of context, was shown repeatedly for days on the TV
news, spliced with gratuitous, unrelated images of
faceless people counting large amounts of cash.

It turns out that the video was authorised by Patino
himself, an odd thing to do if one is meeting to plan a
crime. Patino claims that the purpose of the meeting and
the taping of it was to investigate corruption. And
indeed the rest of the video - not shown on TV but
presented in a transcript published in Ecuador's major
newspapers - supports his explanation. In the rest of
the meeting, Patino is probing for information on
corrupt activities - including past market
manipulations. He allows the others to present and
explain the possibilities in detail, never agreeing to
go along with anything - just as one would expect in an
investigation of this sort.

In fact he states that it would be wrong to manipulate
the market. The meeting ends with one of the investors
stating that nothing would be done regarding the current
debt payment - which was due three days after the
videotaped meeting - but that they could think about
what to do in the future.

But the TV media's repeated, propagandistic images -
playing on people's cynicism from decades of corrupt
government - had the most influence. This emboldened the
opposition to make more wild allegations of secret deals
with foreign banks, and vote to censure Patino in the
Congress - which they control. All of this has been done
without anyone presenting evidence that the finance
minister was involved in any wrongdoing.

If all this seems Orwellian, it is. Ecuador currently
has the most honest government it has ever had - that is
why it has had so much support from the beginning. Yet
the impression that is coming across in the media - both
Ecuadorian and now spilling over into the international
press - is one of corruption.

Correa remains immensely popular, and he has defended
Patino, who has now taken another cabinet position. The
government will survive this assault, and move forward
with its agenda. But the opposition, led by the
traditional elite and corrupt politicians, will use this
"scandal" - with the help of the media - to undermine
the government and the reforms that the voters have

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