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Leftist president takes office in Ecuador

Rafael Correa was sworn in as Ecuador’s president Monday in a ceremony attended by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and other members of the growing club of leftist Latin American leaders.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa shakes hands with former President Alfredo Palacio in Quito
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, shakes hands with former President Alfredo Palacio in Quito on Monday.Guillermo Granja / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nationalist Rafael Correa denounced Ecuador's political system as "perverse" as he was sworn in as president on Monday, and then raised a sword given to him by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez amid applause from a growing club of leftist Latin American leaders.

The charismatic political outsider said he would immediately push for a national referendum on rewriting Ecuador's constitution, a measure opposed by much of the nation's political establishment.

Strapping on the red, yellow and blue presidential sash and smiling broadly as he waved to cheering supporters in the galleries of Congress, Correa complained that Ecuador has "a perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society."

Also applauding were a host of U.S. foes, from Chavez to Bolivian President Evo Morales and Iran's hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Correa, 43, won a November election runoff pledging to lead a "citizens' revolution" to make the country's democracy responsive to its poor majority.

Correa says a new constitution is vital to limiting the power of the traditional parties that he blames for the country's problems.

That could quickly put him on a collision course with Congress, which is dominated by those same parties. Lawmakers have dismissed the last three elected presidents, violating impeachment proceedings, after huge street protests demanding their ousters.

Called Congress a 'sewer'
During his campaign, Correa attacked Congress as a "sewer" of corruption and ran no candidates for the legislature. And he said last week that the newly installed congressmen "do not represent anyone other than their own interests and the bosses of their political parties and that is not democracy."

Congressman Luis Fernando Torres, of the conservative Social Christian Party, shot back: "If Correa wants war, he'll get war."

Correa is banking on winning control of the constitutional assembly, which would have the power to close Congress.

Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, right, talks to Bolivian's President Evo Morales upon their arrival to attend the inauguration of Ecuador's new president Rafael Correa in Quito, Monday, Jan. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)Fernando Llano / AP

On Sunday, Correa urged cheering supporters in the remote Andean village of Zumbahua, where he lived briefly 20 years ago as a Catholic social worker, to help him "conquer the majority in the assembly, to control it with 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent!"

Correa had traveled to the impoverished community for a ceremony in his honor, in which he received a streamer-draped scepter signifying authority in Indian communities. Five Indian priests wrapped him in colorful ribbons, shook sacred herbs over his head and called upon the spirits of earth, moon and sun to provide his four-year term with positive energy.

Thousands of people, most of them Indians, jammed Zumbahua's central square for the ceremony, a mix of Catholic and Indian rituals to mark the beginning of Correa's term.

"I will never fail you," he told the crowd to thunderous applause. "Let us make a true democratic revolution, constitutional but still a revolution ... radical, profound and quick changes to the current model of so much exploitation, of so much injustice."

Correa was joined at the ceremony by Chavez and Morales, fellow leftists and his closest allies in the region. All three were given heavy wool ponchos typical of the Andean highlands.

No U.S. trade pact
Correa has rejected a free trade pact with the U.S., saying it would hurt Ecuador's farmers. And he has said he will not extend the U.S. military's use of the Manta air base on the Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights when a treaty expires in 2009.

Correa's view that Ecuador's democratic system benefits parties, not people, attracted voters disgusted with the corruption and greed of the political elite. More than 60 percent of Ecuadoreans live in poverty.

"This democracy is the property of 13 million Ecuadoreans, not a bunch of caudillos, not a group of political mafias," Correa said recently.

He says his political reforms aim to make elected officials more accountable, including having congressmen represent districts instead of being elected in a national vote. He supports allowing a recall of elected officials.

Correa also wants to strip the parties in Congress of their power over the judicial system. Currently the parties name members of the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Election Tribunal and appoint key officials such as the attorney general.

But some Ecuadoreans worry that Correa's real goal is to consolidate political power in the presidency as Chavez and Morales have done. They say he has shown early signs of not respecting the opinions of his political opponents, even moderate ones.

"He is leaving no room to negotiate, to reach an understanding," said Benjamin Ortiz, head of a Quito think tank. "He wants to steamroll over everyone."