Rafael Correa was sworn as Ecuador's president Monday and one of the first decrees he signed was to call a national referendum next March 18 to decide on the convening of an elected assembly with full powers to draft a new constitution.
Correa, 43, a tall, charismatic political outsider, took the oath of office in Congress and strapped on the red, yellow and blue presidential sash, smiling broadly and waving to cheering supporters on the floor and in the galleries. The ceremony drew some of Washington's fiercest critics including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Bush administration was represented by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Also present were the presidents from Brazil, Chile and Peru. Ecuador has "a perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society," Correa said in his inaugural address. He added that the national referendum on a special assembly to rewrite the constitution "is vital to limiting the power of the traditional parties" that he blames for the country's problems. The decree on the national referendum was number 002 and decree 003 cut the president and ministers' salaries. During his campaign, Correa attacked Congress as a "sewer" of corruption and ran no candidates for the legislature. But he is banking on winning control of the constitutional assembly, which would have the power to close Congress. The U.S.-educated economist won a November election runoff to become the eighth president in the last decade in a nation marked by chronic political instability since it returned to democracy in 1979. Correa promised his government would concentrate on the fight against deeply rooted corruption and work for an "economic revolution." That shift would emphasize the renegotiation of the foreign debt, "paying only what we can after attending to the needs of the poor". "We will renegotiate our country's foreign debt, from a sovereign and dignified position, particularly the inadmissible conditions imposed on us in the 2000 swap" announced Correa. Ecuador's foreign debt is equivalent to 25% of the country's GDP. He also called on Latinamerican countries to advance regional financial integration by depositing their international reserves in a Bank of the South to be created. "At the same time Latinamerican countries are looking for financing, the region has billions of US dollars in reserves invested in first world countries, which is absurd" said Correa underlining that this was "a sovereign and common sense imperative". "We have to end the technical autonomy of central banks that behind our backs send our international reserves overseas". Correa forecasted Ecuador with its new economic policy will become independent from international organizations that respond to foreign interests "particularly when multilateral credits and financing are geared to subordinate our countries". Correa has rejected a free trade pact with the U.S., arguing it would hurt Ecuador's farmers. 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.