Ecuador at turning point as feisty Correa bows out

Ecuador at turning point as feisty Correa bows out

Quito (AFP) - One of the feistiest personalities in Latin American politics, Ecuador's Rafael Correa hands power Wednesday to his quieter ally Lenin Moreno, who is tasked with steering a leftist political flagship through troubled economic waters.

President for a decade, Correa, 54, is one of a generation of colorful leftist leaders who governed the mineral-rich region over recent decades.

But unlike his allies in Brazil, Argentina and Peru, his side managed to win re-election this year. His successor Moreno, 64, will be sworn in by congress on Wednesday.

"He is willing to be less confrontational and to have a softer approach as president to the opposition and the media," said Farith Simon, an analyst at San Francisco University in Quito.

"He will not change political course but will change the style of government."

- Time of Correa -

Correa's time in office has been marked by his abrasive personality. He openly criticized his opponents and the media, which he branded as "corrupt" and "lying."

In the last of his weekly presidential progress reports on Saturday, he ripped up a newspaper live on air. He said he had a "lump in his throat" in sadness at leaving office after 10 years.

Ecuador had been dubbed ungovernable when he came to office in 2007, with seven different presidents over the preceding decade.

He launched vigorous reforms, boosting social spending, curbed oil firms' profits and suspended some debt payments that he considered illegitimate.

"We succeeded. I am handing over a country totally different from the one I received," he said recently.

- 'Economic hangover' -

Economists warn that the economic tide has turned, however.

Like other Latin American countries, Ecuador has suffered from falling prices for its oil and minerals.

"There is an economic hangover," said Simon.

The economy soared after Correa took over but fell back last year, shrinking 1.5 percent.

Ecuador's external debt has climbed to more than $25 billion -- over a quarter of its output.

For Moreno, "it will be very difficult to maintain" the level of social spending, said Simon Pachano, a political scientist at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Quito.

- Disability rights -

Moreno is the first wheelchair-user to become Ecuador's leader, and one of few such leaders in the world ever to serve as president.

His legs have been paralyzed since he was shot during a robbery in 1998.

He went on to lead a task force on disability rights as vice-president in Correa's government. That earned him a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

He also published a series of books about how humor helped him overcome his adversity.

He beat his conservative rival, ex-banker Guillermo Lasso, by 2.3 percent in April's runoff vote.

- Reaching out -

With a more conciliatory style than Correa, Moreno has reached out to his opponents.

He has pledged to boost business through loans and try to spur consumption.

Whereas Correa passed restrictions on the financial sector, Moreno sat down last week with banking representatives to discuss cooperating for social development, his press team said.

Moreno and Correa's Country Alliance party meanwhile saw its majority in congress weakened in the legislative vote, however.

"The outlook is for economic turbulence plus a certain political weakening and internal cracks" for Moreno's side, said Pablo Ospina, an analyst at Simon Bolivar Andean University.