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15/12/2010 | At Ecuador's top, it's brother vs. brother

Jim Wyss

One of the hemisphere's fiercest sibling rivalries might get played out on a national stage.


Fabricio Correa — the brash older brother of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa — says he'll take on his hermanito at the ballot box in 2012, unless a more viable opposition candidate comes along.

If he makes good on the threat, it's likely to produce a nasty and memorable presidential race in a region known for its political theater.

On the streets of Quito, graffiti artists call Fabricio "Cain" — the biblical brother who murdered his sibling.

Fabricio rails against the president for surrounding himself with people he calls communists and guerrilla sympathizers. He refers to his brother's Cabinet as "the pink circle" because he claims it's stacked with gay people.

In Miami recently, Fabricio, 50, said a potential presidential bid is not about family one-upmanship but about the future of Ecuador — a nation of 15 million renowned for the Galapagos Islands and its flower exports.

President Correa, 47, a former university professor and U.S.-trained economist, won the presidency in 2007 as a political outsider with a populist touch.

Once in office, his ambitious social programs, his willingness to rewrite oil and trade deals in the nation's favor, and a steady dose of anti-imperialist rhetoric made him a darling of Latin America's left. The country joined the ALBA bloc of nations — led by Venezuela and Cuba — in 2009.

He also has a penchant for drama. When he confronted protesting policemen earlier this year he clawed open his shirt and screamed "kill me if you want."

Correa's policies have alienated some in the business community and scared foreign investors, but they seem to resonate in Ecuador.

Correa has an approval rating in excess of 50 per cent. If the elections were held today, he would win with 38 per cent of the vote, according to the Cedatos polling firm. Fabricio would come in a distant fifth with 2.8 per cent of vote.

Fabricio — a tall man with silver hair and green eyes, who exudes the same charisma as his brother — is not intimidated by the polls.

He says he has private polling data that put him within striking distance of the presidency, and he claims his vocal stance against government corruption and a swelling crime wave have touched a nerve.

"It's not that I consider myself a candidate, it's just obvious that I am — that's what the numbers show," he said. "I have to assume this responsibility."

Fabricio said his priorities are to get tough on crime — he has been mugged three times — root out corruption and rebuild ties with the United States and Europe.

The Correa brothers weren't always at odds.

Fabricio, an engineer, joined his brother's presidential campaign when he was still a virtual unknown, helping him garner votes and raise money from the business community.

Fabricio claims the relationship soured when it became apparent that his brother was going to appoint members of the "failed left" to key positions.

But the brotherly tensions didn't make headlines until June 2009, when a team of Ecuadorean reporters exposed some $120 million in public contracts they said went to companies linked to Fabricio.

President Correa defended his brother for weeks until — amid mounting political pressure — he annulled the deals and barred Fabricio from competing for the state's business.

Fabricio claims the deals were won through fair and open bidding and that his engineering firms had been doing business with the government for decades.

"I had my businesses for 26 years," he said. "I couldn't just close them because my brother's president."

But when the administration's attacks became personal, he started fighting back, he said.

President Correa "said I was richer than ever, that I was like Bill Gates, that he didn't like my business and that my partners were traitors," Fabricio recalled. "Nobody is going to damage my name like that. I don't care if he is my brother or the president."

Fabricio launched a counter-attack accusing the president's inner circle of taking millions in bribes for government contracts. He imitated and mocked his brother on TV, and carried a bright red folder labeled "Victoria Secret" that he used as a prop to joke about the Cabinet's sexuality.

Fabricio was media catnip and he quickly became a household name, said Juan Carlos Calderon Vivanco, one of the journalists who broke the contracting story and is co-author of a book about it called "The Big Brother."

"He went from being the victimizer to being the victim," Calderon said. "A lot of people see him as the only person willing to take on a president they consider authoritarian. The Correa family issues are becoming political issues."

As Fabricio's notoriety has grown so have his political ambitions.

Despite the brotherly sniping, Fabricio can be protective.

When police protested for higher salaries in September, President Correa went to confront the forces and found himself trapped inside a hospital surrounded by surly guards.

In a country that had toppled three presidents in a little over a decade — including Lucio Gutierrez in 2005 — there were fears that Correa might be next. The military stormed the hospital that night. Correa was freed but five died in the gunfight.

During the crisis, Fabricio issued a statement pleading for his brother's safety.

"I may be the principal critic of his administration but President Rafael Correa is my little brother and I've always taken care of him," it read.

Fabricio said the police were clearly wrong to take the president hostage, but he blames his brother for provoking the crisis.

"He almost killed my mother," he said. "She was so scared."

The brothers haven't spoken in months. When they bumped into each other at a restaurant in Quito recently, they shook hands but did not hug. Fabricio's wife could barely muster a nod to her brother-in-law.

Earlier this year, Fabricio said his mother asked for a birthday present: for her two sons to talk.

Fabricio said Rafael responded with an olive branch of sorts.

"He told her there will be plenty of time to talk," he said, "when he's not the president anymore."

The next president will take office in 2013.

Miami Herald (Estados Unidos)


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