Carol Felsenthal
On politics

U of I Prof Weighs In On Former Student and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, In the Snowden Spotlight

The U. of I. grad has stayed in the news as Edward Snowden continues to seek asylum; in a Q&A, his former econ professor weighs in on Correa’s relationship to the U.S.

I wrote last week about the intriguing fact that Ecuador’s outspoken president Rafael Correa—who then seemed to be considering offering mega-leaker Edward Snowden asylum in his country—earned a master’s (1999) and doctorate (2001) in economics from the University of Illinois in Urbana. I also mentioned that Correa seemed to be backing away from welcoming Snowden—he explained that Ecuador could only consider the axed NSA contractor’s asylum request once Snowden was on Ecuadorean soil—after a call from Vice President Joe Biden. Also affecting Correa’s stance was the realization that his country’s struggling economy could be hurt if Congress yanked preferential trade access to U.S. markets on such Ecuadorean exports as cut flowers and frozen broccoli.

Still, Correa has remained on center stage and then some. He loudly denounced the United states after his fellow South American president, Evo Morales of Bolivia, en route home from a summit in Moscow, was subjected to a humiliating delay, an attempted search of his presidential aircraft, refusal by some European countries to allow him to use their airspace, rerouting, and a forced landing in Vienna, including a 14-hour layover there. Correa and his fellow leftist Latin American presidents blamed CIA/American suspicions that Snowden was on board and that Morales was whisking him away to asylum in Bolivia.  (To understand Correa et al’s anger, imagine the uproar/outrage were Air Force One, with President Obama aboard, stopped and searched, and delayed.)

Since the plane fiasco on July 3, Correa has been quoted by the AP as saying “We’re not going to accept that in the 21st century there’s first, second and third rate countries. The leaders and authorities in Europe have to take a lesson in history and understand that we’re not 500 years behind. This Latin America of the 21st century is independent, dignified and sovereign." In the meantime, Bolivia’s President Morales, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega (with the hedge “if circumstances permit”), and Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro have offered Snowden asylum. 

As of post time, it’s unclear which offer, if any, Snowden—still hidden away in a hotel in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport—will accept.

In my post last Tuesday I mentioned that  I had emailed questions about Correa to Werner Baer,  a U of I economics professor who sat on Correa’s dissertation committee and who also taught Correa.  Baer’s emailed answers—I had reached him in Brazil—arrived after the post was published.

The professor seemed to be treading carefully on the subject, but clearly admires Correa. Here’s an edited transcript of most of  email exchange:

CF:  Any specific memories of Correa in 2001 during his dissertation defense?

WB:  His dissertation was considered of excellent quality.

CF: Did you teach Correa while he as at the University;  any knowledge of his campus life? He has described his years at the U of I as the “happiest” of his life.

WB: Yes, he was in my Economic Development class.  He was older than the average graduate students, but he fit in very well and was very popular.

CF: The U of I gave Correa its International Alumni Award for Exceptional Achievement” in 2009. Were you a supporter of this decision? Did you play any role in the selection of Correa as recipient of the award? Any resulting controversy?

WB: Yes, I was involved in the selection. There were a couple of anonymous messages, which were critical. They seemed to be from people living in Washington, who claimed to be Ecuadorians and alumns of the U of I. They refused to identify themselves.

CF: Did legislators in Springfield and Washington become exercised about the selection of Correa or threaten funding?

WB: Not that I know of.

CF: He traveled to Urbana to receive the award. Were you present? Memories? 

WB: Yes. He came with his wife and two children. He wanted to show them where they had lived when he was a grad student.

CF: Are there other international leaders who have come through the economics department at the U of I?

WB: Yes. Currently there are three Latin American Central Bank presidents who have U of I degrees (Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay). Also a former president of the Korean Central bank studied at the U of I, and so did the former Finance Minister of Indonesia, who is now Senior Vice President of the World Bank.

CF: Have you been surprised at his anti-US comments—about president Bush (“tremendously dimwitted”) and President Obama and members of Congress (“brats”); He also said that only way US military presence to continue in Ecuador is if Ecuador gets to have presence in Miami.

WB: I do not know… the context in which he might have said this.

CF: You have been quoted as saying before the [2006 Ecuadorean] election that Correa’s anti-US tirades are aimed at getting votes (“I doubt that he would be virulently anti-American like Chavez,” Baer said, predicting Correa would likely follow the more moderate lead of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.”)

WB: All I know is that he greatly admires U.S. universities, with their tolerance of diverse views.

CF: You were not alone; the consensus in 2006 was that he was not a  Marxist or messianic leader like [Venezuela’s late Hugo] Chavez. Are you surprised that Correa has aligned himself so closely with Hugo Chavez and now the memory of Chavez?

WB: He is in politics and he probably felt this was a good way to strengthen his domestic political support. I still do not consider him a Marxist. He believes in the market mechanism to allocate resources. He is a nationalist who is deeply committed to improving the lot of the poor.

CF: Does Ecuador have enough of an oil industry to leverage influence (third largest supplier in South America to US after Venezuela and Brazil)?

WB: No.

CF: Is it fantasy for Correa to believe he can be a player in this region in the way that Chavez was?

WB: From what I know and observed, he is mainly concerned in improving the welfare of the average Ecuadorean.

Postscript: A group of celebrities, whistle blowers, academics have petitioned Correa to grant asylum to Snowden.  Signatories include Emma Thompson, Julie Christie, Roseanne Barr, Tom Hayden, Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, John Cusack, Daniel Ellsberg, Joe Wilson, Noam Chomsky.

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