Limbo for Ecuador's Colombian refugees
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Ecuador
The market in the northern Ecuadorean town of Ibarra looks, at first sight, like any other in the Andes mountains.
Indigenous women sell live chickens and guinea-pigs, stalls have everything from pots and pans to hats and socks.
Part of the market is dedicated to food and batidos - milkshakes made with fresh local produce like bananas and avocado pears.
But look a little deeper and the Colombian presence becomes obvious. Pirate Colombian CDs at one stall, a Colombian flag hanging from another and down one of the many narrow passageways, a Colombian restaurant.
The owners, the cooks and all the customers are Colombian.
Some estimates say that as many as 400,000 refugees from that troubled country now live in Ecuador.
Only a small percentage of that number have been officially recognised by Ecuador as refugees with the right to live and work in their new country.
The rest must make a living any way they can - often the victims of xenophobia, exploitation and discrimination.
Most fear going back to Colombia and their future in Ecuador is an unpredictable, uncertain one. 'Good and bad'
Gathered around one table at the restaurant are a group of refugees eating lunch and discussing their situation.
They are victims of oppression by right and left-wing groups in Colombia, the drug gangs and government forces.
Ecuador has responded in a generous manner but I think that this has not been reflected well enough
Simone Schwartz UN refugee agency
"I left because of the insecurity," says Wilson. "I love Colombia but can't go back while there is so much insecurity."
"There's both good and bad here in Ecuador," said Maria.
"I came with my daughter but there's no work and some Ecuadoreans treat us badly."
Milena was attacked in her home town in Colombia on the day of her wedding and fled in the clothes she was standing in.
"We arrived at the border with nothing," she says. "We just went where the nearest border was and got ourselves a room." Hidden problem
The violence in Colombia has been raging for as long as anyone there can remember.
A bitter conflict between political parties, a many-sided war between the government and left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups and drug gangs.
There is no end in sight. Tens of thousands have died.
But the problem intensified six years ago with the launch of the US-backed Plan Colombia to try to wipe out the production and sale of cocaine.
Something like two million Colombians have fled their homes to other parts of the country - the internally displaced.
Hundreds of thousands have gone abroad - to the United States, Spain and elsewhere.
But perhaps the largest number have fled across the border to neighbouring Ecuador.
According to government figures, 475 Colombians applied for refugee status in 2000.
In 2003, it was more than 11,000 and those high figures have remained constant ever since.
It is a huge problem and it is a hidden problem. 'Generous'
Colombians, to an outsider at least, look and sound much like Ecuadoreans.
There are no refugee camps, and the recent arrivals have seeped into Ecuadorean society, integrating into the northern towns and the capital, Quito.
This fear turns into stigmatisation and even xenophobia
Jesuit Refugee Service
Only about 30% of those who apply have been officially recognised as refugees, allowing them to live and work openly in Ecuador or apply for resettlement in a third country.
Those who are refused or those who simply do not apply remain in Ecuador to make a living as best they can.
Simone Schwartz from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says the Ecuadorean government is doing all it can to help but says more still needs to be done and more help is needed from other countries.
"Ecuador is a small country," she says.
"It's not really a country whose refugee problem has had an impact in the media that much. Ecuador has responded in a generous manner but I think that this has not been reflected well enough." No return
Ecuador, in the middle of an election campaign and after several years of political instability, has many problems of its own.
Much of its wealth comes from oil, bananas and tourism but, like much of the rest of Latin America, the gap between rich and poor is wide.
Many of the Colombians complain that they are the victims of discrimination, that they are not paid the same as local people for the same work and do not enjoy the same rights.
Guillermo Rovayo of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Quito says there is a growing fear of Colombians.
"This fear turns into stigmatisation and even xenophobia," he said.
"They see the others as different and don't let them integrate. And we've seen that this pressure has pushed the refugees further towards the margins of poverty, the margins of misery."
Many of the Colombian refugees in Ecuador are hungry but they are not starving.
They are generally safe from the kind of violence they faced back home and they do not live in overcrowded camps.
But while the violence continues in Colombia, most have no prospect of going back.
And more come across the border every day, often with just a suitcase and the clothes they stand in. They are met by an increasingly hostile local population and government and aid agencies doing their best to keep pace with a growing problem that does not attract huge headlines.
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-2]Nov 15th 2006 [/SIZE][/FONT]
[SIZE=-2][FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif]From The Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire[/FONT][/SIZE]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]A billionaire businessman looks set to be president[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]With less than two weeks to go before Ecuador’s runoff presidential election on November 26th, billionaire businessman Alvaro Noboa appears poised to clinch an easy victory. His lead over his rival, radical leftist economist Rafael Correa, seems insurmountable. But even if his win is assumed, his ability to survive Ecuador’s tumultuous politics is uncertain.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]November 6th was the last day before the runoff when voter opinion polls could legally be published in Ecuador. These showed Mr Noboa, Ecuador’s richest man, ahead by 15-19 percentage points, depending on the pollster. Mr Noboa, of the Partido Renovador Institucional Acción Nacional (PRIAN), had trailed behind Mr Correa, of Alianza País (AP), before the first round vote of October 15th, but surged ahead in the final days, taking 27% of the vote against Mr Correa’s 23%. Though the Correa camp cried foul, international election observers confirmed the process as generally free and fair.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]Mr Noboa has carried that momentum, and then some, forward to the runoff. Certainly having money to spend on his campaign—and to pay for handouts of computers, wheel chairs, medicine and even cash—has helped. So too have his populist promises to use his wealth and influence to spur investment and create three million jobs. He also intends to maintain close relations with the US and try to negotiate a trade pact with that country. He embraces market-oriented capitalism and has criticised the leftist solutions espoused by his rival.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]Mr Correa, for his part, apparently lost his frontrunner status with radical suggestions that he would seek to renegotiate Ecuador’s foreign debt and distance Ecuador from the US. He has also pledged to place Ecuador’s natural-resources industries under greater state control, dissolve Congress and reform the constitution. His opponents’ efforts to portray him as a carbon copy of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, seem to have worked to some extent. But Mr Correa may have been his own worst enemy, flaunting his friendship with Mr Chávez and adopting similar bombastic language. He has since moderated his tone and positions, but the damage seems to have been done.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana, geneva, arial, sans serif]Shaky outlook[/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]Though the two men present two different visions for the country, regardless of who wins there will be a host of reasons to be worried about Ecuador’s future political stability. The political system is highly fragmented along ideological and regional lines, and no party wields majority control in Congress. The final tally of votes from the October 15th congressional elections, held concurrently with the first-round presidential poll, shows that Mr Noboa’s party, PRIAN, will hold the most seats, with 28 of 100. PRIAN is likely to try to build a coalition with two others parties, Partido Sociedad Patriótica (PSP), which got 24 seats, and Partido Social Cristiano (PSP), which got 13. Such an alliance could form the basis of a working legislative majority, but could prove extremely fragile.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]Further, the public is highly disillusioned with Ecuador’s traditional politicians and political parties. There have been nine presidents in the last 10 years, with several having been ousted amid popular unrest (the last being Lucio Gutiérrez of the PSP, who was removed by Congress in April 2005). Among the most dissatisfied is Ecuador’s indigenous-based social movement, represented by the political group Pachakútik, which opted to back its own presidential candidate in October rather than any of the other leading contenders. In this context, the threat of popular mobilisation will compound the governance challenge for the next president and make political de-stabilisation an ever-present risk.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]Ecuador is clearly in need of reforms in order to start to mend the chronically unstable political system. The current president, Alfredo Palacio (who succeeded Mr Gutiérrez), has failed several times in his efforts to push through wide-ranging reforms designed to strengthen Ecuador’s weak institutions and address the fractured nature of the Congress. Both Mr Correa and Mr Noboa would encounter similar problems, with obstinate lawmakers unlikely to support measures that would involve ceding any influence. These and other reforms would depend on the ability of the new president to sustain a coalition able to push through legislation.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]The direction of economic policy will also be a subject of concern. With Ecuador enjoying a windfall in oil export revenues thanks to high world prices, there will be substantial pressure on the next government to spend more on social projects, healthcare and education. Mr Correa’s track record at the finance ministry (he served as minister for several months in 2005), where he oversaw dismantling of a special oil-stabilisation fund—designed to be used to manage and channel excess oil revenues to debt repayment—suggests that he would loosen the purse strings. This would generate risks to the country’s hard-win fiscal stability.[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT=verdana,geneva,arial,sans serif][SIZE=-1]Mr Noboa, too, has made promises that would entail greater public spending and therefore pressure on fiscal accounts. Further, with no public-sector experience and a political party created as a vehicle for his presidential ambitions (Mr Noboa ran twice before), he lacks associates thought capable of managing the government, critics say. In any case, deep-seated politicisation of the country's institutions will continue to impede coherent policymaking.[/SIZE][/FONT]
Leftist Rafael Correa has won Ecuador's presidential run-off election, a top electoral official has said.
With nearly all votes counted, Mr Correa had just over 57% of the vote while his conservative rival Alvaro Noboa polled 42.8%.
Washington has congratulated Mr Correa, who opposes a free trade deal with the US, on his apparent victory.
Mr Noboa, a billionaire banana tycoon, has not yet accepted defeat and said he may ask for a recount if necessary.
"Rafael Correa is the new president of Ecuador. The trend is not going to change," said Narciza Subia, one of seven Supreme Electoral Tribunal judges.
On Monday, the Organisation of American States recognised Mr Correa's "presumed triumph" and US Ambassador Linda Jewell made a congratulatory telephone call.
However, Mr Correa will not be officially named president-elect until all votes are counted. An official announcement is expected on Thursday. Energy sector
The 43-year-old economist has moved quickly to make policy announcements and appoint ministers.
Mr Correa, who is close to Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chavez, said he will try to rejoin the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) which Ecuador left in 1992.
He also named leftist economists Ricardo Patino and Alberto Acosta as his economy and energy ministers.
While campaigning, Mr Correa said he wanted to renegotiate contracts with foreign oil companies, but it is thought unlikely that he will nationalise Ecuador's energy industry.
Both candidates had promised to create jobs and fight poverty and corruption. Both had also promised to double the monthly government payout poor Ecuadoreans receive.
Ecuador has seen much political turmoil in recent years with seven presidents in the last decade. The last three elected presidents were overthrown and only three since 1979 have succeeded in serving full terms.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has denied that the government's seizure of two TV stations on Tuesday is an attack on freedom of expression.
Mr Correa said the confiscation of the channels and nearly 200 other businesses was aimed at recovering money owed to the Ecuadorean people.
The firms are part of a business group accused of owing millions of dollars.
Some Ecuadoreans applauded the seizures but others said Mr Correa was trying to gain greater control of the media.
In an early morning raid, officials backed by police, raided the TV stations in Quito and Guayaquil and a host of other businesses ranging from insurance to construction firms.
The seized companies are owned outright or in part by the Isaias Group, which the government says owes $661m (£335m)) after the collapse of its Filanbanco bank in 1998.
The bank's owners, William and Roberto Isaias, are facing embezzlement charges and Ecuador is seeking their extradition from the US.
The confiscation provoked a wave of protests from the TV stations' owners and workers, and prompted the resignation of the finance minister, Fausto Ortiz. Justice
Speaking at the swearing-in of Mr Ortiz's successor, Wilma Salgado, President Correa defended the action taken against the Isaias Group.
The government did not have the slightest interests in holding onto the companies and the best solution was for them to be auctioned off as quickly as possible so investors could recover their money, he said.
"What interests us is that finally justice is done, " said Mr Correa.
"How is possible for there to be failed banks but 10 years on there are still extremely prosperous bankers who have yachts, planes, mansions?"
Opposition leaders attacked the seizures as politically motivated and connected to Mr Correa's determination to push through constitutional reform, which was a key part of his election campaign in 2006.
Alvaro Dassum, the head of one of the seized stations, Gamavision, said his channel had nothing to do with the collapsed bank and no business ties to his cousins, the Isaias brothers.
"The government wants to shut up media that has been dedicated to telling the truth," he said.
But Ecuador's journalists' federation (Fenape) backed the government's action, saying it did not threaten freedom of expression but was aimed at recovering debts.