QUITO (Reuters) - Julian Assange’s request for political asylum in Ecuador has caused a diplomatic standoff between the Ecuadorean and British governments, putting the Andean country and its president, Rafael Correa, in the spotlight.
It is not entirely clear why the WikiLeaks founder chose to hole up in the Ecuadorean Embassy, but he appeared to hit it off with Correa during an interview in May. Both men share a distaste for U.S. foreign policy and big media outlets.
Here are some key facts about Correa and Ecuador:
* Correa was born in 1963 to a lower middle-class family in the port city of Guayaquil. He earned an economics degree from the local university before winning scholarships in Belgium and the United States, where he received his doctorate in 2001.
* He took office in 2007 promising a “Citizens’ Revolution” to boost state revenue from Ecuador’s natural resources and fight an elite that he says monopolized power for decades and did little for the poor majority.
* Correa defaulted on billions of dollars of foreign debt in 2008, a move that alienated foreign investors, but was applauded by locals. He backed the re-writing of Ecuador’s constitution to tilt the balance of power towards the executive, and won re-election in 2009.
* A former economy minister, Correa has improved labor conditions and boosted spending on schools, hospitals and roads, which has made him popular among the poor in shanty towns and rural areas. He is expected to run for re-election in February 2013.
* High oil prices and increased tax revenues have allowed Correa to continue spending heavily in the months leading to the election, but he has acknowledged that the country is set to suffer badly if crude prices fall.
* Correa comes across as a feisty leader who never shies away from a fight with international bondholders, oil companies, local bankers, the Catholic Church or media companies that criticize his policies.
* His ongoing spat with local media outlets has made Correa the target of freedom of expression groups. He says local media are bent on presenting a bleak view of his government to woo voters to the opposition. Some media freedom advocates say he wants to stamp out criticism to his policies in the media.
* Political foes denounce his style as “caudillismo,” a term used in Latin America to describe governments led by strongmen who stamp out opposition to their rule. But his rivals are divided and lack a charismatic leader.
* Correa is part of a bloc of leftist presidents in Latin America that includes Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. They are fervent critics of U.S. “imperialism” and have put in place policies to boost state revenue from their countries’ natural resources.
* Correa’s relationship with Washington has been stormy. He expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2011 after U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks alleged that his government turned a blind eye on police corruption. In 2007, he refused to extend a lease letting the U.S. military use the Manta airbase for counter-narcotics flights, and in 2009 he expelled two U.S. Embassy officials in another case involving the police.
* In the aftermath of a debt default, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2000. At the time, the country was gripped by a financial crisis that pushed poverty levels up to about 70 percent.
* Ecuador is a volcanic country of poor Andean villages, remote Amazon tribes, unspoiled beaches, huge banana plantations and bustling ports. The unique wildlife in its Galapagos Islands inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution.
* Ecuador takes its name from the equator it straddles and has a population of 14.5 million people. A little larger in area than Britain, Ecuador is the smallest OPEC member and the world’s top banana exporter and is also a big exporter of coffee, shrimp and cocoa.
Reporting By Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Stacey Joyce