QUITO, Ecuador - Rafael Correa vowed to put Ecuador's poor ahead of foreign debt payments as he was sworn in as president yesterday, raising a sword given to him by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in a ceremony attended by members of the growing club of leftist Latin American leaders.
Correa, 43, a charismatic political outsider who won a November runoff, said he would work for an "economic revolution" in Ecuador that would emphasize the renegotiating of foreign debt, "paying only what we can after attending to the needs of the poor."
His remarks drew applause from several U.S. antagonists who attended the ceremony - Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - as well as from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and more moderate left-leaning leaders from Brazil, Chile and Peru.
Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, said the free-market policies promoted by Washington since the 1980s had failed to help Ecuador develop. He said that some of the loans arranged by previous governments had been lost to corruption and that an international tribunal should be set up to decide what debt should be repaid.
During the campaign last fall, Correa threatened to cut ties with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and said he would not rule out a moratorium on foreign debt payments unless foreign bondholders agreed to lower Ecuador's debt service by half.
He said in September that Ecuador could not afford its current $2 billion debt service, representing 7 percent of the country's gross domestic product. "Ecuador cannot pay more than 3 percent," he said at the time.
In his speech yesterday, he did not mention the possibility of a debt moratorium.
Keeping his campaign promise, Correa issued a decree yesterday calling for Ecuadorans to vote March 18 in a referendum on the need for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. He says the measure is necessary to limit the power of Ecuador's traditional parties, which he blames for the country's problems.