The red tide sweeping through Latin America, checked in Peru and Mexico, has achieved another memorable record this week in Ecuador. The substantial electoral victory of Rafael Correa, a clever, young, US-educated economist and former finance minister, marks a further triumph for Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and his Bolivarian revolution, which has long sought to ignite Latin America's "second independence". Correa joins Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Cuba's Fidel Castro in what some have termed "an axis of hope" for the continent. He promises to call a halt to Ecuador's participation in the US-backed free trade area for the Americas, to close the US military base at Manta, and to join Opec, the oil-exporters' organisation.
Unlike most US-trained academics in Latin America, Correa is an economist of a radical persuasion. He has been an outspoken critic of the neo-liberal economics of the globalised world, and an opponent of the so-called Washington consensus that has imposed this ideology on Latin America in the past 20 years. He cannot be easily dismissed as a caudillo or a populist, but was the intelligent choice against his absurdly rightwing millionaire opponent, Álvaro Noboa, whose electoral bribes were too outrageous to be effective.
Yet significantly, both candidates stood outside the existing party system. The Correa victory marks a seismic explosion in Ecuador's traditional politics. During the past decade, a series of popular demonstrations, military coups, and temporary governments have given clear warning of changes to come. Similar shifts occurred in Venezuela and Bolivia, where the termites of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption hastened the collapse of the old order. Nothing was left but an ineffective opposition that has proved leaderless and demoralised. Correa, like Chávez and Morales, will move swiftly towards establishing a constituent assembly to give a more representative voice to the country's indigenous majority.
The eruption into politics of Latin America's indigenous peoples has been one of the most significant developments of recent years. To mobilise peoples from many distinct nations - those of the Amazonian region being very different from those of the Andean plateau - and to decide with which white groups to combine, has been a hugely difficult task. Ecuador's powerful indigenous movement made a considerable investment in a previous president, Lucio Gutiérrez, who had once echoed the vocabulary of Chávez. Failing to live up to his promises, he was thrown out after street protests in 2002, but still has substantial support. He was not allowed to stand in the recent election, but his votes appear to have gone to Correa. Whatever the psephological details, the wave of popular feeling aroused in Ecuador, as in Bolivia earlier this year, clearly indicates the irreversible shift in power. The peoples subdued by Cortés and Pizarro 500 years ago are beginning to rebel against white settler rule.
Simón Bolívar, after travelling through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru during the independence wars in the early 19th century, recorded his impression in 1825 that "the poor Indians are truly is a state of lamentable depression. I intend to help them all I can: first as a matter of humanity; second, because it is their right; and finally, because doing good costs little and is worth much."
Nothing much has changed in the past two centuries, but the Bolivarian revolution espoused by Chávez, in which Morales and now Correa are embarked, seeks to remedy that. Evoking the memory of Bolívar, it seeks a second, and peaceful struggle for independence. If successful, it will change the face of Latin America.
Richard Gott is the author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006.