Lessons from George Washington for Rafael Correa
By: David Wolverton
There was turmoil throughout the country, as it had recently undergone a people’s revolution like no other before it. This revolution liberated the country from the tyrannical powers of an elitist ruling class that had subjugated the populace into a form of serfdom for generations.
Throughout the process, a rapidly changing political landscape and the pressures of external interference by the world’s leading powers threatened to destabilize the small country. Yet, through it all there was a larger-than-life personality who managed to consolidate power and earn the trust of a nation.
The moment was ripe for an historic decision, as the nation awaited with abated breath the outcome of a monumental choice: would the president run for another term, already having served two successful terms? Or would he step aside with his dignity and honor intact, knowing he had laid a foundation for success and thus establish an important precedent in the process?
Though President Rafael Correa would like for you to believe the aforementioned scenario is Ecuador’s reality, what has been described are the early days of the United States. George Washington, one of the most famous revolutionaries of modern history, was president of the fledgling nation.
The unfavorable circumstances that the new nation faced in its early days were so dire that the possibilities of success were almost null. From without and within it appeared that the greatest social experiment up until that moment in history would be doomed to failure. That is, unless the nation had a leader with the sagacity, wisdom, and fortitude to oversee an impossible transition.
Luckily for the United States, George Washington was the man who rose to the occasion. Setting ideological differences aside, some in Latin America might claim he was a Rafael Correa of his time — with the ability to spearhead a revolution. One key difference between George Washington, a true revolutionary, and many self-proclaimed Latin-American revolutionaries was Washington’s recognition that the country’s well-being came before self-interest or personal gain.
At the end of his second term as president, admirers and political foes alike viewed Washington as a quasi-monarch. The overwhelming will of the people was to elect Washington for life, and assuredly he would have been the perfect candidate to continue leading the revolution, ensuring its continuity and success. Yet Washington deeply resented the thought of a revolution depending solely on one person.
He had a legitimate fear of establishing precedent by becoming the supreme elected official for life, firmly believing in the need for new leadership. As such, his decision was to step aside at the end of his second term, knowing full well that doing so easily represented both the greatest risk and greatest opportunity for the country.
Washington had confidence both in the foundations he had set and in the ability of his trusted advisers to continue carrying the torch as the country transitioned from revolution to nation-building. True to his beliefs, his successor, Thomas Jefferson, was more than capable; and as we can see from history, Washington’s decision was indeed a success.
As we look at the global superpower that the United States has become, it is easy to forget the lessons of her early history; yet her reality has parallels to Ecuador’s now. The Ecuadorian president claims to have had a positive impact on the country for the better part of 10 years, via his self-proclaimed Citizen’s Revolution, witnessed in areas such as infrastructure, education, poverty reduction, and other improvements.
As he touts popularity, Correa finds himself in a position similar to that of George Washington, since he could potentially carry on as president until choosing to step down. In fact, Ecuador’s National Assembly, firmly controlled by Correa’s ruling party, is currently drafting constitutional amendments that would allow for indefinite presidential reelections, specifically tailored to accommodate Correa should he desire to continue. Increasingly, he has been signaling an interest in doing just that.
It is easy to understand Correa’s temptation to continue in power. The self-gratification that comes with believing a nation desires your leadership can be an overwhelming power-aphrodisiac almost impossible to resist. Nonetheless, a true leader recognizes the well-being of a nation is above that of any individual, including himself. The adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is one simple reason why leadership should experience periodic changes.
A wise man once commented “diapers and politicians should be changed frequently … and for the same reason.” Though crudely stated, the reality remains that the trappings of power have a way of distorting one’s initial altruistic vision to bring about revolutionary change. Visions become stale, leaders become complacent — or corrupt. Furthermore, trusted advisers often abuse their positions and usher in corruption that undermines the ruler’s ability to govern appropriately.
A true mark of leadership is the humility required to recognize when to pass on the torch. As the famous Kenny Rogers sang in his song “The Gambler,” “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,” implying that there is a time and a place to continue, and a time and a place to step down. Such is the case with political leadership.
A true leader knows how to develop new talent that in turn develops renewed visions that go beyond the leader’s initial vision. He knows how to create expansive space where new leadership can thrive and carry on a new effort. It is in light of these principles that Correa should operate as he ponders his political future.
President Correa is tasked with the choice between firmly installing himself as a quasi-dictator president with near-absolute power, or humbly stepping aside and creating room for fresh new leadership to step in and bring Ecuador into a new chapter of success. Tempting as it may be to run for reelection once again, here’s to hoping he chooses the latter.