Ecuador's new president Moreno a survivor

Paola LOPEZ

He is known for his affable manner and easy smile, but don't mistake Ecuador's new President-elect Lenin Moreno for a softie: beneath the jokes, he is a fierce survivor.

With his runoff victory Sunday, the socialist becomes the first wheelchair user to be elected Ecuador's president, and one of few such leaders in world history.

Moreno's legs have been paralyzed since he was shot during a carjacking in 1998.

He went on to lead a task force on disability rights as vice president in outgoing president Rafael Correa's government. That earned him a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

He also published a series of books about how humor helped him overcome adversity.

"Humor is good for the health," he once said. "That's why doctors don't prescribe it."

Moreno, 64, also pulled off an impressive act of political survival to win the election.

Correa's 10-year legacy was heavy baggage to carry after the South American oil producing nation's economic boom went bust two years ago.

The outgoing president, a radical economist, faced accusations of corruption and squandering the windfall of the bygone oil boom.

Moreno managed to both distance himself from Correa and ride what remained of his coattails.

He is seen as a moderate successor to carry on Correa's socialist agenda.

Where Correa is stern and combative, Moreno is more quietly spoken, known for cracking jokes in his campaign speeches.

In his decade in power, Correa has clashed with the business sector, harangued the United States and publicly torn up newspapers that ran articles he disagreed with.

Moreno says he prefers "the style of dialogue, of reaching out."

- 'Very demanding' -

Correa himself has described Moreno as "affable and conciliatory."

The president of the National Equality Council for the Disabled, Xavier Torres -- who has worked closely with Moreno -- calls him a "very demanding" boss, but also a "mediator."

"He doesn't like conflict," he said.

When Moreno's rival, conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso, hammered home the buzzword of "change," Moreno deftly co-opted it for himself.

"We're heading for a change, yes, but a positive change, not a negative change, a change toward the past," the social welfare champion told AFP ahead of the vote.

But he also managed to harness the goodwill lingering from Correa's presidency, especially among the poor.

Correa won loyal fans with generous social benefits that helped reduce the poverty rate from 36.7 percent to 23.3 percent in this country of 16 million people.

"I'm going to be the president of all Ecuadorans. Yes, all, but especially the poor," he said Monday in a victory speech.

Moreno has vowed to continue allowing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to remain in Ecuador's London embassy -- a closely watched issue in the campaign.

- Voltaire in the Amazon -

Lenin Boltaire Moreno was born in 1953 in the village of Nuevo Rocafuente, in Ecuador's Amazon jungle region on the border with Peru.

His parents were teachers who had moved to the remote riverside town, which was not reachable by road.

"Dad had socialist ideas and mom had liberal ideas. They liked to read a lot. For dad, it was Lenin, for mom, Voltaire," Moreno said.

Local birth registry officials clearly had not read the French Enlightenment writer because they mistakenly registered his middle name as Boltaire.

After his family moved back to the capital, he graduated from the Central University of Ecuador with a degree in public administration, after giving up on a career in medicine or psychology.

He has three daughters with his wife of 40 years, Rocio Gonzalez.