Ecuador is a patchwork of indigenous communities, including people of colonial Spanish origins and the descendants of African slaves.
Its capital, Quito, once a part of the Inca empire, has some of the best-preserved early colonial architecture on the continent.
Traditionally a farming country, Ecuador's economy was transformed after the 1960s by the growth of industry and the discovery of oil. There was rapid growth and progress in health, education and housing.
Inflation, which had become the highest in the region, led the government to replace the national currency with the US dollar in an effort to curtail it.
Not all Ecuadorans have benefited equally from oil revenues. The traditionally dominant Spanish-descended elite gained far more than indigenous peoples and those of mixed descent.
Steps to stabilise the economy, such as austerity measures and privatisation, have generated widespread unrest, particularly among the indigenous poor.
For a small country, Ecuador has many faces. They include Andean peaks, tropical rainforests and - 1,000 km (600 miles) off the coast - the volcanic Galapagos Islands, home to the animals and birds whose evolutionary adaptations shaped Charles Darwin's theories.
He took up his post in January 2007, joining Latin America's club of left-leaning leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who have not been shy in their criticism of the US, and who have led a South American nationalisation drive.
Mr Correa, an outsider with no political party backing, moved quickly to win voters' approval for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution in a referendum.
He said the new basic law would hand more power to the poor and reduce the role of the traditional parties, whom he blames for the country's problems. Critics said it was solely aimed at increasing his powers.
Despite resistance from the opposition-led Congress, the revised constitution was approved by 64% of voters in a referendum in September 2008.
The new basic law also allowed Mr Correa to stand for re-election, enabling him to win a second term with a convincing victory in April 2009 polls.
In a further referendum in May 2011, voters approved further reforms proposed by Mr Correa, including giving the president more power over judicial appointments, regulating the media - and a ban on bullfighting.
On coming to power, Mr Correa froze talks on a free trade pact with the US, saying it would hurt Ecuador's farmers, and refused to extend the US military's use of an air base on the Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights.
In 2010, Mr Correa had tear gas fired at him and was trapped inside a hospital for more than 12 hours by protesting policemen before being freed by army forces.
He said the unrest, sparked by anger at a law scrapping police bonuses, was a coup attempt and declared a state of emergency, but his government later promised to change parts of the bill.
Rafael Correa, centre, with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (left) and Bolivia's Evo Morales
He has been highly critical of Ecuador's media, which he accuses of trying to undermine his reform programme. His opponents in turn accuse him of seeking to silence criticism.
Rafael Correa obtained his doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois in the US in 2001 and was professor at Quito's San Francisco University.
He was appointed economy minister in April 2005 but was forced to resign after four months when he failed to consult the president before publicly lambasting the World Bank for denying Ecuador a loan.
Born in 1963, he spent a year as a volunteer in a poor Indian village in the Andes mountains and speaks French, English and some Quechua. He has three children with his Belgian wife.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech. However, some self-censorship, especially regarding politically-sensitive issues and stories about the armed forces, is exercised.
Also, defamation is a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison. In 2011, three executives and a former columnist from opposition daily El Universo were sentenced to jail terms and a massive fine for libelling President Correa.
Under a law which requires the media to give the government free space or air time, governments can and have required TV and radio to broadcast programmes produced by the state.
There were 3.35 million internet users by March 2011 (via Internetworldstats.com).
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