Why Ecuador Is Sheltering Julian Assange

As of this writing, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy, which is surrounded by British police waiting to arrest and extradite him to Sweden where he faces multiple charges of sexual assault. Assange first entered the embassy in June and formally received asylum in mid-August. He fears that extradition to Sweden will ultimately be followed by extradition to the United States, which is eager to prosecute him for leaking more than 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables. But thanks to Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, who has championed Assange’s cause, Assange’s day of reckoning in court has been postponed indefinitely.

I’m sure most Americans following the embassy saga have asked the same questions: why on earth is Ecuador harboring an international fugitive with Australian citizenship? Why is a small, impoverished, export-dependent South American country deliberately antagonizing the United States and the United Kingdom in order to protect such an odious criminal?

The answer tells us a lot about Correa, and also explains why President Obama’s diplomatic approach to Ecuador was so misguided.

Ecuador has a presidential election scheduled for February, and Correa is eager to whip up nationalist sentiment and to portray himself as a valiant defender of Ecuadorean sovereignty in the face of “imperialist” aggression. His arguments are ludicrous — yet the Assange affair seems to have given Correa a domestic boost. As New York Times correspondent William Neuman reports from Guayaquil:

When the tussle over Mr. Assange turned into a fight pitting tiny Ecuador against a powerful and imperious Britain, many in this politically divided country rallied around him.

But electoral calculations are only part of the story. To fully understand Correa’s motives in the Assange case, one must understand his larger ideological objectives.

Both at home and abroad, the Ecuadorean leftist has followed the Hugo Chávez playbook. After taking office, he launched a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and to expand his powers greatly. Most notably, Correa gained the authority to dissolve Ecuador’s national congress and to serve as president for multiple terms. Since then, Ecuadorean democracy has steadily crumbled. Correa routinely uses thuggery to intimidate his opponents, and his assault on press freedom and independent media has been nothing short of ferocious.

Just ask Emilio Palacio, a former columnist for Ecuador’s main opposition newspaper, who fled his home country in August 2011 after being sentenced to three years in jail (and being ordered to pay millions of dollars in fines) for “libeling” Correa in one of his articles. (Correa pardoned him last February following an international outcry, but Palacio is staying in the United States where he has been granted asylum.) Or ask his fellow Ecuadorean journalist César Ricaurte, winner of the 2012 Inter American Press Association Grand Prize for Press Freedom. Ricaurte is director of the NGO Fundamedios, which is devoted to upholding freedom of expression. His organization estimates that physical attacks on Ecuadorean reporters increased by roughly 50 percent (from 101 to 151) between 2009 and 2011.

Ricaurte’s free-speech activism has clearly struck a nerve in Quito. Observed an article by the Associated Press:

Just this year, the president has used nine special government broadcasts to pre-empt all regularly scheduled TV programming to condemn Ricaurte. His alleged crime? Telling the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Correa is a bully who tries to silence journalists he dislikes.

Ricaurte’s other “crime” was to receive funding for his work from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Not surprisingly, Correa is now trying to restrict USAID’s activities in Ecuador and to weaken its efforts to promote genuine democracy.

Attacking USAID reflects the broader mission of his foreign policy, which is to lead an anti-U.S. coalition in Latin America and to expand cooperation with anti-U.S. regimes overseas. Ecuador has been a member of the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) since 2009, and it has also embraced the likes of Iran and Russia. During his 2006 presidential campaign, Correa allegedly received financial support from the Colombian FARC, according to a May 2011 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Earlier this year, Correa boycotted the Sixth Summit of the Americas to protest the exclusion of Cuba. He is fiercely hostile to the United States and eager to partner with its adversaries, including everyone from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin to Chávez and the Castro brothers.

In 2008 Correa refused to extend a lease agreement that had allowed U.S. military personnel to use Manta air base for anti-drug operations. (At the time, American officers stationed in the Ecuadorean city told the Washington Post that their presence contributed about $6.5 million annually to the local economy.) A few months later, Bolivian president Evo Morales followed suit, announcing the suspension of all Drug Enforcement Administration activities in his country and informing the DEA that it had three months to withdraw all its agents. Both Correa and Morales were copying the example set by Chávez, who expelled the DEA from Venezuela in 2005.

In 2011, U.S.-Ecuador relations hit a new low when Correa kicked out American ambassador Heather Hodges after reading a Wikileaks cable in which she had criticized Ecuadorean police corruption. (Correa is still bitter about her comments; he recently denounced Hodges for having an “imperialist attitude.”) This effectively torpedoed the Obama administration’s effort to improve bilateral ties. The administration had kept relatively quiet about Correa’s attacks on democracy and press freedom, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had met with the Ecuadorean president in Quito in 2010. Remarkably, the administration continued to treat Correa with kid gloves even after the expulsion of Hodges and the sentencing of Emilio Palacio.

The Obama strategy was based on a faulty premise. Relations between Washington and Quito did not sour because of incompetence, rigidness, or hostility from the Bush administration. They soured because Correa is a strongly anti-American leftist who thrives on confrontation and favors the ideological vision of Hugo Chávez. As former Clinton administration official Eric Farnsworth has written in Americas Quarterly, Correa and his fellow Chávez disciples “do not particularly want to have a partnership with the U.S. at this juncture.”

After witnessing the Assange ordeal, does anyone still doubt that?

(Click here for the Spanish-language version of this article.)