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.