Strange Bedfellows: Julian Assange and Ecuador

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Julian Assange's appearance on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London to hold forth on his current situation, and President Obama, added a bizarre new chapter to the long-running Wikileaks saga.

It remains to be seen whether Assange will indeed be able to take up asylum in Ecuador as British police maintain they will arrest him as soon as he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy, and may even move to seize him inside the building.

But how is it that Assange has come to see a small South American country as his saviour? And what does Ecuador have to gain from confronting the UK, and by extension the US, over Assange?

A new South American reality

On Saturday, August 18th, the socialist and social-democratic leaders of ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) convened in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador to debate whether and how to support Ecuador's decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks editor, Julian Assange.

The decision? Perhaps not surprisingly, a full-scale denunciation of the threats by the United Kingdom to "storm" the Ecuadorian embassy if Assange were not released and a renewed commitment to honouring Ecuadorian sovereignty and international law. As representative after representative underscored, Latin America will no longer tolerate the "colonial" incursions of either the UK or the United States, the latter of which is seen by growing numbers in the region to be ultimately behind the most recent "witchhunt" against Assange.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ricardo Patino, put it with characteristic bluntness on August 15th:

"Colonial times are over, but through its behaviour, the United Kingdom and its allies have shown they retain the same imperial condescension toward the ideals of liberal governance and the rule of law that they have held in the past, applying or discarding them whenever it's convenient...The fact that such a mentality exists at the highest levels of government shows why people like Julian Assange are necessary to keep official excesses in check - and why people like him are so ruthlessly pursued when they speak out."

By late in the weekend of 18-19 August, the "anti-colonial," "pro-sovereignty" rallying cry of the Correa administration seemed only to be growing in force - as supporters descended on the embassy in Quito and Evo Morales of neighboring Bolivia underscored that it was not just Ecuador's sovereignty, but that of the whole region that was at stake: "Britain ... is wrong," he said decisively on Friday, August 15th: "The threat is not only an aggression to Ecuador, it's against Bolivia, it's against South America, against the whole of Latin America."

The banana republic mistake

For observers unfamiliar with Ecuadorian politics, the investment of this small Andean country in the well-being and safe passage of an Australian national wanted by the United States, the UK, and Sweden for crimes ranging from attacks on national security via the release of classified State Department documents to sexual assault, seems baffling at best and little more than outdated, "banana-republic" hyperbole at worst.

After all, with important trade relations with the UK and the U.S. hanging in the balance, there is apparently far more to lose than to gain - especially when the actual extradition of Assange is not only unlikely, but near-impossible.

To most observers, it seems that Correa is engaged in a kind of political grandstanding - more symbolic than pragmatic - that will likely consolidate his bid for re-election in early 2013 and position him squarely as a charismatic, front-line participant in the "Bolivarian Revolution."

While in recent years Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have occupied international center-stage as the outspoken leaders of the "Bolivarian revolution" - engaging in sweeping reforms that include the nationalization of formerly foreign-dominated industries, the institutionalization of broad-ranging social welfare programs that target the poorest of the poor, and the re-writing of national constitutions to ensure novel sets of indigenous and environmental rights, it may be that Rafael Correa is now making a play for greater visibility as a new kind of leader of the global Left.

The new socialism

At a time when the regional turn toward "the socialism of the 21st century" is increasingly volatile (since the administration is alienating large segments of its indigenous constituency by opening the country to large-scale mining and other extractive projects in partnership with the Chinese - who, perhaps not incidentally, nominated Assange for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010), there is a need for precisely the sort of anti-colonial, anti-imperial rallying cry that brought Correa so decisively into office in 2007.

 


 

For some on the ground in Ecuador, however, the ironies surrounding this power play are great. While the country has been exalted from afar for its radical environmental rights legislation, and it is unquestionable that it has achieved impressive gains in fighting illiteracy, improving access to primary school, and increasing cash transfers to single women and low-income families, the administration that now claims to be defending Assange on the grounds of protecting "freedom of the press," has been involved in repeated and aggressive attacks on its own national media.

As highlighted by groups like Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Correa has gone violently after mainstream newspapers, like the Guayaquil-based El Universo, whose opinion editor was sued by the administration in 2011 for defamation of character and subsequently sentenced to 3 years in prison and a $40 million dollar fine (subsequently rescinded).

While such ironies anger those who are losing faith in "the citizen's revolution" overseen by Correa's Alianza Pais, it should not be forgotten that Correa has good reason to both fear the duplicities of the United States and to support those - anywhere, of any nationality - who seek to expose them.

For more than four years after the signing of the agreement for the U.S. military base in Manta in 1999, the U.S. military allegedly sunk eight Ecuadorian-flagged fishing vessels in Ecuadorian territorial waters in flagrant violation of the terms of the agreement. In 2008, when Colombian forces violated Ecuadorian sovereignty by killing Raul Reyes - a lead commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - in the northern province of Sucumbios, it was believed that they had done so with information provided by the U.S. government. And as Correa himself recognises, the U.S. has for a long time been actively funding anti-progressive police forces within the country.

Since he took office in 2007, he has worked hard to eradicate such influence from Ecuadorian politics - and as a result, he is perhaps excessively sympathetic to the sorts of revelations made public by Julian Assange.

While the desire to step into a clearly defined leadership position within the Bolivarian Revolution is doubtless at play here, there is also no reason to doubt Correa's well-founded concerns about the assaults on Ecuadorian sovereignty in which the U.S. has long been engaged.

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