2012-06-28 Correa in the catbird seat

"Catbird seat", noun: "an advantageous situation or condition"; "sitting pretty". This North American idiom readily applies to the current position of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who was hoisted into the international spotlight when he recently became host to Julian Assange. As a result Correa has raised the global profile of his small nation of 14 million, and the tens of thousands of letters received by his embassy in the past ten days indicate that granting Assange asylum would instantly make him a global hero. With little economic dependence on the U.S., and with Assange at his disposal, Correa potentially holds significant leverage over Washington.

Ten days after Julian Assange first presented himself to Ecuador's London embassy to ask for political asylum in the South American nation, President Rafael Correa has yet to announce his decision regarding Assange's request. Last weekend Ana Alban, Ecuador's ambassador to Britain, reportedly returned to Quito to brief Correa and Ecuador's Foreign Minister on the matter, and the country's top lawyers are now reviewing the case. Vowing to "proceed cautiously, responsibly and seriously," Correa has stated his intention to discuss the situation with the UK, the U.S., and Sweden before making a final determination. Numerous insiders have signaled that processing Assange's asylum request could take quite some time.

So why the delay? By many accounts, the UK sees the Assange case as a "hot potato" that it would be relieved to be rid of. And the consensus remains that, in the event of Assange's extradition to Sweden, the Scandinavian country would serve merely as a way station before handing him over to the U.S. for prosecution over the WikiLeaks disclosures. Therefore, Correa's deliberations most likely revolve around considerations of the potential impact that granting Assange asylum might have on U.S-Ecuador relations. Debate swirls around the issue, with pundits publicly weighing the pros and cons of Correa's options. Some U.S. hawks have warned that choosing to harbor Assange could damage Ecuador's trade relations with the U.S.; a Washington Post op-ed threatened that, if Correa grants Assange asylum, the U.S. might retaliate by revoking Ecuador's special trade preferences. Cynthia Arnson, Latin Director of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, agreed that Ecuador "could basically forget about any renewal of the trade preferences if it granted safe haven to Assange." A closer look, however, reveals little Ecuadorean vulnerability to such measures. Unlike many other South American countries, Ecuador does not receive significant financial backing from the U.S., and Washington has limited influence on the nation. Additionally, the small, South American country has in the independent-minded Correa a leader who has spent his five-year reign alternately defying and cultivating his contacts in Washington, and who gained massive popular support while demonstrating little fear of the consequences of U.S. disapproval.

Like many other South American countries, Ecuador has a history of enduring CIA-backed assassinations and military coups that toppled popular presidents who dared defy Washington. According to a recent book by William Blum, for the past several generations, "in virtually every department of the Ecuadorean government could be found men occupying positions, high and low, who collaborated with the CIA for money and/or their own particular motivation." Former CIA agent Philip Agee also described and deplored the CIA's program for corrupting police officers to win their "goodwill." Those leaders resisting U.S. pressure risked overthrow, forced resignation, or death at the hands of the military.

Correa, however, has governed undaunted, even though such threats remain. A 2008 report showed the persistence of systematic corruption tactics that target Ecuador's police and military services. Issued by Defense Minister Javier Ponce, the document revealed that, due to CIA infiltration of the Ecuadorean police force, many officers came to “maintain informal economic dependence on the United States," in order to "pay for informants, training, equipment and operations.” The report followed a crisis in which Colombia sent its military over Ecuador's borders in a raid against guerrillas in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); in the aftermath, evidence surfaced that not only had the CIA facilitated the attack, but also U.S. intelligence services had infiltrated Ecuador's police, intelligence, and military agencies. According to the report, one unit of the country's police force was "practically financed and controlled by the U.S. Embassy." Although his government stated that it would not sever its Washington ties over the CIA's alleged infiltration, President Correa publicly voiced his displeasure, purged his military, implemented sanctions against police agents collaborating with the U.S., and closed a US$70 million U.S. Air Force base at Manta on Ecuador's coast. He retorted, "if they [the U.S.] want, we won't close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return."

With Correa, national sovereignty and respect are serious political issues. Despite his professed love for his neighbors in North America (where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees), during his tenure Correa has expelled three U.S. diplomats who appeared to threaten Ecuadorean sovereignty. The latest incident occurred last year, after embassy cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that U.S. ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges suggested Correa had deliberately turned a blind eye to high-level corruption in his police force. This disclosure and Hodges's "arrogance" caused Correa to give Hodges the boot; Ecuador was the only country to expel its U.S. ambassador over WikiLeaks cable disclosures.

Repeatedly, President Rafael Correa has shown that he is not cowed by powerful U.S. interests. He took on Texaco for ruining the Ecuadorean Amazon, and leveled restrictions against big oil companies -- which, according to a WikiLeaks cable, then complained about Ecuador's "rigid labor rules" and "a large increase in the minimum wage." Correa has also systematically decreased his country's economic reliance on North America, in some cases forging alliances with U.S. enemies. He has extended financial and oil diplomacy to Iran, and in January hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moreover, Ecuador has joined the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), an initiative dedicated to creating a new currency that would serve as an alternative to the U.S. dollar. Correa has further displeased the U.S. by exporting oil to China, extending a hand to Russia, and courting the Castros; he boycotted a Summit of the Americas to protest Washington's snubbing of Cuba. During the Bush years, Correa famously commented that Hugo Chávez’s description of George W. Bush as Satan was unfair to the Devil. A strong WikiLeaks supporter, Ecuador's president has applauded Assange's project for putting Washington in “check.” "Rafael Correa," one journalist wrote last week, "is not likely to be easily intimidated." Nor is the political gain from these initiatives likely lost on Ecuador's savvy President. In a region where U.S. hegemony is resented and Washington is reviled, these moves have only boosted Correa's already-soaring popularity.

In fact, Washington appears to understand that it may need Ecuador more than Ecuador needs the U.S. Not only do the two countries have a strong trading relationship, but Ecuador is one of the few allies the U.S. has left among the nations of South America, which have rebelled against U.S. interventionism. In 2010 the Obama administration sent Secretary of Hillary Clinton to Ecuador, in the hopes of thawing relations that had grown chilly during the last Bush administration. Although it has reportedly pressured Ecuador to hand over Assange, in public the U.S. government's reaction has been uncharacteristically muted, describing the Assange affair as "a UK-Ecuador-Sweden issue." Some specialists opine that the U.S. will not punish Ecuador for giving Assange asylum.

Whatever Washinton's reaction, Correa no doubt realizes that, by granting Julian Assange's asylum request, he could instantly "make himself a hero with the global anti-American left"; burnish his free-press credentials (which had been tarnished somewhat after a crackdown against a banker-backed media campaign that attacked his presidency); improve Ecuador's tourism industry; and boost his populist image at home, thereby ensuring his victory in next year's presidential elections. Meanwhile, as Assange reportedly remains holded up in an embassy office, the tens of thousands of messages that have poured in supporting the Australian's asylum request may mean that Correa can wring concessions from Washington by using the WikiLeaks leader as a bargaining chip.

Considering the potential political benefits and Correa's consistent diversification of global alliances, El Tiempo's observation that "the Correa administration doesn't care if the Assange affair tarnishes diplomatic relations with the U.S. or Great Britain" may well be true.

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