For challenging the U.S. and its economic, military and political hegemony in Latin America, firebrand Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa deserves some respect. Moreover, in another recent and risky maneuver which has provoked international controversy, Correa granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Like his Ecuadoran benefactor, Assange has also challenged the U.S. by publishing classified diplomatic correspondence. For bringing such sensitive documentation into the public spotlight, Assange merits a lot of credit and indeed countless writers and researchers -- myself included -- have benefited from such WikiLeaks scoops.
Nevertheless, both Assange and Correa display a troubling authoritarian streak which merits further attention. In seeking to oppose Washington, many within the international left commit a key error by either choosing to ignore abuses in those countries opposed to the U.S., or by even going so far as to embrace questionable regimes. In the unlikely case of Belarus, Assange and Correa seem to have fallen into this unfortunate pattern.
A political throwback, Belarus is a former Soviet republic bordering Russia. Belarus' leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has turned his country into a human rights nightmare. "An authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it," Lukashenko has said, declaring that "you need to control the country, and the main thing is not to ruin people's lives." Lukashenko, who is sometimes referred to as "Europe's last dictator," has furthermore warned that anyone joining an opposition protest would be treated as a 'terrorist,' adding in a charming aside that "we will wring their necks, as one might a duck."
Human rights campaigners charge that opposition voices are harassed and stifled while independent media has been all but eliminated. In December, 2010 a disputed election handed another term to Lukashenko, who has been in power for a grueling 16 years. Opposition activists meanwhile are closely monitored by the secret police -- which ironically enough is still called the KGB. Many former Lukashenko allies and government ministers have either fled abroad or joined the opposition, while others have disappeared altogether.
The Search for a New Home
For anyone displaying a moral compass, Belarus should be a very simple open and shut case. Yet, because Lukashenko has opposed Washington, the international left chooses to ignore what is happening there. Even more disturbingly, some have even rushed to embrace tyrant Lukashenko. Take, for example, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez who has carried out an alliance with Belarus in order to counter "hegemonic" capitalism. In a visit to Minsk, Chávez said, bizarrely, that Belarus was "a model social state like the one we are beginning to create." "Here, I've got a new friend and together we'll form a team, a go-ahead team," Chávez added, putting his foot in his mouth.
Correa is something of a Chávez protégé, and one might have expected the Ecuadoran president to follow Venezuela's unfortunate lead. In a sign however that he might conduct himself more sensibly, Correa provided much needed refuge to Belarus dissident Alexander Barankov back in 2010. A former army captain, Barankov had been charged with fraud back in Minsk. The fugitive, however, says the allegations were trumped up after he blogged about corruption, including a local oil-smuggling ring. Barkankov's investigations reportedly implicated high level government officials and even relatives of Lukashenko himself.
Fearing for his safety, Barankov first fled to Moscow. There, he conducted an internet search to find out which countries he could travel to without holding a proper visa. Barankov discovered that three Latin American countries including Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador fit the bill. The dissident quickly ruled out the first two nations, however, as both countries maintained friendly relations with Lukashenko. Speaking with Ecuadoran authorities, Barankov argued that he might face the death penalty for treason in his native country, and to its credit the Correa government decided to provide the dissident with diplomatic asylum.
Lukashenko tenaciously refused to give up, however, and sought to extradite Barankov from Ecuador. A representative from one Minsk-based human rights group told the Guardian that "the persistence with which Belarusian authorities are demanding Barankov's extradition is alarming. This might be the proof that he [Barankov] does know Lukashenko's secrets. In this case, it's very dangerous for him to be in Belarus."
Correa's Authoritarian Foreign Policy
Initially, Ecuador held firm against Lukashenko. In 2010, when the Belarus dissident overstayed his visa, the Quito authorities briefly imprisoned Barankov but later freed him when they found merit in his claims of political persecution. Moreover, Ecuador refused to comply with Lukashenko's extradition request, concluding that there was insufficient evidence against Barankov.
All was not well, however, and soon Correa would display poor political instincts. Just three months ago, Lukashenko conducted a Latin American tour which brought the Belarus leader to Cuba and Venezuela. Later, Lukashenko paid a personal visit to Correa in Quito and the two signed a series of cooperation initiatives in such areas as trade, health, science and housing.
More ominously, Correa and Lukashenko inked a military cooperation agreement. The Ecuadorans were particularly enthusiastic about getting their hands on new security technology which would "help to improve" the work of the armed forces. As part of the agreement, the Belarus "Military and Industrial State Committee" pledged to provide valuable intelligence and carry out joint military exchanges with Ecuador.
Twists and Turns for Dissident
In Quito, the Lukashenko visit spelled bad news for Barankov. According to the dissident's Ecuadoran girlfriend, "we were more or less relaxed until President Lukashenko came. Immediately afterward, Ecuadorean authorities didn't want to renew his ID card and they wouldn't give us any explanation." Then, elite policemen arrested Barankov at home and locked the dissident up once again. Needless to say, Barankov was promptly assaulted in jail and had to be hospitalized.
Crying foul, Barankov's attorney claimed the arrest was unlawful since the Inter-American convention on human rights prohibits extradition of all those who are recognized as refugees, and the former Belarus army captain had enjoyed such status since 2010. In an effort to mollify Ecuadoran officials, Lukashenko authorities reportedly told the Quito government that Barankov would not be executed in the event of extradition.
In the midst of the Ecuadoran-Belarus rapprochement, Barankov's future looked increasingly bleak. Yet, ironic twists of fate were yet in store. Time magazine suggested that the Correa government was politically hypocritical, pointing out that Quito had granted asylum to Assange while apparently withholding it from Barankov. The article in Time sparked a deluge of unfavorable and embarrassing press coverage for Correa, who remarked rather weakly that the reports were unfair and constituted an "attempt to delegitimize Ecuador."
At a certain point, Time suggested, sending Barankov back to Minsk would have been "too much of a controversy for Correa's government to bear." At long last, Quito once again rejected Belarus' extradition request, freeing the dissident. As he exited the jail, Barankov thanked the media for covering his story and making his case into something of a cause célèbre.
Assange's Questionable Associations
Correa is not the only one who has displayed a questionable stance toward Belarus. Like his benefactor, Assange too has raised eyebrows in his dealings with the former Soviet Republic. According to a blistering article in the New Statesman, the WikiLeaks man cultivated a relationship with one Israel Shamir. Reportedly, Shamir is a notorious Holocaust denier and "took away copies of [WikiLeaks] cables from Russia and post-Soviet states. According to one insider, he also demanded copies of cables about 'the Jews.'"
Shamir later traveled to Belarus and met with regime officials such as Vladimir Makei, Lukashenko's Chief of Staff no less. According to Russian news agency Interfax, Shamir said he was WikiLeaks' "Russian representative" and claimed to be in possession of a "Belarus dossier." Then, in a breathtakingly unconscionable move, Shamir handed over his WikiLeaks documents to the Lukashenko authorities. The documents were unredacted and purportedly displayed the names of opposition figures.
Shamir stayed on in Belarus to "observe" the December, 2010 election. When demonstrators took to the streets to protest alleged voter fraud, Lukashenko sent in the state militia to repress protesters. Shamir, meanwhile, penned a laudatory article on Counterpunch [an American web site run by late Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, whose politics had become increasingly erratic and authoritarian in recent years], praising Lukashenko, trouncing regime opponents, and crowing over WikiLeaks exposure of American "agents" in Belarus.
In the wake of the December protests in Belarus, Lukashenko cracked down hard, arresting 600 opposition supporters and journalists. Then, in another alarming development, the state-run Belarus paper started to serialize extracts from WikiLeaks cables, exposing opposition figures who had allegedly received foreign cash. The recipients included the former president of Belarus PEN, who was placed under house arrest.
Rather unconvincingly, Assange later sought to distance himself from Shamir, remarking that WikiLeaks worked with hundreds of journalists... We have no reason to believe these rumors in relation to Belarus are true." One former WikiLeaks staffer, however, claims that Assange had a "years-long friendship" with Shamir. The staffer says that when "questioned were asked" within the organization about the exact nature of the relationship between Assange and Shamir, "we were told in no uncertain terms that Assange would not condone criticism of his friend." Later, the New York Times reported that Assange had complained of a "Jewish smear campaign" launched against WikiLeaks in response to protests against his own ties to Shamir. Assange in turn claims that his words were distorted by the media.
The Spineless Left
One might have expected the left to level some criticism toward both Correa and Assange for their dubious Belarus connections, but unfortunately such a response has been sorely lacking. To be sure, the left blogosphere has broached the issue here and there, for example at the liberal website DailyKos, but such postings have proven more the exception than the rule.
Where is Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Noam Chomsky, so beloved by the international left? The academic has stalwartly defended Assange, but scour the Chomsky website and you won't find one mention of Correa or WikiLeaks' relationship with Belarus. That is not too surprising in light of the record: even though Chomsky claims to be part of the anti-authoritarian left, more often than not the professor hews to the party line and hasn't really published any thought-provoking articles over the past 20 years. A cautious commentator who is averse to iconoclastic positions, Chomsky only criticizes the hard left under extreme duress.
Other Assange partisans, including Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, also dodge Belarus while seeking to deflect controversial discussion. Filmmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone have defended Assange in the New York Times but similarly make no mention of underlying controversies.
The left sees itself as intellectually superior to the right, but has not done enough to demonstrate superior thoughtfulness and reasoning. In fact, by dodging the Belarus issue it has made a tactical error which the right has been all too willing to exploit [witness this article in conservative Commentary magazine]. The left must not only deride Washington and U.S. foreign policy but also call out questionable positions and authoritarian tendencies whenever warranted. Failure to do so will result in severe loss of credibility and could provide unwelcome ammunition to the right.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.
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