Assange Lightning Rod Places U.S. Bullying and South American Contradictions on Vivid Display

08/21/2012 01:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2012

For just one man, Julian Assange has certainly managed to discombobulate and disrupt a large swathe of the geopolitical system. Not only is Sweden gunning for Assange, but there is little doubt that Britain and the U.S. will now stop at nothing to get their hands on the controversial founder of whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks. Having apparently concluded that he could no longer count on the support of his native Australia, which is beholden to Washington, Assange has now thrown in his lot with the tiny South American nation of Ecuador. Could this John Le Carré story of diplomatic intrigue get any stranger?

It now seems fair to say that the high-stakes drama unfolding in London and the Ecuadoran Embassy has taken on wider political implications. Indeed, the Julian Assange imbroglio highlights the escalating tug of war which has been playing out between the United States and South America for some time. Rafael Correa, Ecuador's combative leftist/populist president, has felt encircled and pressured by Washington and may have felt that he had nothing to lose by offering diplomatic asylum to Assange.

By over-reacting and daring to suggest that it might even raid the Ecuadoran Embassy, which would constitute truly rogue-like behavior, the Cameron government has only managed to harden the resolve of Correa and his allies in South America, who may surmise that Washington was probably egging on the UK all along. For now, Correa seems to be winning the battle of public relations, yet it's far from clear that the Ecuadoran leader's high stakes gamble will pay off in the long run. Indeed, if anything the Assange matter will further strain Ecuador's relations with Washington and Correa could wind up paying a steep political price for challenging "the Empire."

Ratcheting up the Anti-Imperialist Rhetoric

Over the past few days, South America seems to have hardened its position on the Assange affair and this has certainly benefited Correa. There's no love lost between Washington and ALBA, Latin America's populist left bloc led by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and, true to form, the organization lost no time in making hay out of the WikiLeaks imbroglio. "We hope that the British government respects not only international law but the right to political asylum that Assange has received," remarked Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro.

In an anti-imperialist twist, Maduro added for good measure that his government stood firmly against "the arrogance and predominance that the British government has had in the region [Latin America], directly threatening a democratic and sovereign government and announcing the possible violation of international law." Specifically, the ALBA bloc has warned of the "irreversible" consequences to political, economic and even cultural relations were the British to follow through on their stated threats.

In yet another dig at the old British Empire, ALBA nations declared that Cameron's "attitude is another belligerent stance in addition to the treatment of the UK government on the case of the Falkland Islands and shows their lack of concern of relations with Latin America and the Caribbean." Bolivian President Evo Morales, another ALBA ally, also weighed in with his own anti-imperialist rhetoric, declaring that "the era of pillage and invasion has ended," and it was now time to "repair historic injustices." Europe, Morales added, owed a debt to Latin America because in colonial times "they took away our natural resources."

Bringing in the Falklands Equation

Though London might dismiss statements from rabble-rousing Bolivia and Venezuela, the Cameron government might be concerned about the possibility of anti-British sentiment spreading to more politically and economically important nations in the region. According to Maduro, the ALBA bloc is enlisting the diplomatic support of the South American Community of Nations, also known as UNASUR. In an ominous sign for London, Ecuador will convene an "extraordinary" meeting of the group today.

Within this tense milieu, Argentina may see political opportunity. Recently, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been resuscitating nationalist rhetoric over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, and the Argentine leader has been very adept at corralling other left-leaning Latin American nations into her corner. Indeed, just this past February Correa himself boycotted the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of regional heads of state from across the hemisphere, in part due to Washington's refusal to allow a declaration of support for Argentine claims over the Falklands. Slamming the British, Correa called the UK a colonial power and even suggested imposing sanctions on London for failing to negotiate with Argentina over the disputed islands.

It is doubtful whether Argentina itself has any particular regard for WikiLeaks, an organization which, if anything, has caused the Buenos Aires government acute embarrassment. Indeed, as I've noted before, the "Cablegate" scandal revealed power couple Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as mercurial and duplicitous, ready to deal with the U.S. or conversely Venezuela depending on political whimsy. What is clear, however, is that Argentina will do its utmost to get its hands on the Falklands, an island chain where Britain is exploring for lucrative deposits of oil and gas, and therefore the Assange case provides convenient fodder.

An even more important country worth considering is Brazil, which may back Ecuador in its dispute with Britain for the time being though fundamentally the Dilma Rousseff government has no interest in offending powerful nations to the north. Indeed, though former President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva once expressed sympathy for Assange, Brazil may be too invested in preserving its own public image and fulfilling a quixotic quest for world power status to jeopardize relations with the U.S.

Washington's Oily Pressure

Meanwhile, even as the South Americans sort out their own agenda and contradictions, Washington has been playing its usual cynical games. When Ecuador pressed the Organization of American States (or OAS) to hold a meeting over the Assange affair, Washington opposed any such move. Ridiculously, the U.S. Envoy to the OAS said any such talks "would be unhelpful and harmful to the OAS' reputation as an institution."

The official added for good measure that Washington does not "recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum as a matter of international law." Straining credibility, the State Department played innocent and declared, "We believe this is a bilateral issue between Ecuador and the United Kingdom and that the OAS has no role to play in this matter."

A small and impoverished nation, Ecuador is particularly vulnerable to economic retaliation from the Colossus to the north. Currently, Washington grants the Andean nation special trade preferences which allow the Correa government to export many goods duty free. However, those preferences are scheduled to come up for renewal by Congress in early 2013. Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Council of Americas, a group representing U.S. companies doing business throughout the hemisphere, told Reuters that the Assange affair was not "a move destined to win many new friends in Washington."

Currently, Ecuador is the sole beneficiary of the Andean Trade Preferences Act. Under the program, the South American nation exports billions of dollars worth of petroleum products to the U.S. every year. Other important exports associated with the act include cut flowers and tropical fruits such as mangoes and pineapple. Recently, as part of its annual review policy, the U.S. Trade Representative announced that all parties interested in filing petitions asking for Ecuador's trade benefits to be terminated or reduced should do so by September.

According to Reuters, "A number of U.S. business groups have already weighed in with such recommendations." In a worrying development for Correa, the groups are basing their complaints upon Chevron's long-standing battle with Ecuador over environmental despoliation in the Amazon. In 2001 the company purchased Texaco, an oil corporation which is blamed for widespread pollution and damages. Just last year, an Ecuadoran court ruled against Chevron, charging the firm $19 billion to clean up its mess.

Chevron, however, says the ruling is a fraud and Reuters reports that the National Foreign Trade Council, which counts the oil company as a member, is lobbying the Obama White House to cut off Ecuador's trade benefits, apparently as retaliation. In a rather brazen aside, the president of the trade group told Reuters that the Assange imbroglio "would provide the excuse (to suspend benefits) if the administration is looking for one to do it."

The Next "Bad Boy" of South America?

It's anybody's guess as to how the Ecuadoran public will treat Correa in the event of economic losses. On a certain level, it is difficult to see how the plight of an eccentric Aussie could resonate amongst Ecuador's indigenous peoples who are probably more focused on daily bread and butter issues than the geopolitical intricacies associated with WikiLeaks. Not surprisingly meanwhile, the local business community has grown increasingly wary of its president's unpredictable foreign policy and fears that trade with the U.S. and EU could be jeopardized over the Assange imbroglio.

Nevertheless, many Ecuadorans dislike U.S. meddling in their internal affairs and resent Washington's high-handed attitude. According to the Guardianof London, even those who have been critical of Correa are in favor of Ecuador's decision to grant asylum to Assange. When the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Quito announced its decision to grant asylum to the WikiLeaks founder, a crowd cheered outside. "The United Kingdom and other developed countries don't usually allow small countries like Ecuador to challenge their decisions," one Quito resident told the Guardian, adding that "Ecuador's decision is a sovereign decision and foreign governments have to respect it."

If Correa's intention was to become the next bad boy of South America by courting diplomatic confrontation, then it seems unlikely that this Hugo Chávez protégé will get his wish. Even if Chávez were to vanish from the scene and Correa inherited the populist mantle throughout the wider region, Ecuador is a much smaller and poorer country than Venezuela. Though Ecuador is an oil exporter, the country doesn't have nearly the amount of financial resources to throw around as Chávez.

The Presidential Stakes

Nevertheless, Correa may derive some domestic political capital from the Assange affair and the president needs all the support he can get. Under Ecuador's new constitution, Correa will be seeking reelection to a second presidential term in February, 2013. On the surface at least, the maverick politician has little to fear: according to recent opinion polls Correa has a commanding lead over prospective opponents, due largely to the fact that there hasn't been any clear political challenger.

However, surveys indicate that Guillermo Lasso, the former head of the Bank of Guayaquil, could force a runoff. Reportedly, Lasso was behind a series of plans to destabilize the Correa regime back in 2007 and met with the U.S. Ambassador in Ecuador who expressed interest in joining forces as long the banker and his allies could "offer responsible alternatives" to the Quito government (ironically enough, it was WikiLeaks itself which publicized the meetings, which were detailed within classified U.S. diplomatic cables). Recently, the businessman has been closing the polling gap with Correa, whose populist-style rule has polarized Ecuador.

In addition to counteracting the right, Correa needs to shore up his own leftist base. In recent years, indigenous peoples and others have grown increasingly disenchanted with the president, who has often behaved in a high handed manner when it comes to social protest. In 2009, for example, the authorities moved to shut down an environmental group, Acción Ecológica, which had been critical of oil development. Then, when Indians blocked Amazonian roads in protest over encroaching mining and petroleum exploration, Correa called the demonstrators "infantile" and sent in the police. When two people died in the ensuing violence, the Indians said the Correa government "had blood on its hands."

Lightning Rod Assange

As if WikiLeaks could cause no more disruption to the powers that be, the Julian Assange affair and the standoff at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London have continued to discombobulate political elites across the globe. To be sure, recent developments have highlighted fractures and divisions between the Global North and the poorer South. Yet, it goes without saying that Latin-American governments, too, are interested in perpetuating themselves in power and are not above whipping up nationalist sentiment if it suits their own political objectives.

With so many imponderables, it's difficult to say how things play out diplomatically from here. To have taken on both the U.S. and UK governments was indeed a very gutsy decision by firebrand Correa. Will the Ecuadoran's high-stakes gamble pay off or lead to negative consequences for the firebrand leader? It's too early to say how much of an impact the Assange affair will have on Ecuador politics, though we will certainly have a better idea by early 2013, when the Andean nation holds its presidential election. For better or worse, the political fates of Correa and Assange may have now become inextricably linked.