During a particularly bizarre moment in Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's recent interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the fiery South American populist remarked "cheer up Julian, and welcome to the club of the persecuted." The interview, which took place on Assange's own talk show airing on Russian Television, then took a macabre turn. In a perverse attempt at humor, Assange chuckled and said "don't get assassinated." Chiming in, the Ecuadoran declared "thank you. That's something we have to avoid every day."
Was Correa resorting to hyperbole during his exchange with Assange, or does the Ecuadoran president have legitimate security concerns? Though Correa can certainly be bombastic and over the top, much like his mentor Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the Ecuadoran president is well aware of his country's historically fraught political relations with the United States. For five years, Correa has angered and irked Washington on many an occasion, and, if anything, the recent diplomatic brouhaha over WikiLeaks' founder Assange only stands to exacerbate this tense state of affairs.
Assange, who faces allegations of sexual assault, has been fighting extradition to Sweden from the United Kingdom for a year and a half and fears that he could eventually be handed over to the U.S. government. The native Australian, whose organization leaked thousands of classified State Department cables to the public, says that the Obama administration has a secret indictment against him. Assange is concerned that if he is extradited to the U.S. he could even face the death penalty for espionage and sedition.
Washington Post and Otto Reich Amp Up the Rhetoric
In a surprise move, however, Assange turned to none other than Correa for help. Recently, the WikiLeaks founder simply walked into the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and requested diplomatic asylum. Currently, Assange's request is pending but if Ecuador agrees to accept the fugitive WikiLeaks founder then the South American nation could face a torrent of scorn from the political elite in the United States. Indeed, the Assange affair could have unforeseen diplomatic consequences for tiny Ecuador, perhaps even resulting in confrontational reprisals.
In an ominous hint at what might be in store, the Washington Post has suggested that the U.S. might hit back at Ecuador for its insolent behavior. The paper points out that Washington grants Ecuador special trade preferences which allow the impoverished Andean nation to export many of its good duty free. However, those preferences are scheduled to come up for renewal by Congress in early 2013. Not leaving much to subtlety, the Post writes "If Mr. Correa seeks to appoint himself America's chief Latin American enemy and Julian Assange's protector between now and then, it's not hard to imagine the outcome."
Not to be outdone, former Bush diplomat and right wing hawk Otto Reich -- who played a mysterious role in the 2009 Honduras coup imbroglio involving democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya -- has stepped into the fray. In a column, Reich says that "signing or renewing trade agreements with Ecuador will only allow Rafael Correa to continue undermining U.S. foreign policy, trading with our enemies, and destroying his country's democracy." Specifically, Reich is unhappy that Correa has extended diplomatic relations to Iran. In addition, Reich is concerned that Ecuador has opted to join the so-called Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas or ALBA, an initiative which seeks to counteract the U.S. dollar by creating a new alternative currency. Other transgressions include Correa's exporting of oil to China and cozying up to the Castro brothers in Cuba.
A Pugnacious President
In extending protections to Assange, perhaps Correa felt like he had nothing to lose: for years, the fiery populist has been on Washington's bad boy list. On the campaign trail in 2006, the maverick politician said he might not renew a lease on the strategic U.S. airbase located at Manta. Evidently enjoying himself, Correa remarked "if they 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." True to his word, Correa later booted the Americans out of Manta once he was elected. The move discombobulated Washington, which was obliged to recalibrate its security strategy and look for alternative locations for its bases in neighboring Colombia.
On the campaign trail, Correa also pledged to prioritize social spending over repaying debt, and declared that he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil producers doing business in the country. Once in office, he broke with the "Washington consensus" pushed by the International Monetary Fund and others and declared that a portion of Ecuador's debt was illegitimate. Thumbing his nose at conventional logic, the President simply reduced payments to creditors while repurchasing defaulted foreign bonds.
An economic nationalist who saw eye to eye with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Correa took advantage of high oil prices to boost government spending on social programs. A combative critic of environmental pollution, he got on the case of oil company Texaco which had despoiled the Ecuadoran Amazon. Then, for good measure, the pugnacious Ecuadoran imposed tough new contractual conditions on the oil companies, some of which promptly exited the country. Not surprisingly, it did not take long for the U.S. business community to complain to the American Embassy in Quito. According to one WikiLeaks cable dating from 2008, businessmen highlighted the "difficult investment climate" in Ecuador, complaining about "rigid labor rules" and "a large increase in the minimum wage."
Controversial Foreign Policy
Correa has signaled that he is in no mood to enter into disadvantageous free trade agreements with the U.S., though he has stated that he would negotiate what he terms a "trade agreement for development." Alarming foreign investors, Correa has instead signed on to Chávez's own Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas or ALBA, which predicates trade and barter outside of usual corporate strictures. Seeking to diversify Ecuador's energy profile, Correa has started to export a growing percentage of the country's petroleum to Beijing.
Irking Washington yet further, Correa has extended oil diplomacy to none other than Iran, a country which promises to invest in Ecuador's energy and petrochemical industries. If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, Otto Reich is not the only one who has been concerned about Correa's dalliances with the Islamic Republic: in 2009, Secretary of State Clinton informed fellow diplomats that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planned to open a branch of Iran's Export Development Bank in Ecuador.
The bank, she wrote, provided "financial services to multiple subordinate entities of Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics that permit these entities to advance Iran's WMD programs." U.S. Treasury officials had met with staff at the Ecuadoran Embassy in Washington to express concerns, but Clinton urged American diplomats to follow up with further discussions in Quito. Somewhat cryptically, Clinton sought to "warn Ecuador of the risks involved in facilitating financial transactions with Iran."
Facing Down Domestic and International Pressure
In light of Correa's many transgressions, Washington would probably just as soon be done with the fiery populist leader of Ecuador. Already, Correa has expelled three U.S. diplomats who he deemed threats, including an Ambassador who suggested that the president had deliberately overlooked high-level police corruption. "She was a woman totally against our government," Correa told Assange during the aforementioned interview on Russian television, "a woman of extreme right wing views that still lived in the Cold War of the 1960s." Ironically, Correa became aware of the Ambassador's views via WikiLeaks, which had earlier published the U.S. diplomat's secret communications to Washington.
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, it doesn't look like Correa is going away any time soon. In April, 2009 Correa won reelection to another four-year term and under Ecuador's new constitution a president can be elected up to two four year terms. In practice, this means that Correa can stand for reelection in 2013 and serve out another term until 2017, since he technically won his first term under the new constitutional rules back in 2009. In addition, Correa faced down an attempted coup d'etat launched by disgruntled policemen and soldiers in September, 2010. Correa's vanquishing of his opponents made him a hero amongst supporters.
Washington's Private Fiefdom
In light of U.S. interventionism in Ecuadoran affairs, Correa has ample reason to be concerned about his political future. For insight into this underhanded and dodgy history, consult William Blum's informative Killing Hope, which details Washington's shenanigans in Quito going back some fifty years. In 1960, a new government under José María Velasco Ibarra came to power. Like Correa, Velasco had campaigned "on a vaguely liberal, populist, something-for- everyone platform." Hardly a Fidel Castro or even a socialist, Velasco nevertheless earned the enmity of the CIA and U.S. State Department for refusing to clamp down on Communists or break relations with Cuba.
Moving into high gear, the CIA conducted a campaign of subversion by infiltrating all manner of political organizations. Union leaders, for example "were invited to attend various classes conducted by the CIA in Ecuador or in the United States, all expenses paid, in order to impart to them the dangers of communism to the union movement and to select potential agents." Blum writes that "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." Finally, the military revolted and obliged Velasco to resign in late 1961. However, Velasco's successor, Vice President Carlos Julio Arosemana, also proved politically recalcitrant to Washington's wishes and the military was again obliged to act by toppling the government in 1963.
It wasn't until 1979 that Ecuador returned to democracy under charismatic young president Jaime Roldós. Like Correa, Roldós campaigned on a nationalistic oil platform and during his inauguration the politician argued that Ecuador should diversify its exports and defend its energy resources. In his insightful book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins describes what happened next. An agent working for the secretive National Security Agency or NSA, Perkins was dispatched to Ecuador where he was tasked with cheating the government out of money and funneling cash from the coffers of the World Bank into the hands of major corporations and wealthy elites.
In 1981, Perkins says, Roldós took on Texaco and the oil companies by presenting a radical new Hydrocarbons Law. The president claimed, however, that shadowy foreign missionaries working alongside the petroleum corporations were working to undermine him. In a confrontational move, Roldós then expelled one religious outfit called the Summer Institute of Linguistics. According to Perkins, Roldós was aware that such moves had made him a marked man, and at one point the President was even warned of an assassination plot. As a result, Roldós would alternate between two separate planes whilst traveling. During one trip, however, a member of Roldós' security detail convinced the president to board the wrong plane which promptly blew up in mid air, killing Ecuador's young leader. Perkins clearly believes the crash was a CIA assassination.
Correa's Next Move
In light of such nefarious history, it is not surprising that Correa would cultivate a sense of dark, gallows humor with Assange during their TV interview. Perhaps, Ecuador's current president will calculate that it is impossible to appease the colossus to the north as Washington will never brook the existence of a populist regime in Latin America, let alone a truly revolutionary government. According to Colombian paper El Tiempo, the Correa administration doesn't care if the Assange affair tarnishes diplomatic relations with the U.S. or Great Britain. If that is indeed the case, and Correa does provide asylum to Assange, then the Ecuadoran leader could well emerge as South America's next "bad boy" alongside Venezuela's Chávez.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.