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Endgame for Assange? The Politics Behind Ecuador's Asylum Offer

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On a certain level, I am not surprised that Julian Assange has requested diplomatic asylum from the tiny South American nation of Ecuador. Realistically, the WikiLeaks founder might have concluded that the populist government of Rafael Correa was his best bet under the circumstances. Having run out of options, Assange is desperate to avoid extradition to Sweden from the United Kingdom on charges of sexual assault.

Assange fears that once extradited to Sweden the local authorities would later hand him over to the U.S. government. Washington in turn could deal harshly with the WikiLeaks fugitive for leaking classified American diplomatic correspondence. The native Australian says that the Obama administration has a secret indictment against him and fears that if he is extradited to the U.S. he could face the death penalty for espionage and sedition. Fearing the worst, Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, waiting for Quito to reach a decision about his plight.

Reportedly, Assange weighed the Ecuador option for some time and had written personally to Correa pleading his case. According to Reuters, Quito Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas offered Assange asylum as early as November, 2010. However, a few days later Correa said that Lucas' offer had not been cleared at the highest levels. A few months later, however, Correa seemed to backtrack somewhat. Speaking to local media in Colombia, the Ecuadoran said that while he had not officially offered asylum to Assange he would not rule the option out, either.

An Outlandish Interview

From there the diplomatic intrigue deepened, with Correa reportedly offering Assange asylum during a session of the WikiLeaks founder's own television program, The World Tomorrow. The program featured Assange interviewing Correa personally on Russian Television, and dealt with such issues as Correa's anti-imperialism and relations with the media establishment.

Though Assange asked a few controversial questions about Correa's handling of free speech in Ecuador, the interview was for the most part a friendly and jocular affair. As the conversation neared its conclusion, however, things took a bizarre turn as Correa chuckled, "Cheer up Julian, and welcome to the club of the persecuted." In a macabre attempt at humor, Assange responded laughingly, "Don't get assassinated." Chiming in, the Ecuadoran declared, "Rhank you. That's something we have to avoid every day."

Assange Asylum and South American Diplomatic Intrigue

Though Assange will surely heave a huge sigh of relief if he receives asylum in Quito, I suspect that Ecuador was not his first choice. In December 2010 I reported that the WikiLeaks founder was interested in moving to Brazil and even basing some of his organization's operations in the South American nation. Brazil, Assange remarked, was "sufficiently large so as to resist U.S. pressure; the country has the requisite economic and military means to do so."

Apparently, Assange was encouraged as outgoing President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva had been one of Wikileaks' most prominent defenders. Interrupting a run-of-the-mill speech about infrastructure development, Lula declared "What's its name? Viki-leaks? Like that? To WikiLeaks: my solidarity in disclosing these things and my protest on behalf of free speech... The man [Assange] was arrested and I'm not seeing any protest defending freedom of expression... Instead of blaming the person who disclosed it, blame the person who wrote this nonsense. Otherwise, we wouldn't have the scandal we now have."

Unfortunately for Assange, Lula was quickly succeeded by the more cautious and pragmatic Dilma Rousseff, and needless to say no asylum invitation was forthcoming. Perhaps, however, it was naïve for Assange to ever hope that Brazil would challenge the U.S. Indeed, high-level government officials had some reason to revile Assange as many WikiLeaks cables cast Brasilia in an embarrassing and unfavorable light.

Officially, Brazil forms part of South America's "Pink Tide" to the left, but secretly the political elite is divided with some senior figures in the security apparatus opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors. Moreover, Brazil emerges in WikiLeaks cables as an opportunistic player, willing to sacrifice political principles in a quixotic quest to garner a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council [for a full archive detailing Brazil's rise on the world stage as shown in the documents, click here].

In this sense, however, Brazil was not that much different from other cynical players in the region. Indeed, after WikiLeaks released damning cables relating to Argentina, which depict power couple Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as political hypocrites on the left, it was probably just as unlikely that Buenos Aires would welcome Assange with open arms.

The Quito Cables

Perhaps, Assange might have reasoned that Ecuador was a safer bet than either Brazil or Argentina. A closer ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Correa has been a populist critic of "neo-liberal" style economics and even booted the U.S. out of its strategically located Manta military base on the Ecuadoran coast. But perhaps most importantly, the WikiLeaks documents relating to Ecuador have served to embarrass Correa's political foes as well as the U.S. Embassy in Quito.

Indeed, according to my lengthy piece, the Americans regarded Ecuador as their own private fiefdom. Fearing ideological contagion from nearby Venezuela and a spillover domino-like effect, the U.S. Embassy in Quito did its utmost to maintain its political grip on the Andean country. In Quito, Bush-appointed ambassador Kristie Kenney met with Correa predecessor Lucio Gutiérrez, bluntly informing the Ecuadoran that "there was little to gain, politically or commercially, from the president visiting Caracas."

Later, as political confusion exploded in Quito, Gutiérrez was forced from office and his Vice President Alfredo Palacio assumed office. Hoping to appease restive indigenous peoples and others, Palacios appointed young Correa as the country's new Minister of Economy. A nationalist, Correa declared that Ecuador should reconsider a previous decision to lease a military airbase to the U.S. in the coastal city of Manta. What is more, shortly after taking up his job Correa met with Hugo Chávez to discuss the financing of Ecuadoran debt. The incident, U.S. diplomats noted, "supports suspicions" that Correa was "largely behind Ecuador's increased coziness with Venezuela."

Ecuador's Crass Political Class

Facing a bleak economic picture, Palacio hoped that Washington would offer him generous financial assistance. However, the Americans informed Palacio that while the Bush administration was more than happy to put in a good word with financial institutions, Ecuador would have to swallow a bitter pill by submitting to conservative fiscal policies. Needless to say, Palacio's efforts to appease Washington did not go down very well with the likes of Correa, who promptly resigned.

The following month, Palacio met with the U.S. ambassador and the Ecuadoran representative of the Inter-American Development Bank. Speaking frankly, Palacio stated that Correa had jeopardized Ecuador's economic standing in the international community. Moreover, in words which would not have pleased Ecuador's social movements, Palacio pledged to bring about "labor reform" as part of the country's move toward implementation of a free trade agreement with the U.S.

In an effort at damage control, Palacio declared that he could serve as a necessary "counterweight" to Chávez and international financial institutions would surely support his government's economic policies. Somewhat brashly, Palacio declared that only he could carry out such a role, but "he would need U.S. assistance to do so." Specifically, the Ecuadoran hoped to lasso the U.S. into providing security on Amazonian oil fields, the site of recent social and environmental protest.

A Perverse Destination

Correa, who was elected in 2006 with support from Ecuador's social movements, may feel he is indebted to Assange for the WikiLeaks disclosures. Nevertheless, if Assange does wind up in Quito this would come as a rather perverse finale to an already unlikely saga. Indeed, if Assange values openness and freedom, then Ecuador would seem to be a rather unlikely destination.

In an effort to counteract the U.S., Correa has moved his country into the economic orbit of China and even Iran, two countries hardly known for their social and political tolerance. Moreover, according to human rights and press freedom activists, Correa has used Ecuador's criminal libel law against local journalists. There are other indications, too, that the Correa government is not very partial to expressions of dissent.

In 2009, 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 oil development, 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."

Assange is astute enough to recognize these many objections. At the same time, however, the WikiLeaks founder must surely realize that his potential list of options has dwindled considerably. For better or worse, populist Correa may be Assange's last hope.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.