Correa reelection in Ecuador a key motive in Assange asylum incident

One of the most fascinating aspects of the latest turn in the Julian Assange drama is why Ecuador — of all places — is so keen on offering Assange asylum. 

Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, made public a huge trove of classified cables from the U.S. State Department, starting in February 2010.  Assange has also been charged on a warrant by Sweden for sexual assault and voluntarily entered English custody in December 2010.

Assange claims that in Sweden (unlike in the Great Britain), he will be subject to extradition or illegal rendition to the United States, where he also claims he will be charged with espionage and other crimes in relation to the release of the U.S. classified cables.  I will leave aside the issue of whether that’s a valid concern or paranoid delusion, but given the global attention now on Assange, it seems certain that the United States would face massive criticism and a significant soft-power blow, even among its allies, for such a move.

In any event, on June 19, Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Ecuador granted asylum to Assange on August 16.  The United Kingdom, for its part, refuses to guarantee the safe passage of Assange, who now faces the puzzle of getting from Ecuador’s embassy out of the country.  The United Kingdom apparently sent a letter last week to the Ecuadorian embassy that seemed to threaten invasion of Ecuador’s embassy to reclaim Assange — that would appear to be  a fairly significant break with the international law that governs diplomatic relations, which is one of the few areas of international law that countries take seriously as law.

Besides, the idea of UK foreign minister William Hague ordering a military siege in posh Knightsbridge to capture Assange is so outrageous (and hilarious) that I doubt the British government would ever stoop to something like that.  Far better to wait it out until Assange tries to flee, or simply strip Ecuador of its diplomatic status by cutting off ties.

Assange raised the temperature even more Sunday with a scathing denunciation of the United States from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy.

But why would Ecuador even bother to step into such a fraught battle of international intrigue that has already become a headache for the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden and Assange’s native country of Australia?

Max Fisher at The Atlantic makes the case that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa is angling to pick a fight with a stalwart of Western government:

Though we can’t know the Ecuadorian government’s motivation for sure, engineering a high-profile and possibly protracted confrontation with a Western government would actually be quite consistent with Correa’s practice of using excessively confrontational foreign policy in a way that helps cement his populist credibility at home.  It would also be consistent with his habit of using foreign embassies as proxies for these showdowns — possibly because they tend to generate lots of Western outrage with little risk of unendurable consequences.

That seems just about right, and it doesn’t hurt that South American ally Argentina already detests the United Kingdom over the status of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) since the 1982 war and before.

But there’s a vital element missing from this narrative: Correa faces reelection in February 2013.

As Fisher and others have noted, the Correa administration has heretofore not been exactly active in the cause of press freedom within Ecuador, and that hasn’t changed in the lead-up to the presidential election.  It’s obvious that Correa is not motivated by some sudden conversion on the importance of press freedom.

Correa, a Chicago-trained economist who served as finance minister before he was elected president in 2006, has governed Ecuador in a manner in no way reminiscent of Chicago  economics — Correa’s been more in line with the populist chávismo left in Latin America rather than the more moderate lulismo left.  In 2008, he defaulted on some $3 billion in international debt, and he’s been pointedly frosty when it comes to U.S.-Ecuadorian relations.

Although GDP growth has been spotty since he took office, GDP grew by nearly 5% last year, and Correa has made some progressing in reducing poverty and unemployment in the nation of 15 million, which has a GDP per capita lower than every country in South America other than Guyana, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Correa’s popularity has fallen somewhat since his first election and subsequent reelection in 2009, but he still leads by a large margin against a dispersed opposition in Ecuador — a July 24 poll shows that Correa would win reelection in the first round with 50% of the vote.  The nearest competitor, with 17% is Guillermo Lasso, a businessman and former president of the Banco de Guayaquil.  Former president Lucio Gutiérrez, who served from 2003 to 2005 until he was removed from office after a showdown with the country’s Supreme Court, wins just 8%.

So while Correa appears to have a solid lock on reelection, six months is as long a time in politics as it is anywhere else in the world, and Ecuadorians, for now, seem to approve of picking a fight over Assange.

It’s a hat trick for Correa: he gets to wrap himself in the mantle of nationalism, he gets a high-profile opportunity to pick a mostly symbolic fight with a nation that’s practically the avatar of colonialism, and he also gets some nice international headlines about human rights and press freedom to help whitewash his own domestic record.

Meanwhile, with the Assange story sucking up attention in Ecuador– a high-profile meeting among the UNASUR nations kicks off today, there’s even less ability for Lasso or the opposition to break through.

One downside: escalating a fight with the United Kingdom could destroy what little goodwill remains in the United States for Correa — after also kicking out a U.S. ambassador and closing a U.S. military base in Ecuador in 2009, Correa could find that the United States will not renew the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, a trade program from the 1990s designed to exempt products from certain tariffs in exchange for cooperation in reducing drug producing and trafficking.  Since the 1990s, Colombia and Peru have negotiated their own free trade agreements with the United States, and Bolivia has been kicked out of the program, which means that the ATPDEA now affects solely Ecuador.  The Assange affair may be just provocative enough to cause the U.S. Congress to allow the ATPDEA to be phased out.

That, however, may not be so important to Correa, who opposed a bilateral trade agreement with the United States when he was finance minister in 2005.

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