Ecuador and Julian Assange: Deserving Of Each Other
A LEGENDARY Ecuadorean leader, José María Velasco, once declared “give me a balcony and I will become president”. He did, five times, only to be overthrown by the army on four occasions. Rafael Correa, who resembles Mr Velasco in his histrionic populism, clearly hopes that his decision on August 16th to grant Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website, asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London—and the use of its balcony to address his supporters (pictured)—will boost his chances of winning another term at an election due in February. The affair has certainly granted Mr Correa a rare moment of global celebrity. But whether it will redound to his long-term advantage is not clear.
Since coming to power in 2007, Mr Correa has enjoyed durable popular support by leading what he calls a “citizens’ revolution” in a country that was a byword for political instability. He has used an oil windfall and money saved by defaulting on bonds to boost social spending. He has combined this with bouts of theatrical anti-Americanism. He refused to renew an agreement allowing an American anti-drug base in Ecuador. He has teamed up with communist Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in an anti-American alliance known as ALBA (meaning “dawn” in Spanish). When WikiLeaks published a cable in which the American ambassador in Quito, Heather Hodges, alleged that the president knew that his police chief was corrupt, Mr Correa expelled her.
In June Mr Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy, a flat in a redbrick mansion-block behind Harrods department store, to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for possible indictment for sexual assault. (He says the sex was consensual.) In granting him asylum, Mr Correa claims to be defending freedom of speech. The foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, last month described the Swedish accusations as “hilarious”, claiming that they were a ruse to facilitate Mr Assange’s onward extradition to the United States, where he might face the death penalty. But international lawyers argue that this would be harder from Sweden than from Britain. The United States has not indicted Mr Assange, although it is trying Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing thousands of confidential cables to WikiLeaks, for “aiding the enemy”.
Some of Mr Correa’s opponents argue that he is using the Assange case to wrest the initiative within ALBA from Mr Chávez, who has been ill with cancer. Earlier this year, Mr Correa called for sanctions against Britain because of its refusal to negotiate about its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, and boycotted a 34-country Summit of the Americas in protest at Cuba’s exclusion.