Ecuador’s Correa Sounds The Bugle

Is Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa really saying that we cannot trust the judicial systems in Britain and Sweden? By granting Julian Assange asylum, he has implicitly stated the British judicial process is flawed and that Sweden is a slavish servant of the US government.

His argument would seem to be that there is a Western imperialist plot to squash and repress any who challenge the ruling political elite. Love him or loathe him, few who know Latin America would deny that Correa is a very bright man and canny political operator. It thus beggars belief that he thinks Sweden, a country with a long tradition of non-alignment, will bow to US pressure.

Source: AP

More to the point, any move to extradite Assange from Sweden would have to go through the courts that consistently refuse to release records on the ownership of anonymous internet fileservers that North American security gurus see as major threats to the national interest.

So what is Correa up to? Why interject his country into such a loaded issue in a way that doesn’t so much tweak British and US noses as poke them directly in the eyes? One likely answer is that granting Assange asylum is a low cost strategy for Correa to maintain stratospheric presidential approval ratings despite persistent poverty in Ecuador. Last year Ecuador exported $139.2 million USD ($133.2m) to Britain, a paltry 0.7 per cent of the country’s total exports. While Ecuador can afford to upset Britain, any move by London seen as violating Ecuadorian sovereignty will receive a harsh response from the politically organized South American nations, including giant Brazil. British self-interest cannot afford this at a time that relations between the U.K. and Latin America are already bedeviled by bad blood over the Falkland-Malvinas pursuit.

The situation with respect to the US is not much different. Relations with Washington remain stable despite sustained provocations. In 2009 Correa delivered a major blow to US drug interdiction policy by refusing to renew the Pentagon’s lease on the Manta airbase in southern Ecuador. This was followed last year with the expulsion of the US ambassador, ironically because of the material released in the WikiLeaks Cablegate.

These provocations and a habitually anti-imperialist rhetoric from Correa had little impact on trade with the US. From 2005 to last year, exports to the US grew by 20.5 per cent. More importantly for Correa’s strategic thinking, the US share of Ecuador’s exports fell from 49.7 per cent to 34.6 per cent, and this trade was concentrated in the fish, fruit and oil that have a ready Chinese market.

The foreign policy and economic cost of provoking Britain and US is thus remarkably low for Correa, allowing him to use Assange to further burnish his anti-imperialist credentials among his domestic political supporters. For Correa, maintaining credibility as a forceful voice against imperialism and a staunch rhetorical critic of the US is a domestic political necessity. His entire agenda is directed towards transforming the political and social structure of Ecuador, which automatically threatens the interests of the established political and economic elite.

Given that the three presidents elected before Correa were belted from office by massive indigenous popular protests or congressional conspiracy, it is hard to argue that there was not a need for constitutional reform in Ecuador. At issue were the twin problems of the near impossibility of electing a congress that would co-operate with the president and the systemic exclusion of the country’s indigenous peoples (25 per cent of the population) and the mixed-heritage mestizos (65 per cent) from real political participation.

Correa wasted little time in pursuing reform after his 2006 election. To facilitate inclusion and break gridlock, Correa called a constitutional convention in 2007, which duly drafted a new magna carta for Ecuador. In 2008, the document was put to a national referendum and approved by 64 per cent of the population as the country’s 20th constitution. The established political and economic elite is not happy and is doing all it can to undermine Correa. Although poverty rates in Ecuador have dropped from 37.6 per cent to 28.6 per cent over the past five years, the political reality is that it is very easy to spin a quarter of the population remaining impoverished as a cataclysmic failure of governmental policy.

Correa’s challenge is to keep his troops enthused and block out negative messaging to the opposition, which owns most of Ecuador’s major media. In this context asylum for Assange becomes an act of diversionary domestic politics, buying time for social programs to have their full effect. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it also gets Ecuador in the international limelight with Correa cast as a tiny David battling the American and British Goliaths.

This article was modified from its original version which originally appeared in The Australian on August 21, 2012. COHA has afforded its publication in a different format for the purposes of its organization.

Sean Burges is a senior associate with the Australian National University’s Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies and a senior research fellow with the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. He is the author of Brazilian Foreign Policy After the Cold War.

5 thoughts on “Ecuador’s Correa Sounds The Bugle

  • August 22, 2012 at 8:59 pm
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    While Burges makes a good point about Correa´s political strategy, it is a little unfair to paint this episode only in terms of domestic Ecuadorean politics. You only have to look at the papers or talk to people who have accessed reports on Wikileaks to know that there is overwhelming support for Assange – and revulsion over indisputably authentic revelations of US dirty dealings – all over the world. It is also no secret that the US establishment will use every trick it can, and pressure at the highest levels, to get him and put him away or whatever. This constitutes a real threat of political persecution, sufficient ground for granting him asylum.

    The UNASUR meeting that condemned the UK was unanimous in its decision and so much the better! An absurdly desperate attempt by the UK to appease its allies has slammed into a wall of Latin American unity that will have to be taken into account henceforth.

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  • August 23, 2012 at 8:53 am
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    This strikes me as a useful background article and I've posted it at my
    http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name

    The writer's optimism about Sweden…I myself would not take a chance. However, I would feel a bit more assured on that score
    if we could get a clearer picture of what sexual deviance Assange is accused ot. Swedish chicks love sex, so if they are charging him with rape, is it, … Perhaps Assage and his Koo habits were just a bit too much for them says someone who spent time with wild and wooly Koos now quite some time ago.

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    • August 24, 2012 at 11:55 am
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      "Swedish chicks love sex" This is exactly the kind of comment that is unaceptable.

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      • August 25, 2012 at 12:05 pm
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        Oh Jesus, Elena, get a life!

        Reply
  • August 23, 2012 at 10:15 am
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    The New Statesman has a differet take on Sweden, etc
    " In December 2001, the Swedish government abruptly revoked the political refugee status of two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed el-Zari, who were handed to a CIA kidnap squad at Stockholm airport and “rendered” to Egypt, where they were tortured. An investigation by the Swedish ombudsman for justice found that the government had “seriously violated” the two men’s human rights." http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/201

    Reply

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