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June 24, 2013 2:50 pm
Should Edward Snowden successfully find political asylum in Quito, he will find warmer weather than in Moscow, better food than in Havana and more security than in Caracas – three other locales mentioned as potential hideaways for the former US intelligence official now on the lam.
But in Quito, nestled in a high Andean valley under snow-capped volcanoes, Mr Snowden will also no doubt meet Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, a leftist strongman full of contradictions.
Mr Correa often berates the US – even though the Ecuadorean economy is pegged to the US dollar. He is often linked to the region’s Hugo Chávez-Evo Morales-Daniel Ortega trio of muscular leftist leaders, although anyone who has met Mr Correa acknowledges he has a quick mind, and a solid training as an economist (he received his PhD in economics from the University of Illinois).
More significantly, Mr Correa has made the defence of human rights part of his international rallying cry – by, for example, offering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London – even as he has curbed press freedoms at home with a new media bill, called a “gag law” by press freedom groups and opposition lawmakers.
The irony escapes no one – except perhaps for Mr Assange and Mr Correa himself. In an interview with the Financial Times in February, while Mr Correa was still aglow after winning presidential elections by a landslide, he described the Ecuadorean press (and not wholly without good reason) as “less a case of communication media like in the UK . . . and more a case of opposition media defending its own very particular interests”.
Nonetheless, one provision in the new bill allows Ecuador’s new and Orwellian-sounding “Council of Content Regulation” to sanction media outlets for not reporting news the government believes should be reported. Others allow for fines over content that the council finds critical or untrue (according to the council’s own definition).
“From the point of view of human rights, the attitude of the Ecuadorean government with Assange and now with Snowden does not survive the acid test,” said César Ricaurte, head of Fundamedios, a Quito-based watchdog. It is a “marketing exercise”.
Be that as it may, who or what is the market that Mr Correa is trying to convince?
First, there is his national audience – or at least an attempt to rhetorically silence his domestic opponents.
Second, there are Ecuador’s fellow members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or Alba, a Cuban and Venezuelan-led group that likes little more than to tweak the nose of the US but has somewhat lost its compass since the death, this March, of its de facto leader, Hugo Chávez.
Mr Correa may now be trying to step into Chávez’s shoes. “One gets the impression from Mr Correa’s behaviour that sometimes he wants to out-Chávez Chávez,” said a Latin American diplomat.
Although Ecuador lacks the oil revenues that Venezuela used to buy influence around the region, it now has instead a loftier (and cheaper) cause with which to advance itself: human rights.
Preaching from that pulpit may come at a cost, however. The Ecuadorean embassy in the US is lobbying Washington to keep alive a series of Andean trade preferences designed by the US in 2002 to foster economic development by providing alternatives to cocaine production.
Ecuador is now the only member of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, after Colombia and Peru negotiated free trade pacts with the US, and Washington expelled Bolivia in 2008 arguing it had failed to co-operate with the US on staunching the flow of illegal drugs. But the act is due to expire this summer. And if comments on Monday by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, about how Russia might pay a price for allowing Mr Snowden safe passage also hold true for Ecuador, then APTDEA may not be renewed.
For Mr Correa, this could provide fodder for a David v Goliath type of narrative, although how successfully it will go down is another matter.
“It is ever less credible that a government that has shut and punished critical voices at home, is now erecting itself as a paladin of transparency and home of the free circulation of ideas,” said Mr Ricaurte.
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