On June 19 last year, Ana Alban, Ecuador’s ambassador to Britain, received an unexpected visitor at her London office: the Australian-born WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, fleeing possible extradition to Sweden for questioning over alleged sexual assault.
“It was almost noon. I was not at the embassy but my staff called to tell me Mr Assange was there,” says Alban, talking in a mixture of Spanish and English. “My first reaction was that he didn’t have an appointment. I told my staff to make him a café and ask him to wait.”
“When I got back, he handed me an envelope,” says Alban. “It was a letter requesting asylum. But because of the time zones, my colleagues in Quito were still asleep. Later that day they told me they would review the case and, in the meantime, I should arrange accommodation.”
Alban, 45, a lawyer and former environment minister, managed to locate a mattress for Assange. She also carved out some living quarters for him from the already limited space in the embassy. Assange has remained holed up there ever since.
“It’s a small place. The shower was already there for my driver. But we had to rearrange the furniture. We bought a bed and table and created a small suite and office.” This week, while visiting London, Ricardo Patiño, foreign affairs minister, confirmed that Ecuador would continue to offer asylum to Assange at the embassy.
Alban’s residence, which overlooks Exhibition Road in South Kensington, is walking distance from the embassy. “I found it when I came to London three years ago. I liked the light,” Alban says, who will soon be returning to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to take up a new post.
“I’ll be working with the vice-president [of Ecuador] directing a new programme of social corporate responsibility in government enterprises.”
So, was Alban recalled to Quito for failing to resolve the Assange stand-off? “I asked to go back in May 2012,” she replies. “This case will be resolved when there is an interest from all parties in resolving it.”
In the hallway of her flat, visitors are greeted by an Ecuadorean flag, complete with stitched-in zodiac, plus sun, sea and a snow-capped peak. “We have the rainforest, the coast and the mountains. And don’t forget the Galápagos,” says Alban.
In the reception room, potted orchids and paintings from Ecuadorean artists, including Antonio Arias, decorate the room. Coffee has been set out at one end of the table. The opposite end is covered with wrapping foil, ribbons and two dozen potted flowers: daisies, lilacs, roses. “I’m hosting a diplomatic reception tomorrow,” says Alban. “I bought these flowers at the international market near Heathrow.”
Alban was born on the Galápagos Islands. “My father was a naval officer so he was posted there,” she says. Then, aged three, she moved to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, and attended a Catholic girls’ school, later enrolling at the local university where the current Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, was also a student. “He was a big figure on campus,” she says. “He was campaigning to become head of the student union.” Alban was also involved in student politics and was elected vice-president of another union. “I never lost an election,” she points out. Their paths had crossed years earlier. “[Correa] went to the boys’ school nearby. It was common when we had plays, and needed boys, to invite them to join us. But he’s a few years older so we weren’t in the same class.”
After stints working in banking, public law and for NGOs, Alban joined the government. She was appointed environment minister in 2005 and tasked with fixing deteriorating conditions on the Galápagos Islands. “The Galápagos had been listed as an endangered world heritage site,” says Alban, who set up town meetings to come up with sustainable proposals. “Any plan had to be agreed on by the people involved: fishermen, tourist groups, conservationists, farmers, residents,” she says. The site was removed from the endangered list the year after she left. “There is still much to do. We’d like to get alternative energy to the Galápagos and change local attitudes: the kids want malls.”
Alban also helped mark out borders for a protection zone for the indigenous Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes in the northeast rainforest. “I made trips by helicopter and canoe,” she says. “It’s energising: you see the green, feel the green, smell the green.” She also had to negotiate with petroleum companies drilling nearby. “The proposed borders were in straight lines. But the tribes only recognise geographical landmarks and they’re afraid of rivers. So we tried to make the borders more logical to them.” Did she hold discussions with the tribes? “No, they refuse contact with the outside world. It’s our obligation to take care of them and keep it that way.”
Alban scans the sitting room shelves for a book of maps and returns to the table. “Here are the borders before and after our negotiations,” she says, “Can you see the zigzags now?”
Since taking up her post in London, Alban’s role as ambassador has involved promoting Ecuador’s political and commercial links, from cocoa and coffee to eco-tourism and mobile satellites. The Assange case has clearly been demanding of Alban’s time and energy, diverting attention from her diplomatic day job.
For a year, Assange has not set foot outside the building – and, therefore, Ecuador’s borders – because he would be arrested. Police are stationed outside the embassy 24 hours a day, with the operation estimated to have cost the UK about £6m so far. “I was prepared for this by the nuns,” says Alban wryly. “We Latin American women are raised to take care of our families, people in need.”
The kitchen door swings opens and Alban’s cheerful live-in cook appears with a plate of fried plantains, or verdes, an Ecuadorean staple.
Alban divides the Assange case into two parts. “For me, the first part involves all political negotiations with the British government over the possibility of extraditing Assange to a third country. The second issue is his care,” she says. “He’s completely in our hands. We’re responsible for him: his safety, housing, food; his health and well being.”
At first, Alban brought Assange only food made by her cook. “I was worried he’d be poisoned ... But now he eats everything. We still have lunch together when he wants Ecuadorean food: ceviche, langostinos.”
She also arranged medical checks for him. Meanwhile, Assange has bought his own sun lamp. “He’s very strong physically. But one of my concerns was to make sure he never became depressed. Maybe I worried too much,” adds Alban.
Wasn’t the Ecuadorean embassy, with its populist president, a US and Belgian-trained economist who has had legal tussles with his own independent press, an odd asylum choice for the WikiLeaks founder? “When I asked him later, Julian said that he chose Ecuador because it has a strong president in the region,” says Alban. “Julian had already had some contact with him. He had interviewed him for Russia Today, over Skype.”
Scents of rich Ecuadoran dishes waft from the kitchen, in preparation for the next day’s reception, which will cap Alban’s tenure in the UK.
The flat, with its colourful art and double balconies, has given Alban a private refuge during the impasse. “Personally, I’ll miss it here. London wasn’t love at first sight but I love it now,” says Alban. She adds that she is also eager to return to Quito and start working with the administration to implement cutting-edge social projects, perhaps replicating her previous success in launching an initiative that helped to halt drilling in the oil-rich – and diversity-rich – Yasuni National Park rainforest.
Alban returns to the table of flowers. “I’ll wrap these tonight and guests can take one home.” When asked why she is giving out potted plants as going-away presents her reply is simple: “Because they’re alive, and you can nurture them.”
“It’s a woman,” says Alban, of a figurative sculpture propped up on the mantelpiece. “Ceramics are difficult to work with. I brought this with me from Ecuador ... It’s as if she’s alone; but she has a place.” The artist, Pilar Bustos, was born in Chile. “During the time of Pinochet she went to Ecuador and has been there since,” says Alban. “This is something she’s done in the second stage of her life.”