Ecuador's quandary over asylum for WikiLeaks chief

June 22, 2012 - 4:37 PM
Brazil Rio+20

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa gestures during meeting about the Yasuni-ITT Initiative at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, holed up at Ecuador's embassy in London, is seeking political asylum in the South American nation. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — President Rafael Correa's objections to what he deems American interventionism in Latin America and his delight in Julian Assange's massive uncorking of U.S. secrets appear to have persuaded the WikiLeaks chief that Ecuador offers his best shot at avoiding extradition to Sweden.

But four days after Assange ducked into Ecuador's London embassy seeking political asylum, this South American nation's leftist leader has yet to announce a decision. The choice may not be easy.

Correa was cagey on Thursday night, telling reporters that Ecuador was consulting with the other governments involved.

"We don't wish to offend anyone, least of all a country we hold in such deep regard as the United Kingdom," he said.

The question he faces is whether it's worth risking a backlash from Washington and the European Union against his small, petroleum-exporting nation of 14 million.

On the plus side, Correa would deepen his anti-establishment reputation by identifying himself with someone who also rates the mainstream media as beholden to moneyed interests and powerful governments.

"By giving Assange asylum, Correa (would be) burnishing his anti-US credentials," said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. "Correa and Assange not only have a personal chemistry — they also see themselves as victims of U.S. power."

The two seemed to get on well when Assange interviewed Correa last month for his Kremlin-funded TV program. "Your Wikileaks have made us stronger," Correa told Assange, adding later: "Welcome to the club of the persecuted."

"It is hard to escape the irony that Correa, who has suppressed press freedom in Ecuador, is associating himself with the professed champion of transparency," said Shifter. "What this reveals is that it all comes down to ideology."

Correa has angered human rights and media freedom activists by using criminal libel law and media ownership restrictions to gag opposition-owned outlets that he claims are corrupt and intent on destroying him.

The tactic hasn't hurt him domestically, however. The leftist economist who took office in 2007 is popular with lower-class Ecuadoreans who benefit from his generous public spending. His approval ratings top 70 percent.

Nor is Correa as relentlessly hostile to Washington as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Unlike Chavez, he has never accused the U.S. of trying to overthrow him. But he does relish courting U.S. global counterweights including Russia, China and Iran.

And he boycotted April's Summit of the Americas in Colombia to protest Washington's continued insistence on excluding Cuba from such hemispheric summits.

Correa has also expelled three U.S. diplomats whom he considered threats, including an ambassador who suggested in one of the more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks laid bare that Correa was deliberately overlooking high-level police corruption.

But none of that guarantees he'll grant the Australian activist refuge.

"The internal political and economic costs of asylum don't square up with the benefits," says Grace Jaramillo, an international relations expert at Ecuador's FLACSO university.

"We're in an election year in which a strangling of relations with European countries and the United States, with which we are, respectively, negotiating a trade agreement and the renewal of preferential tariffs, would give them a good excuse to stop negotiations," she said.

"Ecuador could basically forget about any renewal of the trade preferences if it granted safe haven to Assange," said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson center in Washington.

Forty-five percent of Ecuador's exports go to the U.S. and account for about 400,000 jobs. And a failure to reach a trade pact with the European Union could cut exports by 4 percent and cost tens of thousands of jobs.

There's also a risk for Correa of having Ecuador "become catalogued as a country that obstructs justice" and "protects transgressors of international law," said political scientist Vicente Torrijos of Rosario University in Bogota, Colombia.

That could cost him votes when he runs for re-election early next year.

On the other hand, he would win points with Latin American leftists for whom Assange is a "gigantic symbol" of the crusade against what they see as America's heavy-handedness in the region, said international relations specialist Sandra Borda of the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota.

But she doesn't believe Washington would punish Ecuador if it accepted Assange. And in Washington, the State Department sought to keep out of the crossfire.

"This is a UK-Ecuador-Sweden issue," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. "We want to see justice served; let's leave it at that."

On the streets of Quito, some had only a vague notion of who Assange is.

One man who did know, 43-year-old lawyer Julian Amaya, didn't think bringing the former hacker to Ecuador was a good idea.

"It doesn't make sense," he said, "because who is going to guarantee that he doesn't do the same thing here: reveal the secrets of the government, or of the opposition or whomever he wished?"

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Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.