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By Gonzalo Escribano
Shortly after the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic cables were leaked to the press in late 2010, Julian Assange was all but forgotten by the Latin American media. Even when WikiLeaks made the news, his name was rarely mentioned.
Then, on June 19th, Assange arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, asking for help. The news came as a shock since Latin America was never linked to the Assange affair. Now, the media in Latin America is going into overdrive, creating a portrait of Assange as an anti-imperialist warrior. The UK has to tread softly; a bold move against Assange will only turn him into a hero in Latin America.
Pundits across the region believe that Assange likely chose to seek asylum in Ecuador because it is part of the Latin-American leftist bloc, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which was founded by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Commentators disagree on why the Ecuadorian government is offering asylum to Assange, considering that the President of Ecuador Rafael Correa has been accused of undermining freedom of speech in his own country. Freedom House has reported on Correa’s intentions to silence private and critical media using legal technicalities. Nonetheless, with the Ecuadorian government’s decision to grant asylum to Assange, President Correa is playing the role of protector of "victims of Yankee imperialism"—as the U.S.’s involvement in regional affairs is often described in South America. With Hugo Chávez sick from cancer, Correa may also be looking to become the new vigorous leader of ALBA. Furthermore, next year, Ecuador will hold presidential elections, and a glorified triumph in the Assange case may be the best way to re-launch his image for his next presidential run.
The UK has no leverage over Ecuador’s foreign policy. President Correa is not only a man with a reputation for being stubbornly perseverant, but he also belongs to a bloc of leaders that has declared a war on foreign companies and foreign capital without much thought for its consequences. Correa, like other ALBA leaders, has enthusiastically adopted protectionist measures and even expropriated foreign companies. He has engaged in open battles with foreign oil companies operating in Ecuador, such as the French Perenco and the Spanish Repsol-YPF, which resisted new contracts requiring the companies to sell oil to the government at fixed prices as well as increasing their tax burden. Moreover, claiming to protect its national sovereignty, in 2009, Ecuador broke ties with the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), the highest international authority for resolving disagreements between foreign investors and governments of host countries.
By contrast, Assange does not generate negative sentiments in the region. Where governments tend to be overly secretive, independent media is persecuted and the intentions of the United States are seen with a degree of suspicion, Wikileaks and the information it made public, represented empowerment for the people. The announcement that Baltasar Garzon, a renowned former judge who fought for justice against the dictators of South America, is joining the legal representation team of the WikiLeaks founder has only helped reinforce Assange’s positive image.
Last Thursday, Ecuador called for an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) to discuss the British reaction to the decision of granting asylum to Assange. Over the weekend, ALBA backed Ecuador, as did the foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
Ecuador received support from Mexico and Brazil, the two historical leaders of the Latin American region. It has been suggested that in the days prior to the decision to grant asylum, President Correa consulted with various governments of the region. It is likely that President Correa decided to grant asylum only after getting implicit consent from these powerful regional allies. Mexico’s and Brazil’s support gives credibility to the worries expressed by the Ecuadorian authorities about the risk to Assange’s security if deported to Sweden. At the same time, the region’s solidarity with Ecuador is also the result of poor handling of the situation by both the British and the Swedish. Swedish authorities have been perceived as patronizing and inclined to refuse any possible negotiation, while the British authorities have constantly repeated that Assange will not be granted a safe passage from the embassy to the airport.
In the past, Mexico’s conservative government has had tense relations with the South American bloc, of which Ecuador is a part. However, it backed Ecuador during the OAS meeting after British authorities, in complete disregard for international law, delivered a diplomatic letter to the Ecuadorian authorities, threatening to force Assange out of Ecuador’s embassy. During the OAS meeting, however, the UK’s representative rescinded the threat and gave assurances that British authorities would not break into the embassy, though they continue to refuse to grant Assange safe passage.
While Assange opponents have painted him as a sex offender putting the world’s stability at risk, in Latin America, he is seen as a champion of accountability and freedom of expression wrongfully persecuted by the United States. In this context, it is unlikely that Britain will take bold action, outside the realm of normal diplomatic relations; as such a move would only confirm the veracity of the narrative around Assange maintained by Ecuador and its allies. Most likely, the outcome of the standoff between Britain and Ecuador will raise Assange’s public image in Latin America and bolster the region’s authority in global politics.
Gonzalo Escribano is a Mexican political commentator and lecturer of Political Discourse Analysis and Political Theory at the Iberoamericana University of Mexico City. He can be followed @gonzescribano.
[Illustration by Roar Hagen]