Why journalist-jailing Ecuador would open its arms to Edward Snowden

June 24, 2013

A screenshot of Julian Assange's May 2012 interview with Ecuador's President Rafael  Correa. (YouTube)

To understand why NSA leaker Edward Snowden might be bound for asylum in Ecuador, a South American country whose democratic but increasingly authoritarian government would seem to embody the opposite of Snowden's free-speech values, it helps to go back to a May 2012 TV show that appeared on the Moscow-funded network RT.

That show was part of the short-lived interview program "World Tomorrow," hosted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who at the time had been under house arrest in the United Kingdom for almost two years awaiting extradition to Sweden on rape charges and possibly one day to the United States for espionage. For an early episode of the show, he interviewed the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa.

Jocular and bombastic, even through the normally awkward medium of a remote interview, Correa wagged his finger at the United States between jokes teasing Assange for his house arrest. He defending his controversial decision to close a U.S. Air Force base in his country, saying, "Okay, there isn't any problem with a U.S. base being set up in Ecuador. We can give the go ahead as long as we are granted permission to set up an Ecuadorian military base in Miami. If there isn't any issue, they will agree."

One month later, Assange fled house arrest for Ecuador's embassy in London, where he is still holed up under the protection of Correa's government. He and the Ecuadorian president are unlikely allies, one a self-styled champion of transparency and human rights, the other a charismatic nationalist and subject of increasingly alarmed reports from human rights groups that his government imprisons journalists and political opponents. Assange raised the issue in their interview, noting that some U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks had underscores the reports. Correa responded by implying that the targeted journalists were Western spies. "Indeed, we are nationalists; indeed we defend the sovereignty of our country," he said. "Many Wikileaks cables spoke about the interests in the national media, about the power groups who go to seek help, to foster relationships with foreign embassies, and benefit from the embassy's contacts. Here we fear absolutely nothing, let them publish everything they have."

It's not hard to see why Assange would prefer the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy to the threat of extradition to Sweden. But what's Correa's interest? Why would he jeopardize his already rocky relationships with two of the world's most powerful countries, the U.K. and U.S., to shelter a fugitive who espouses the same freedoms that Correa's government has curtailed? More to the point, why would Correa's Ecuador once more infuriate the United States by apparently offering shelter to Snowden?

The answer, as I wrote when Ecuador first sheltered Assange, may have more to do with Ecuador's foreign policy than its professed concerns for Assange and Snowden's libertarian values. And that foreign policy may serve the same free speech restrictions that have earned Correa such criticism from human rights groups.

Since joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, a grouping of Latin American states that seeks to act as a bulwark against U.S. influence, Correa has championed a mix of anti-American nationalism and authoritarianism. He, along with the leaders of fellow Bolivarian Alliance members Venezuela and Cuba, is a leading member of what The Washington Post's Juan Forero called "Latin America's new authoritarians" in 2012, whom he described as nationalistic, populist and "increasingly undemocratic." Correa's warnings of foreign infiltrators, often American, often go hand-in-hand with his declarations of national sovereignty and crackdowns on internal opponents. In the run-up to his 2009 reelection, for example, Correa purged several top military and intelligence officials, implying that they were American spies.

Correa's warnings that his country is under constant threat of pernicious American infiltration and "imperialism" have allowed him both to rally his supporters around the cause of nationalism and provided a handy rationale for targeting journalists and political opponents. Ironically, a number of Snowden's supporters have accused the U.S. government of using terrorist threats as an excuse to increase surveillance powers such as those revealed by his leaks.

For Correa, then, the fact that sheltering Assange and Snowden infuriates Washington might not be a downside at all; it might be part of the point. The more loudly U.S. officials condemn Ecuador and demand it hand over Snowden, the easier it is for Correa to portray himself as the national champion standing up to American bullying. That also helps bolster his case that policies curtailing media freedoms or targeting political opponents are necessary defenses against the American threat.

Ecuador's foreign minister, speaking from Hanoi, brushed off questions about how the U.S. might respond if his country ultimately sheltered Snowden. "We take our own sovereign decisions, and of course we are aware of the possible consequences," he said. And why shouldn't he be? Those consequences might very well be a big part of the point.

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Max Fisher · June 24, 2013