June 20, 2012

RAFAEL CORREA, a small-time South American autocrat, may smell a political opportunity. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan populist who has been his political mentor, appears to be dying of cancer. That means the role of chief Yanqui-baiter and friend-to-rogues, which Mr. Chavez has modeled for the past dozen years, may soon come open. Mr. Correa, who has been president of Ecuador since 2007, has been doing his best to establish his bona fides: In January, for example, he hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Quito.

Last month Mr. Correa’s campaign got a boost from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who opened a sycophantic interview for a Russian state propaganda outlet by announcing that “with Chavez . . . out of the public eye, a new generation of Latin American leaders has arisen.” He went on to wallow in anti-American slanders and paranoia with Mr. Correa, prompting the Ecuadoran to proclaim: “Welcome to the club of the persecuted!”

Now the Australian hacker has called Mr. Correa’s bluff. By seeking asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London on Tuesday, Mr. Assange dared Mr. Correa’s government to conclude that Sweden, which is seeking Mr. Assange’s extradition on sex-crime charges, and Britain, which allowed him to exhaustively contest the extradition in its courts, are violating his human rights or subjecting him to political persecution.

Mr. Assange probably has little to gain from this maneuver. Whether or not he is granted asylum, he will be subject to arrest whenever he leaves the embassy building in London. Mr. Correa, on the other hand, could make himself a hero with the global anti-American left by embracing Mr. Assange’s cause. The WikiLeaks man claims, after all, that he is resisting extradition to Sweden because he believes he will be subsequently turned over to the United States and exposed to the death penalty. That no U.S. charges or extradition case are open against him is irrelevant to this fantasy.

Mr. Assange is also indifferent to, if not supportive of, Mr. Correa’s own record on free speech. Since the beginning of this year, the Ecuadoran government has shut down 14 radio and television stations, including eight since the beginning of June. Mr. Correa’s personal lawsuits against one of the country’s leading newspapers and several investigative journalists have been condemned by every major human rights group and international press freedom monitor. In response, Mr. Correa has launched a campaign in the Organization of American States to hamstring regional press protections.

There is one potential check on Mr. Correa’s ambitions. The U.S. “empire” he professes to despise happens to grant Ecuador (which uses the dollar as its currency) special trade preferences that allow it to export many goods duty-free. A full third of Ecuadoran foreign sales ($10 billion in 2011) go to the United States, supporting some 400,000 jobs in a country of 14 million people. Those preferences come up for renewal by Congress early next year. If Mr. Correa seeks to appoint himself America’s chief Latin American enemy and Julian Assange’s protector between now and then, it’s not hard to imagine the outcome.