Rafael Correa, the president of one of South America’s smallest countries with almost 15 million inhabitants is taking a dramatic stand against Great Britain, Sweden and the United States by granting political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Last Wednesday the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, told the press in the country’s capital, Quito: “Today we have received from the United Kingdom an explicit threat in writing that they could assault our embassy in London if Ecuador does not hand over Julian Assange.” Correa in an address to the Ecuadorian people on Saturday said, “I don’t know who they think I am or what they think our government is. But how could they expect us to yield to their threats or cower before them? My friends, they don’t know who they are dealing with.”
He added: “They haven’t found out that the Americas are free and sovereign and that we don’t accept meddling and colonialism of any kind.”
Correa has spoken openly of 21st century socialism, and positions himself as part of Latin America’s leftward tilt that is pledged to open up more participatory governing structures. “Personally, I am not a communist, I am a socialist,” says Correa, though he acknowledges, “almost no one can define” what 21st century socialism is. He is clear, however, that it “differs totally from the idea of state control over the means of production and traditional socialism,” and can be encapsulated in one word: justice.
Correa, who took office in 2007, has joined with other leaders in Latin America in searching for new solutions to persistent problems of poverty and inequality.
On the international front, the 48-year-old Correa believes it is important to push for Latin American integration and fight for sovereignty in the face of attempts by the dominant powers and the international financial institutions to re-colonize Latin America. He has repeatedly confronted U.S. interests in the hemisphere. In 2009 he refused to renew a lease for the U.S. military base at Manta on the west coast of Ecuador. In response to U.S. pressure he ironically declared, “We can negotiate with the U.S. about a base in Manta, if they let us put a military base in Miami…”
In June 2011, Ecuador was the only holdout when the Organization of American States (OAS) voted to readmit Honduras after evicting it when a 2009 military-backed coup removed president Manuel Zelaya from office. Correa stated that Ecuador would only recognize the Honduran government of Porfirio Lobo if those involved in the coup were punished.
Similarly, in April 2012 Ecuador was the only country to boycott the sixth Summit of the Americas in Colombia because of Cuba’s exclusion from the meeting. Then in June of this year Correa ended Ecuadorian participation in a U.S. sponsored military program that has trained thousands of Latin American military officials over the years, many of which led or participated in coups against civilian elected governments.
Ecuador is also a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA). The group encourages “fair trade,” not free trade, and promotes integration through complementarity and solidarity. Founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004, Bolivia soon joined and later Nicaragua, Ecuador, and five Caribbean countries.
Most of the foreign press has chosen to ignore the principled positions of Correa, diverting attention to issues like press freedom. The New York Times alleges Correa has “presided over a crack down on journalists.” The Guardian of London quotes favorably a columnist with El Comercio, a right wing newspaper in Quito: “By drawing the world’s attention with this superhuman effort in Assange’s favor, the government will revive the debate over its own intolerance against the independent press.”
These comments are debunked by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C., who writes that such reports are “a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation of Ecuador, which has an uncensored media that is mostly opposed to the government. And for most of the world, these misleading news reports are all that they will hear or read about Ecuador for a long time.”
It will surprise many that the harshest critics of Correa in Ecuador are to his left. Indigenous movements, environmentalists, and at least two of the country’s socialist parties lambast the president for his “extractivist” economic policies that allow foreign petroleum and mining corporations to exploit the country’s resources much like they did under previous governments.
To contain protests against these policies the government has arrested over 200 activists, who Correa refers to as “infantile leftists.” The country’s leading indigenous organization, CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, applauded Correa’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange, while at the same time denouncing the president’s double standard of “insulting, persecuting and jailing indigenous leaders and those who struggle for social justice.”
The tensions between Correa and the left opposition began in 2006 in Correa’s first election when the relatively obscure economics professor who earned his doctorate at Illinois University ran against a CONAIE backed candidate. Today Correa’s major political organization is called Alianza Pais, or the Country Alliance. The party is based largely in the urban areas of the country, while CONAIE draws its support largely from the rural areas and is allied with small middle class social movements.
The two groups will square off with opposing candidates in the 2013 elections. One position not likely to be in dispute between them is the granting of asylum to Julian Assange.
Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA and is the author with Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes of Latin Americas Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism, to be released in January, 2013.
Marc Becker is the author of the chapter on Ecuador in the book, and is professor of history at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO. He has written extensively on Ecuador.
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