Why Ecuador's Embassy Stand-Off With the U.K. Might Not Actually Be About Protecting Julian Assange

Generating a highly publicized but low-risk diplomatic confrontation with a Western power would be consistent with Ecuadorian President Correa's legitimacy-boosting foreign policy.

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Julian Assange interviews President Correa for his show on RT. (YouTube)

When Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa sat down three months ago for a TV interview with Wikileaks chief Julian Assange -- conducted remotely, as Assange was under house arrest in the U.K. awaiting potential extradition to Sweden on rape charges -- he was in a peppery mood. Forceful, flamboyant, occasionally quite funny, Correa was every bit the fiery populist that Ecuadorians, who seem to like him, have come to know so well.

This morning, Correa and Assange are entangled once more. In June, one month after their interview, Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, apparently to avoid his looming extradition. Ecuadorian officials waffled on whether they would grant him the asylum he sought or potentially release him to the furious British authorities. Now, the Ecuadorian government has announced it will grant asylum. But physically uniting Assange and Correa could be extremely difficult, even impossible. Under international law, he is safe in the embassy, which U.K. authorities cannot legally breach. Still, it's not clear how he could get from the embassy to the airport without police nabbing him.

Ecuador's decision to grant Assange asylum appears, on the surface, bizarre or even irrational, given the apparent costs. The small-ish Latin American nation has effectively blown up relations with the much more powerful United Kingdom just over Assange, whose only real interest in Ecuador appears to come from one Ecuadorian officials' late 2010 hints of asylum. But it's possible that the diplomatic stand-off itself, and not Assange's freedom, is precisely Ecuador's goal.

Though we can't know the Ecuadorian government's motivation for sure, engineering a high-profile and possibly protracted confrontation with a Western government would actually be quite consistent with Correa's practice of using excessively confrontational foreign policy in a way that helps cement his populist credibility at home. It would also be consistent with his habit of using foreign embassies as proxies for these showdowns -- possibly because they tend to generate lots of Western outrage with little risk of unendurable consequences.

In his May interview with Assange, one of the first things Correa did was make a joke about his controversial decision to refuse to renew the U.S. lease on an air force base in his country, thus effectively shuttering it, to American outrage. "OK, 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," he said. Assange laughed. "Are you having a lot of fun? Me too," Correa said, laughing with his host. "Yes, I am enjoying your jokes a great deal."

Correa's government first announced that it would not renew the U.S. lease in July 2008, and both his officials and he personally continued to insist as much, and to rebuff American requests otherwise, right up through Correa's April 2009 re-election, which he won handily.

Correa, along with the more famously anti-American rulers of Venezuela and Nicaragua, is one of what the Washington Post recently called "Latin America's new authoritarians." They are nationalistic, populist, and "increasingly undemocratic." Correa's frequent warnings of foreign infiltrators, typically American but always Western, often go hand-in-hand with his declarations of national sovereignty and, of course, crackdowns on some internal opponent. Also in the run-up to his 2009 re-election, Correa purged top military and intelligence officials, implying they were American spies.

Correa has particularly targeted the media, harassing or imprisoning journalists or outlets that report on his excesses of power. Assange actually asked him about this, if a bit gently (U.S. embassy officials had worried about the crackdown in cables that Wikileaks later released), and the Ecuadorian president's response was telling: those reporters were pawns of Western embassies, he said. "We have nothing to hide. Wikileaks only makes us stronger, as the main accusations made by the embassy were due to our excessive nationalism and defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian government," he said.

Without skipping a beat, Correa linked his imprisonment of domestic journalists with the same populist, nationalist, anti-Western message that has long aided his domestic popularity and served as an explanation (or, you might say, an excuse) for what certainly looks like authoritarianism. "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."

Correa's dark suggestions that Western embassies in his country were secretly guiding those enemy-of-the-people journalists also hinted at his apparent view of embassies and diplomats as proxies for his confrontational shows. Last year, the Ecuadorian government made a show of expelling the U.S. ambassador, citing a relatively banal Wikileaks cable alleging that a retired police official might have been corrupt. In effect, this expulsion, like closing the U.S. air base, risked little in terms of U.S. retaliation. But they allowed Correa to appear as if boldly standing down the Western powers and championing the Ecuadorian nationalism that he's ridden to such popularity.

It's possible, of course, that Correa really does just like Assange, or that the Ecuadorian government is earnestly concerned that he will be mistreated by the Western governments. This would be an odd turn for a country that is otherwise quite harsh with journalists and political dissidents like Assange, but it's possible. Still, it would seem more consistent with Correa's use of flamboyantly confrontational, but ultimately low-risk, foreign policy as a means to bolster the anti-Western nationalism that is such a pillar of his populist legitimacy. If that's the case, then Assange might want to settle in at the London embassy, because the longer this stand-off with U.K. authorities lasts, the better for Correa.