In his more than five years as Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa has seized foreign assets, picked fights with political adversaries, and bullied the local media. His tempestuous style has won enthusiastic fans and two elections in his home country, but it has also earned him plenty of enemies and drawn rebuke on all flanks, from human-rights groups to oil companies. And now his decision to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange has proved once again that a bad situation can always get worse.
Correa’s move comes on top of a long, tense standoff between the British government and Ecuador over the fugitive webmaster. Wanted for questioning in the alleged sexual assaults of two Swedish women, Assange jumped bail this past June and took refuge inside Ecuador’s London Embassy to avoid deportation to Stockholm, where he suspects that authorities are secretly plotting to remand him to the United States. American officials would love to bring the Internet activist to trial in a U.S. court for his role in publishing thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents over the past seven years. For now, however, he’s holed up in the Ecuadoran mission’s five-story brick building, no doubt dreaming of the freedom he’d enjoy if only he could miraculously get from Hyde Park to Ecuador.
But what does Assange’s Ecuadoran benefactor stand to gain by his seemingly impulsive action? Riordan Roett, a Latin America scholar at Johns Hopkins University, offers at least a partial answer. “Correa has managed to antagonize the U.K., Sweden, and the U.S. at the same time,” Roett tells Newsweek. “Once again he has stomped his way to center stage.” Nevertheless, Correa almost surely has bigger things in mind. Loud, loquacious, and given to chest-thumping theatrics, the 49-year-old Ecuadoran nationalist has devoted much energy and countless sound bites to transforming his often ignored South American nation into a hothouse of regional ferment. With Latin America’s elder rebel statesman Fidel Castro old and enfeebled, and his Venezuelan understudy Hugo Chávez battling cancer, Correa is widely regarded as the hemisphere’s strongman in waiting, the man most likely to become top beret in the bid for Latin America’s hearts and minds.
First, however, he must somehow shake off Ecuador’s long history of irrelevance—say, by jabbing a thumb in the eye of the West’s leaders. Small, divided, and deeply impoverished, until now this country of 15 million has borne scant resemblance to anything like an emerging power. But Correa seems dedicated to changing the narrative. The conflicts that are now playing out in Ecuador may say a good deal about the prospects for democracy’s future in a hemisphere still susceptible to the cant of strongmen and populist firebrands. After all, it was Ecuador’s five-time president, José María Velasco, who once boasted: “Give me a balcony and I’ll become the next president.”
Correa could practically be Velasco’s godson. Articulate and polyglot—he speaks Spanish, English, French, and Quechua—Correa is a trained economist who earned a master’s degree in Belgium and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A steel-plate leftist, he was named finance minister in 2005, but was forced to step down four months later after a face-off with the World Bank, which had suspended a $100 million loan to Ecuador.
Confrontation became his trademark, and ever since his 2007 inauguration he has seldom missed a chance to castigate foreign investors, local elites, and their putative protectors in the press. In a land where class resentment and ethnic divides run deep, and democratic institutions remain only weakly rooted, Correa has charmed the masses with his blend of nationalist tub thumping, gringo bashing, and asistencialismo—crowd-pleasing handouts to the meek and miserable.
Correa brawls often and ugly with Washington. He has refused to renew the U.S. lease on the military base in Manta, expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges for remarks about Ecuadoran corruption (in a cable published by WikiLeaks, as it happens), and routinely blames the Yanquis whenever there’s political unrest in the region. In a long-winded interview with Assange on the Kremlin-backed news channel Russia Today earlier this year, he approvingly quoted Bolivia’s President Evo Morales as saying, “The only country that can be sure never to have a coup d’état is the United States, because it hasn’t got a U.S. embassy.”
Nor does he spare his neighbors. In 2008 he seized assets of a Brazilian construction company and ordered its executives detained, accusing them of shoddy work on a hydroelectric plant. (He later backed down and settled with the contractor.) The same year, he lashed out at the Bogotá government—Washington’s proxy in the region, he charged—when Colombian troops raided a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla hideout on Ecuadoran soil.
But it’s in his home country where Correa has raised the public showdown to an art. In September 2010, cornered by angry demonstrators, Correa strode to the nearest window, yanked loose his tie, and pounded his chest to the protesters, shouting: “Kill me if you have the guts!” Although details of the incident, centering on a labor dispute by members of the security forces, remain murky, the mob scene allowed him to portray the protest as an attempted coup d’état, supposedly financed by the U.S. Embassy in Quito.
The story played well among Correa’s core demographic, the poor and indigenous majority. But it drew scorn from the press, including a scathing editorial in the leading Guayaquil daily, El Universo, denouncing Correa as “the dictator” and accusing him of authorizing troops to open fire on a hospital where the president was trapped for 12 hours. Correa, never very tolerant of his critics, retaliated with what can only be described as asymmetric warfare. His government ordered the arrest of the paper’s chief opinion writer, Emilio Palacio. The editorialist was swiftly found guilty of “criminal libel” and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment; his newspaper was fined $40 million.
Palacio fled the country while his case was under appeal and is now living in Miami, where he has filed for asylum, even though Correa officially pardoned him and the paper earlier this year. Now analysts speculate that Correa hopes to present himself as a champion of free speech rather than as a thin-skinned autocrat bent on crushing dissent, by offering protection to Assange, whose massive document dumps on WikiLeaks have made him the bane of the powerful in the United States and among its allies. In the view of Andrés Mejía Acosta, an Ecuadoran political scientist at the University of Sussex, “The gesture to Assange may be a way for Correa to cleanse his reputation as a persecutor of the press.”
Not that Correa is exactly anti-media. The fact is that few national leaders understand better the value of spin and sound bites. Before him, Ecuador had only one government-owned radio station. Now the state operates four radio stations, five television channels, four magazines, and three daily newspapers. Correa also regularly captures time on private media, interrupting scheduled programming to deliver presidential announcements—and not infrequently to browbeat the media itself.
But his campaign to snuff dissent goes far beyond mere diatribes. In 2008 government loyalists—known as Correaistas—drafted a new constitution, extending executive term limits and tightening central control over the media. It went into effect last year. According to Article 18, “the people” have the right to “information that is truthful, verified, timely, contextualized, [and] plural.” Which may sound good on paper, but watchdog groups have warned that the high-minded language (“truthful, verified”) has “opened the door to official restrictions on information that the government disputed,” in the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Correa appears to regard Assange as a kindred spirit in the struggle against First World imperialism. The two had a long, warm, even jocular interview this past May, conducted via Skype while Assange was under house arrest in England. Signing off, Correa saluted Assange: “Welcome to the club of the persecuted.” The Ecuadoran later hailed the Australian as an “emblem of unlimited freedom of expression.”
Praise is cheap, especially via Skype, and now both Correa and his new protégé are trapped in their respective labyrinths with no visible exit. Assange’s cachet has dimmed substantially since his early days; he has fallen out with respected newspapers that used to lap up documents from WikiLeaks, and he has been denounced by human-rights groups for endangering the lives of civilians in Afghanistan and other war zones by publishing information that could identify them as informers. And Correa, for his part, has revived old animosities in Europe and the United States with a stroke of his pen—a move that may earn him greater notoriety but little else.
Nevertheless, the Ecuadoran populist may emerge the short-term victor. By granting formal asylum, Correa has raised the ante. London could theoretically order the embassy closed and seize Assange when the diplomats have left, but such a move would be an embarrassment, to say the least. The British could stand down and allow safe passage to Quito: a world power eating crow before a global audience. Or the stalemate could drag on indefinitely with the British police surrounding the embassy, waiting for Assange to surrender or the diplomats to devise some face-saving solution. Until then, an obscure politician from the South American mountains will command a global audience—if only momentarily.