Ecuador: Press Freedom Safe Haven?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 25, 2013

 

The announcement made by the government of Ecuador that it was considering an asylum request by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked critical information on the U.S. government’s secret surveillance program, has put the Rafael Correa administration in the center of a heated debate about government’s secrecy, freedom of the press, whistleblowing and anti-terrorist policies.  Although the Correa administration is trying to present itself as a beacon of press freedom, its track record on press freedom is far more controversial.

 

President Rafael Correa has had a complex relationship with the U.S. Despite having completed a Ph.D. In Economics at the University of Illinois, Correa does not conform to the classic market-friendly ideological bias common to many U.S.-trained Latin American economists. In his dissertation, Correa strongly criticized the Washington Consensus and defended a strong role for the state, both as a regulator and as an engine of economic development.  After a short-stint as Minister of Finance, Correa was elected president in 2006, on a platform of deep political, economic and social transformations.  At the time, Ecuador was undergoing a period of prolonged economic crisis and political instability. Since 1966, no Ecuadorian president had completed a term.  After the overthrow of a market-friendly moderate president who adopted the U.S. dollar as the national currency in 2000, many Ecuadorians began looking at leftwing anti-capitalist experiences being tried elsewhere in Latin America. 

 

With a mix of pragmatism, common-sense and heavy-handed anti-American rhetoric, Correa came to power in early 2007 and immediately called for a constitutional convention. In late 2008, he was elected president under the new custom-made constitution. He was re-elected for a second term in 2012. Correa has been the longest lasting democratically-elected president in the nation’s history. Under his watch, Ecuador has benefited from an export boom, the government has embarked on an aggressive infrastructure development strategy, social spending has increased dramatically and poverty has fallen. Critics argue that Correa has concentrated power in his own hands, further weakening already fragile institutions. Correa has also been censured by international human rights and press advocacy organizations. The government claims that several media outlets and national television networks were using press freedom to advance their business interests. However, rather than establishing a firewall between business interests and media outlets, the government has prosecuted opposition media outlets.

 

President Correa has also been actively engaged in foreign affairs. After taking office, Correa had an American military base closed in Ecuador. Using a common populist strategy, Correa has clashed with the U.S. by polarizing normal disputes into a “them against us” strategy.  After the closing of the Manta military base, relations with the U.S. have remained distant.  

 

Many of Correa’s critics link the Ecuadorian president to Hugo Chávez, the late leftwing president of Venezuela.  Though there are obvious similarities between Correa, Chávez and other leftwing leaders in Latin America—in that they oppose market-friendly policies, are anti-American and are eager to strengthen relations with China and other countries that challenge the former hegemonic power of the United States—it would be a mistake to think they are all the same.  Unlike Chávez, Correa has no military background. Chávez was charismatic. Correa is both charismatic and intellectual. Unlike Bolivian president Evo Morales, Correa did not build a political party nor does he have humble origins.  Though he sees them as partners in freeing Latin American from the capitalist yoke and from U.S. domination, Correa probably thinks more highly of himself than he does about other leftwing leaders in Latin America.  Not surprisingly, Correa has jumped at every opportunity to become a relevant player in world debates.

 

When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was facing extradition to the United States, the Correa government gave him protection in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and granted him political asylum a few days later. Since the British authorities have not allowed him safe passage out of London, Assange has been a guest of the Ecuadorian Embassy since June 19, 2012.  Given the high notoriety that it received with the Assange case, it is no surprise that the Ecuadorian government quickly jumped into the opportunity when lawyers and friends of Snowden began looking for countries that could give the whistleblower protection. As the U.S. government is stepping up pressure to have Snowden repatriated to the U.S., few countries are willing to enter into a diplomatic feud with Washington. President Correa has seized the opportunity to position himself as a beacon of press freedom and as a defender of whistleblowers who denounce unwarranted government interference with the privacy of individuals. So far, the gamble seems to be paying off. Many people are sympathetic to Snowden and are grateful that he leaked information that has put the focus back on protecting the privacy of American citizens. However, as President Correa’s legacy on freedom of the press issues will be likely more closely scrutinized, many will also think that Ecuador itself would benefit from having whistleblowers that denounce bad practices in freedom of the press that have occurred under the Correa administration.