Populist regimes in Latin America have long followed a “bread and circus” formula for governing — plenty of state spending and plenty of political drama. Ecuador’s willingness to consider an asylum petition by Edward Snowden, the U.S.’s most wanted man, fits the script.
The U.S. government has charged Snowden, who’s currently holed up in Russia, with espionage for his role in leaking classified information about a surveillance program that delved into telephone records, e-mails and Internet use. For a leftist regime bent on thumbing its nose at the U.S., this makes Snowden a rock star of sorts.
At a press briefing yesterday meant to confirm receipt of Snowden’s asylum petition, Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s minster of foreign affairs, took pains to describe Snowden as a hero persecuted by elites who “should give explanations to the government and citizens of the world.” Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper shared the same assessment yesterday in an editorial that claimed Snowden “does not belong to the category of traitors” but to those who fight for liberty.
In defending Snowden, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, could claim to support the free flow of information. Indeed, this would not be the first time Correa’s Ecuador has exploited global scandals to burnish its image abroad. June 19 marked one year since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to prevent his extradition to Sweden to face sex-abuse charges. On June 20, Patino celebrated the milestone on his Twitter account, vowing to continue “this fight for freedom.” His ministry also released an eight-minute propaganda video to mark the occasion, titled “Assange Affair: The truth knows no borders, and neither does our fight.”
With Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez dead and Cuba’s Fidel Castro out of the limelight, the region’s radical left lacks a voice. Correa showed his strength by coasting through re-election with 57 percent of the vote in February. Picking another fight with the U.S. can help him highlight his leftist credentials.
Indeed, Ecuador can defy Washington in large part because the U.S. is not central to its economic development. In 2010, China became the country’s biggest lender, according to Standard & Poor’s. China is also a leading trade partner and investor, which has helped Correa spend heavily on infrastructure. Ecuador’s gross domestic product rose 5 percent in 2012, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, far less than its 7.4 percent growth in 2011, but still above the 3 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Yet despite high growth, the economy has changed little under Correa. Foreign direct investment is low, at an average of 0.7 percent of GDP over the last seven years, according to Moody’s Investor Service. About half of the country’s exports are related to oil, and S&P reckons the central bank’s fluctuating usable reserves last year barely covered 1.1 months of current account payments, down from 2.8 months in 2009. Such weakness can mean trouble for Ecuador if China’s economy slows more than expected this year. And if that happens, Ecuador might be sorry it further spoiled its relationship with the U.S.
Still, perhaps the most immediate criticism of Ecuador’s support for Snowden is its hypocrisy. Correa’s administration is in the process of rolling out a controversial new media law that restricts press freedoms. The law’s article 47, for instance, creates a Council of Content Regulation with the power to sanction press outlets that fail to report issues the state considers news. Ecuador’s El Comercio newspaper warned the law was a “coup against liberty.”
Alberto Acosta, a former Ecuadorian minister of energy and mining, summed up the irony in a tweet: “My support for Snowden and Assange … what they did would be penalized in Ecuador by the new media law.”
Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog.