It’s Not About Assange

Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks wanted in Sweden for questioning over claims of rape and sexual molestation, has put the country in a political standoff with Britain, where he is holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy.

But the confusion in London has, in fact, little if anything to do with Ecuadorean-British relations and everything to do with regional and local politics in the Western Hemisphere. And it has little to do with protecting Mr. Assange’s right to a fair trial or freedom of the press — which Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has trampled upon at home.

Instead, it is an attempt by Mr. Correa to settle old scores with the United States, display his political prowess in the run-up to Ecuadorean presidential elections next year and make a power play for a leadership role on the Latin American left.

Despite its avowed leftist leanings, the Ecuadorean government maintained relatively cordial relations with the United States during the early years of the Correa administration, which many attributed to Mr. Correa, who took office in early 2007, having obtained a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was warmly received while on an official visit in June 2010, during which Mr. Correa reportedly described his American experience as the “happiest four years of my life.”

That relationship soured in early April 2011, when the Ecuadorean government expelled the American ambassador, Heather M. Hodges, angered by comments she had made in confidential cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, in which she accused Mr. Correa of appointing a corrupt police chief in order to have someone in the post “whom he could easily manipulate.”

The topic of the cable was particularly sensitive given the timing: Mr. Correa had just survived the greatest challenge to his presidency — and an attempt on his life — in the form of a police mutiny following the passage of legislation designed to standardize pay for public employees, which would have curtailed pay and benefits for the police force.

The United States retaliated by declaring the Ecuadorean ambassador in Washington persona non grata. In an interview conducted with Mr. Assange in June 2012, Mr. Correa also expressed his anger at the “imperialist attitude” of Ms. Hodges, who refused to either apologize or retract her comments.

While the two countries have new ambassadors in place, the wound remains raw. The opportunity to settle a grudge with the United States by refusing to deliver Julian Assange to authorities in either Sweden or the United States, where he could be charged with leaking classified documents, was simply too good to miss.

In asserting Ecuadorean sovereignty and defying the United States, President Correa is also vying for hemispheric leadership. The declining health of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, who has been battling cancer for over a year now, has created a potential opening in Latin America for someone else to move in as the standard-bearer of leftist, populist and nationalist opposition to the United States.

Indeed, a growing number of countries in Central and South America and beyond, including Colombia and Uruguay, appear willing to risk antagonizing the United States by advocating alternative solutions to drug-related violence, including legalizing drugs. Until now Mr. Correa has been a marginal voice in these debates, and hovering in Mr. Chávez’s shadow in general. Thus his decision to thumb his nose at Washington by granting asylum to Mr. Assange enables Ecuador to seize the political limelight.

It helps, too, that this is a low-risk venture for Mr. Correa at home, with the possibility of significant political returns. Elected president twice, initially in 2006 and again following the passage of constitutional reforms in 2009, he is already the longest-serving president since Ecuador’s return to democracy in 1997. Given that he has a 57 percent approval rating and a deeply fragmented political opposition, Mr. Correa’s chances for re-election in February 2013 are strong.

Mr. Correa’s trademark populist and confrontational style, displayed in his refusal to stand down in the face of a mutiny, serves to shore up his standing in a country with a long tradition of authoritarian politics. Granting Mr. Assange asylum provides a politically timely reminder of Mr. Correa’s leadership style at home — and his potential for regional leadership beyond Ecuador’s borders.

Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College and the author of The Politics of Military Rule and Transition in Ecuador.

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