The Curious Case of Julian Assange and Ecuador

As far as balcony speeches go, Julian Assange did not quite channel the spirit of Eva Peron from the 2nd floor of his adopted home at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Instead, many commentators have noted wryly that his performance was more reminiscent of Monty Python’s ‘he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’ scene. Perhaps he could take some tips from José María Velasco, Ecuador’s former five-time President, whose messianic complex was encapsulated in his famous boast ‘Give me a balcony and I’ll become the next President.’

Image courtesy acidpolly, © 2011, some rights reserved.

For over three months now, Julian Assange has made an air mattress in the Ecuadorian Embassy in Kensington his domicile fixe. As with everything in international politics, the world is not black and white: simply 50 shades of grey. Assange’s freedom of movement is completely restricted by the European Arrest Warrant that would be enforced should he ever step outside the relative safe haven of the Embassy. His legal challenges have been exhausted in the English judicial system, his only salvation to avoid extradition from his legal and political labyrinth is to dive down the rabbit hole and hope he pops out into the arms of the mad hatter (or President Correa of Ecuador in this elongated metaphor).

But why Ecuador? It is almost as if Julian Assange, whilst under house arrest, threw a dart at a world map and rang up the president of the first country that it hit. One wonders whether Assange and Correa are natural bedfellows with regards to freedom of expression. With allegations of a ‘climate of verbal violence emanating from the highest echelons of power’ fizzing around the Ecuadorian journalist corps, and a controversial record of suing unfriendly journalists, Correa is not exactly the poster boy for freedom of the press. In an interview conducted by The Guardian, Correa remarked that ‘the press in Ecuador are corrupt….it is not like the press in America or in Britain; they don’t have any professional ethics.’ I wonder if Lord Leveson would agree.

So why would a peripheral Andean democracy implicate itself in such an affair? Ecuador, like most self-respecting Latin American nations, rails against their North American neighbours as imperialists (and with a history of malign political interference in the region, they are not entirely wrong). President Correa, who came to office in 2007, is a left-wing politician with a reputation as a charismatic campaigner whose policy of ‘asistencialismo’ (state welfare handouts) has proved wildly popular with the downtrodden and destitute stratas of Ecuadorian society. He is a polyglot holder of a PhD in Economics from a US university and seems increasingly determined to push Ecuador up the international relations agenda and cement his position in the triumvirate of prominent Socialist leaders in Latin America: Chavez, Castro and Correa. While the first is battling cancer, and the second’s dynasty is ailing in a post-Cold War world, could it be up to the third to carry the torch of leftist anti- imperialism in Latin America?

Whatever Correa’s motivation, he has certainly succeeded in antagonising Britain, Sweden and the United States in one PR coup that will reverberate around the continent. Britain’s clumsy ‘threat’ to storm the Embassy further bolstered Correa’s anti-imperialist credentials.

The essence of the problem with the Julian Assange case is this: it has diluted, denigrated and distracted from the purported aim of Wikileaks itself. If Wikileaks was merely to pry into the peccadilloes of the powerful, and hence heighten the standard of public discourse and debate through the publication of diplomatic cables, one might have less of a sense of unease.

So convinced was Assange in his anti-US worldview that Wikileaks ceased to be a straight exercise in freedom of expression and instead quickly morphed into an anti-US crusade with Assange as its high priest. These ideological overtones have had a detrimental affect on the Wikileaks brand.

Wikileaks hit a deadly sweet spot by combining the nascent digital world, in which information can be transmitted instantaneously across borders and is accessible to all, with the still rarefied atmosphere in which diplomacy is conducted. Gone is the era in which nations were dissected up with a pencil and a ruler over a stiff G&T by diplomats who then retired for lunch. But their cables remain, and according to Assange and to some extent, President Correa, the attitude of arrogance does too. One can take it as axiomatic that privacy and diplomacy share more than their last three letters. As the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens wrote on diplomacy: ‘one of civilisation’s oldest and best ideas is that all countries establish sovereign enclaves in each other’s capitals and invest these precious enclaves of peaceful resolution with special sorts of immunity.’ These ‘precious enclaves of peaceful resolution’ can only work if afforded some sort of mutually protective status, both physical and privileged to operate with discretion.

Indeed, irony draped on irony, President Correa was initially critical of Wikileaks as Ecuador expelled the US Ambassador after a Wikileaks cable showed President Correa was aware of corruption in the police force and was refusing to act.

Assange has poisoned the work of Wikileaks through his megalomaniacal personal comportment and the allegations against him which are far too serious for him not to be questioned by the Swedish police. Justice is being delayed and therefore denied to two women in Sweden. Meanwhile, whilst Assange settles down on his air mattress every night in Kensington, the thought of burrowing out and reaching a deckchair on a beach in Ecuador being served cocktails by the Mad Hatter himself must be enough to haunt his every dream.