If Ecuador grants asylum to Edward Snowden, no doubt we’ll hear Rafael Correa being described once more as a ‘tinpot president’, ready to welcome dissidents to Ecuador’s ‘jungly bosom’. If instead Snowden ends up in Venezuela or Cuba, his would-be jailers will move even further onto their moral high ground.
Yet all these countries have understandable motives for supporting people, like Snowden and Julian Assange, who cast light on the undercover activities of the United States’ intelligence services, given the history of covert US interference in Latin America. Why should Cuba collaborate when it is still being penetrated by US agents? Why should Venezuela hand Snowden over, when the US refuses to respond to its arrest warrant for Luis Posada, who walks free in Miami despite his alleged role in blowing up a Cuban airliner? Nicolas Maduro, narrowly elected in April after the death of Hugo Chávez, is still waiting for the US to recognise his presidency, even after a recent audit of the ballot confirming the result.
During Correa’s first election campaign in 2006, the US funded ‘pro-democracy’ groups that failed to stop him winning. In 2008, Colombian troops crossed into Ecuador in pursuit of FARC guerrillas: the US backed Colombia. In 2009, the agreement allowing the US to maintain a military base at Manta in Ecuador expired: Correa said he wouldn’t renew it unless Ecuador could have a base in Miami. In September 2010, Correa survived an attempted coup by elements of the army and police with strong connections to the US. Some had been trained at the School of the Americas, which Ecuador withdrew from last year. Ecuador, unlike Bolivia, hasn’t yet expelled USAID, but Correa has warned it against fuelling opposition to his government and has a drawn up a new set of rules for it to follow if it wants to stay. And yesterday Ecuador said it would be withdrawing from the Andean Trade Preference Act.
Still, Correa has a more diplomatic attitude towards the US than his regional partners. He charmed Hillary Clinton when she visited Ecuador as secretary of state in 2010, and has expressed his ‘personal respect for President Obama and for the positive changes he seeks to introduce’. But he also warns that ‘strong interests and powerful groups are responsible for much of US foreign policy’ and says they have been ‘historically antagonistic’ to progressive change. Ecuador has long been exploited by the US banana companies and is in dispute with Chevron over an oil spill affecting 1700 square miles of the Amazon.
It would be surprising if Correa, like other left-wing leaders in Latin America, were not keen to strengthen his claim to fill the regional leadership vacuum created by Chávez’s death. Protecting Assange and now perhaps Snowden won’t hurt his case. But that isn’t his only motive.