An indigenous ecuadorian Provides Safe haven to a whistle blower.Photo by M. Arevalo

Edward Snowden and the Ecuador Context

How the small Andean nation of Ecuador ended up in the middle of the Edward Snowden affair. 

by @EcuaMatt

As a resident of Ecuador and occassional political advisor here I have watched the story of Edward Snowden’s assylum request penetrate the country’s media cycle with interest, bemusement and some dismay.

What started over a year ago as a friendly conversation between Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and the world’s most famous hacker Julian Assange has evolved into a brouhaha the country didn’t want but is now willing to fight with relish.

It’s sort of like a a movie where the main character tries to go clean and then gets pulled into a fight by his best friend and in the process re-discovers all of his favorite old habbits. The character finds meaning and purpose in the exchange, even if he knows it’s doing him irreversible harm.

What follows then is my interpretation of the context within which Ecuador comes to this story. For those merely interested in what’s likely to happen next I suggest scrolling down to the section which carries that name. For the rest I submit to you a recent history of Ecuador focused on the current domestic political climate and specifically of the man who holds Edward Snowden’s future in his hands.

The Rise of Rafael Correa

Gone are the good old days when Ecuador used to make international headlines only when overthrowing presidents.

Until Rafael Correa came to power in 2007 popular protests had led to the overthrow of 3 democratically elected presidents in a row, leading to 9 presidents in 10 years. Forget about the arab spring: Ecuador had a 10 year andean winter.

There are lots of different reasons for Ecuador’s long-term instability, including a massive banking crisis, the collapse of the nation’s currency, corruption that would make a Russian oligrach wince, failed coalitions, a President who was literally declared crazy and unfit for office; I could go on; suffice to say that in Ecuador truth is far stranger than fiction.

Underlying all of the aforementioned is the one issue that has always plagued Ecuador from its inception as a republic after breaking away from Simon Bolívar’s Gran Colombia, and that its number of veto players.

With power never fully consolidated and institutions perpetually weak, any group with enough organizational clout to shut down the few entrances to the plateau upon which sits the capital Quito can basically bring the central government to its knees and prevent any reform that threatens its interests.

And in a country where everyone wants change so long as it doesn’t negatively impact them, the chance to prevent reform is often too good to pass up.

And so throughout the dark years it wasn’t uncommon to hear people say, “what Ecuador needs is a strongman to put things in order.”

Eventually that’s what they got.

Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado first took office on January 15th 2007. Under the slogan ‘give ‘em the belt’ (Correa means belt in Spanish). The U.S. and European educated PhD economist promised to root out corruption, turn around the country’s economy and spend more of the country’s oil wealth on health and education as opposed to dedicating it entirely to servicing the country’s foreign debt, a stipulation of a prior agreement with the IMF.

The fast-talking, ass-kicking, name-taking handsome devil technocrat quickly achieved what had eluded his predecessors in building a broad-based coalition entirely under the auspicises of his newly formed party.

As only the second President in twenty years to enjoy a majority in congress, Correa used his unprecedented power to re-write the constitution and undertake far reaching reforms to almost every sector of Ecuador’s state aparatus.

When Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be”, he found a firm believer and practitioner in Rafael Correa, who in his short political career has mastered the art of political imagery.

Despite his status as a middle-class costeño and former professor at the country’s most posh university, Correa is fluent in the highland’s largest indigenous language Quichua and often begins his speechs with it. Shunning ties, Correa has surprised many by pioneering a new fashion movement which often includes shirts with indigenous-inspired designs and patterns.

Every Saturday without fail Correa hosts a radio show where he outlines the previous week’s agenda and speaks in detail about his plans.

Acting as a sort of one-man radio talk show that often slides into a lecture on macro-economics, Correa speaks like a common person often frustrated with the pendejadas of every day life, the only difference being he has the ability to do something about it.

In addition, the official publicity his team have put together are begrudgingly admired even by his most virulent political opponents, though critics argue he uses state resources to finance a never ending political campaign.

Celebrating Ecuador’s natural beauty and human diversity, Rafael Correa has single-handedly pushed the country towards a more pluralistic and inclusive vision of itself, much to the appreciation of those marginalized from the country’s prior official self-conceptions.

To the 70% of Ecuadorians who have consistently rated his government positively in polls over the past 6 years, Rafael Correa is the country’s saviour.

His mandate having coincided with a prolonged spike in oil prices, Correa has come through on his pledge to re-invest the country’s oil wealth in its people.

With massive investments in the country’s crumbling infrastructure, including 9000 kilometers of highway, hospitals, schools, and renewable energy, the country has certainly felt the benefits of the state’s generous re-distribution schemes. Government services have become far more efficient, though some gains in speed have been cancelled out by an increase in regulation.

In the past 10 years the country’s middle-class has grown from 10% of the population to 35%, and though opponents point to the lack of sustainability of Correa’s oil-fueled boom, supporters shrug and prefer to let the good times roll.

For his efforts the country has rewarded Rafael Correa with a 3rd consecutive majority mandate. Though he has the congressional majority to change the constitution and run again, Correa has promised to leave after four years, with many rumours abounding that he will retire to Belgium, his wife’s homeland.

Correa’s rule is not without its critics and their complaints are not without merit. Some object to his beligerent personality and find his penchant for insulting opponents, including his tirades against the country’s rich, to be less than presidencial.

Others note that during the Correa regime the legislative branch has simply become a rubber-stamp extension of the executive with no real independence or authority.

The country’s judiciary continues to appear ineffective, inefficiencent and lacking in independence, and the education system has become highly centralized and slightly ideological.

NGOs have complained that the government has put in place new obstacles to prevent their work, while foreign direct investment has all but disappeared. Those that do invest in Ecuador are often Chinese companies that bring with them dubious records on quality, human rights and their committment to the environment.

A number of the President’s opponents have landed in jail on trumped up ‘terrorism’ charges, and Correa has had no problem asking the police to investigate trolls on Twitter or even people who flip the bird to his presidential cavalcade.

All of his critics would agree that, under Correa, exercising protagonism in society appears to be increasingly limited to the public sector.

And to top it all off, all of us groan about no longer being able to buy beer on Sunday.

The benefit of stability, critics argue, has come about only as a biproduct of the President’s larger-than-life personality. With institutions not gaining in strength and independence during his government, Ecuador may easily fall back into old habits once he leaves.

His supports would respond that without his mano dura the forces of instability and disruption would have free reign to hold back Ecuador’s progress and point to the previous 10 years as evidence. Correa’s numerous electoral victories, his defenders contend, demonstrate that the people are behind all facets of his citizens’ revolution.

Correa and The Press

Of all of his critics none has stoked Correa’s ire more than private media, a battle that reached its inflection point last week with the country’s passing of a new communications law.

Correa sees media outlets as a bastion of old-school corruption, blaming their criticism of him as a product of his unwillingness to give in to their demands for patronage.

He also sees the media as an extension of specific business interests who have a stake in undermining his authority. One of his first acts as President was to pass a law that banned financial groups from also holding shares in media companies.

The media, for its part, see Correa as an authoritarian leader unable to withstand criticism and an enemy of freedom of speech. They point to lawsuits he brought against both the country’s largest newspaper, El Universo, and the authors of a book called “Big Brother” as evidence.

The former’s crime was to refer to the President as a dictator, whereas the later accused the President of having prior knowledge of his brother’s illegal financial dealings with the state, a story that ended with the President denouncing his brother and a very public falling-out between the two.

Correa sued both the newspaper and the authors for libel and won. For his emotional damage the President was rewarded millions in compensation. Before cashing the checks Correa very publicly forgave both defendants, citing his obligation as a Christian to forgive. Though the cases themselves might haven proven to have some legal merit had their allegations proven untrue, the handling of the case along with the amount rewarded called into question the independence of the judiciary and almost shut down El Universo.

Correa’s final victory over the press came last week when the new congress passed a bill written by the old congress meant to regulate the press.

Dividing frequencies and spectrums 33%,33%,33%, between the private sector, community media (mostly aligned with the government) and state broadcasters (that mostly lack independence),critics argue the government has simply stacked the deck in its own favour.

In addition, the law also makes it a crime to carry out ‘political lynchings’ and creates a new state regulatory body tasked with keeping the press in line, both of which send shivers down the spine of those who fear the ensuing self-censorship required to adhere to the ambiguous legal regime.

Despite its legitimate complaints about restrictions on free speech the press is not an entirely innocent victim in this battle.

The President is not wrong when he claims that the media companies are dead-set against him, and the Twitter feeds of some of the country’s leading journalists are often cynical diatribes meant to re-inforce the the walls of an echo chamber.

In the face of a disjointed, washed-up and ineffectual official opposition, the press has taken on the role of holding the government accountable though often with a “ready,shoot,aim” attitude. Their exaggerated claims of dictatorship and prosecution simply serve to undermine their other legitimate complaints.

One thing is for sure: given the self-censoring implications of Ecuador’s most recent communications law, Correa’s relationship with Julian Assange does make them a somewhat odd couple.

Correa, Assange, and Snowden

When he first learned of Julian Assange and Wikileaks Rafael Correa denounced their actions as illegal. Then, months later, Assange and Correa met in person when Assange interviewed the President as part of his work for a Russian television network. Correa and Assange bonded over their mutual distaste for U.S. hegemony, and rumour has it that it was at this point Correa offered Assange assylum should he need it.

Despite foreign journalists’ penchant for wondering if Correa will replace Hugo Chavez as Latin America’s leading fire-breathing leftist, Correa has rarely demonstrated ambition on the global stage.

Aside from his Yasuní brainchild, an initiative to keep one of the country’s largest Amazon-based oil fields underground in exchange for global compensation, Correa has preferred to keep a low-profile in international affairs. Indeed, the international attention his lawsuit against journalists caused probably helped lead to the decision to announce the pardon.

It likely came as a surprise then when the United Kindgom’s refusal to grant Assange safe passage to Heathrow brought Correa back on to front pages.

As a President who often speaks of the country’s sovereignty the way a talk-show guest might yell at the audience, Don’t ya’ll tell me how to raise my kids, finding himself knocking heads with a former empire was enough to cause Correa’s palms to sweat and for his massive chest to active heavy-breathing mode.

Soon Ecuador’s diplomatic and economic relationships with the U.K. were at risk, though the standoff has since died down and both countries continue to talk towards a solution, though neither side appears willing to budge on its primary demands.

With the status-quo well enshrined Edward Snowden appeared on the scene and initially at least his disclosure was not much noted within Ecuador’s press or even social network activity.

It appears at this point that Julian Assange stepped in and inadvertently brought Ecuador to the center of the international espionage case.

After Snowden’s initial misstep of heading to Hong Kong (Iceland would have been a better destination for a number of reasons), he then appears to have made contact with the Wikileaks founder who suggested they be roomies in Quito, even going so far as to finance his journey.

Though Assange claims that Ecuador provided Snowden with a document requesting his safe passage to Quito, the government denies the existence of said document and has appeared slightly irritated with Assange’s interventions.

Indeed, noting that it took months to process Assange’s assylum request, the Ecuadorian government claims to be continuing to examine the merit of Snowden’s petition. Meanwhile Snowden is thought to be somewhere in Moscow Terminal D, living off of vending machine peanuts and meal vouchers.

Nothing works better to get the Ecuadorian government angry than a perceived dressing down from the continental bully, and so it took only two insigificant American Senators to threaten economic repurcussions against Ecuador if it accepts Snowden for the government’s to respond.

Whilst the Snowden case has unravelled Ecuador had been negotiating to renew its preferential tariffs for exports to the U.S. under an agreement that sees Ecuador cooperate on drug policing.

Approximately 25% of non-oil exports to the U.S. are made possible through these preferential tariffs.

Though the agreement was unlikely to be renewed anyway Ecuador unilaterally pulled out once the threat was made, leaving thousands of farmers large and small at risk. The President’s press secretary even offered $23 million in financial aid to the U.S. to undergo human rights training, a statement that might work well in comedy circuits but not diplomatic circles.

Knowing a renewal was unlikely the government was still trying to access a different set of preferential tariffs for more or less the same products, and it’s unknown at this point whether or not the political rhetoric will impede those discussions as well.

Despite the government offering to compensate the affected farmers, many are understandably sceptical and disappointed. Just as García Márquez famously depicted in his novela No-one Writes to the Coronel, some checks written in moments of national exuberation never end up getting cashed.

As a result of the government’s handling of the Snowden case thousands of jobs are at risk. Such a fact doesn’t bother the fuera gringo campaigners who believe the ends justifies the means, but then again they’re not likely to feel the pinch.

It’s important here to point out that the problem is not Snowden or his noble cause. The fallout is entirely the product of the ensuing rhetoric between the two governments.

The U.S. Senate has long since lost any pretence of being the center of enlightenment it was designed to be, and as such the reaction of two Senators should be no surprise.

Conversely, as the past seven years have demonstrated to Ecuador watchers everywhere, it’s highly likely that Rafael Correa is afraid of heights because his preference is always to avoid the high the road.

The combination is the international relations equivalent of mixing mentos and diet coke.We all know what the outcome will be, even if we’ve not seen the video before.

The missing context for many watching events unfold is that few in Ecuador, including the President’s opponents, are sympathetic to the U.S.’s extradition request.

In 1999 Ecuador experienced a massive banking crisis that led to most of the country’s banks closing and eventually provoked the adoption of the U.S. dollar as the country’s official currency.

Prior to many of the banks closing shop their losses were socialized. In the ensuing currency swap many Ecuadorians lost their entire life savings while the owners of said banks skipped town and took with them millions of dollars.

No-one symbolizes this perceived highway robbery more than the Isaías Brothers who have lived comfortably in Miami since they lost control of Filanbanco. The Ecuadorian government has tried for years to have the family extradited to face corruption and embezzlement charges to no avail.

As a result, many Ecuadorians have suggested Ecuador do a clean swap, Snowden for Isaías, though such a scenario has already been ruled out by both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

What’s Next?

Edward Snowden will likely be granted asylum in Ecuador.

After all, his case is far more straight-forward than that of Assange.

Assange is wanted in Sweeden for sexual misconduct and was granted asylum on the basis that he might then be extradited to the States to face other charges.

Snowden, on the other hand, has very real charges and extradition requests from the U.S. government against him. Given that Ecuador’s extradition treaty with the U.S. exempts crimes ‘of a political nature,’ it’s likely that Ecuador will cite this fact in order to avoid sending Snowden back to the U.S., assuming the whistleblower successfully makes the journey across sea and mountains.

Both Snowden and Assange though have to deal with the reality that their long-term security in Ecuador is only as guaranteed as the government’s friendliness towards them.

With Correa pledging to leave office in 2017 and no clear successor on the horizon, it’s not improbable that a pro-business pro-U.S. candidate win a future election and send them packing accordingly. Whilst few see the dominance of Correa’s Alianza Pais coming to an end any time soon, all admit that it would be difficult for a successor to match Correa’s charisma, stamina, and far-reaching appeal.

In the meantime the hypocrisy amplifier has been turned up to 11 with recent revelations demonstrating the Ecuadorian government’s attempts to purchase equipment similar to that used in PRISM to practice surveillance on its citizens.

Such news comes in the form of meth to the President’s opponents, many of whom have long argued the government monitors social media looking to identify dissenters. Like any synthetic drug it either can be interpreted as intensifying reality or provoking baseless hallucinations.

What is for sure though is that Snowden’s arrival in Ecuador will make for some strange bed-fellows. As I mentioned in a blog post earlier this week, some in the media will detest Snowden despite his actions being aligned with their interests; whereas some in the government will celebrate him, despite his actions not at all being aligned with their interests.

In the end, however, just as in the prolonged failure that is the war on drugs, the long term fallout of the international posturing will continue to be disproportionally placed on the lowly andean peasant.

Wanting nothing more than to plant his seeds, sell his goods, and make some money to send his kids to school, he wouldn’t be wrong to observe the planes flying at 30,000 feet overhead and wonder why their cargo threatens his existence. The real problem, he might not realize, are actually the streams of hot air trailing slightly behind.