If he manages to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, a world of inviting dance clubs and sympathetic political leaders awaits.
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Now that Ecuador has granted Julian Assange political asylum, the speculation has shifted to just how the WikiLeaks founder could bust out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he’s been holed up for two months, and travel to the Andean nation. It won’t be easy. The United Kingdom has not relented in its commitment to extradite Assange to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, even floating the idea of revoking the Ecuadorean embassy’s diplomatic status so that British police can enter the mission and detain Assange.
But if Assange somehow finds a way out of London and gets himself to Ecuador, how might he like his new home?
We know he already has friends in high places; Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, after all, tweeted “no one is going to terrorize us!” on the eve of the Assange announcement on Thursday, and former Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas eagerly offered Assange Ecuadorean residency back in 2010. Public opinion, however, may be more divided. Online polls run by Ecuadorean newspapers suggest support for Assange’s relocation to Ecuador (sample sizes are admittedly small), but critics such as Colombian international law professor Carlos Estarellas have questioned the wisdom of the government’s decision. An editorial today in the daily Hoy wonders whether it will be possible to “reconcile respect for the institution of political asylum with good relations with Great Britain and Sweden.”
Whether or not he’s welcomed in Quito with open arms, Julian Assange may be charmed by Ecuador. Here are a few reasons why.
There’s debate about whether WikiLeaks specifically targeted the United States in releasing secret documents and diplomatic cables, but Assange certainly doesn’t have warm feelings toward U.S. officials — especially given the detention of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning and Assange’s own fears about Sweden handing him over to U.S. authorities. “I have been attacked by the U.S., from the vice president down, as a high-tech terrorist,” he declared in June.
Assange will find a sympathetic ear in Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, a U.S.-trained economist who has established alliances and trade relationships with American opponents such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, cancelled plans for a trade deal with the United States, prohibited the U.S. military from using an air base on Ecuador’s Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights, and kicked two U.S. diplomats out of the country in a row over an aid program. During an appearance (or should we say love fest?) on Assange’s talk show in May, Correa, who was initially critical of WikiLeaks and who expelled the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador after the release of a cable suggesting that Correa had appointed a corrupt police chief, praised the organization. “The WikiLeaks have made us stronger,” he noted, “as the main accusations made by the [U.S.] embassy were due to our excessive nationalism and defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean government.”
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Correa has allied himself with other left-wing Latin American leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the Castro brothers in Cuba, all of whom have issued defenses of WikiLeaks as well. Morales claimed that the cables exposed the “empire’s” efforts to interfere with Latin America’s economies, policies, and identities through “espionage,” while Chavez lauded WikiLeaks’ “bravery and courage” and demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resign over revelations of a U.S. strategy to isolate Venezuela. At a forum of leftist Latin American leaders in Sao Paulo in July, a joint resolution expressed support for “the universal right to free information” and “the protection offered by Ecuador to Julian Assange.”
Perhaps no one, however, was as effusive as Fidel Castro, who called the leaked diplomatic cables a “colossal scandal” for the United States and admiringly dubbed WikiLeaks the “Deep Throat of the Internet” (of course, he also argued that WikiLeaks demonstrated that Osama bin Laden was a U.S. spy).
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Many commentators have noted the incongruity of Assange, a champion of free expression (WikiLeaks expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay ‘all the mysteries and secrets of government’ before the public,” he writes), hitting it off with Correa — who has repeatedly butted heads with Ecuador’s private news outlets, in the process winning major libel lawsuits against the newspaper El Universo and two journalists and shutting down radio and television stations. Ecuador has one of the worst press freedom records in Latin America, according to Freedom House, and Correa has referred to journalists as “assassins with ink.”
Assange did ask Correa about free expression during his talk show interview, but he largely let Correa’s contention that economic elites control the media and harass the government go unchallenged. Perhaps that’s due to Assange’s own relationship with some of WikiLeaks’ major media partners souring in recent years; his partnership with the New York Times crumbled in part because of a front-page profile that the WikiLeaks founder dismissed as a “smear piece.” When Correa, at the end of his interview, signed off with, “Welcome to the club of the persecuted,” Assange chuckled and nodded knowingly. Perhaps he’ll find the Ecuadorean press less “hostile.”
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A Wide-Open Internet Market
As an accomplished hacker and Internet denizen, Assange may be interested to learn that only 20 percent of Ecuadoreans have Internet access, with web users primarily concentrated in large cities. As the New York Times noted back in 2003:
Internet entrepreneurs flourish in Ecuador’s largest cities, but many are educated businessmen with ties to the United States. Thousands of households in Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil (the largest city) have Internet access, but few rural communities have telephone lines.
The discrepancies make experts pessimistic. They worry that the rapid pace of change in the technology industry will cause third-world nations like Ecuador to slip further behind Europe and North America.
Might Assange launch an improbable second career as an Internet consultant or a pitchman for Ecuadorean broadband?
Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, the New York Times included a strange blurb in its report on Assange’s asylum case: friends have encouraged the WikiLeaks founder to play music and dance for physical activity as he huddles in the Ecuadorean embassy. In fact, the anecdote isn’t all that surprising. In April 2011, after all, a video surfaced on YouTube that allegedly showed Assange at a night club in Reykjavik, Iceland, showing off his incredibly awkward dance moves (a former colleague once recalled that “Julian took up a lot of space when he danced — almost like a tribesman performing some ritual”).
As the Guardian‘s Ben Westwood recently pointed out in a travel guide for Assange, Ecuador offers excellent dancing — from salsa to reggaeton — in Quito’s Mariscal district and in the coastal cities of Guayaquil and Montañita. Whatever venue Assange chooses, it’s sure to have more space for dancing than his current digs in London.
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