For Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno, Evicting Julian Assange Is Only the Beginning
The Ecuadorian president is seeking to broadly reverse Rafael Correa’s legacy.
After almost seven years of diplomatic protection, Julian Assange’s diminishing good will with Ecuador ran out. On April 11, Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been given asylum in 2012 by then-President Rafael Correa to avoid international criticism that his government was restricting freedom of expression. By protecting Assange, Correa also became an icon of the global political left.
Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno—Correa’s former vice president, protégé, and hand-picked successor—not only expelled Assange from the embassy but also stripped him of the Ecuadorian citizenship granted by the government in 2017. Leftists around the world saw Moreno’s action as the culmination of his betrayal of Correa’s legacy.
First, he broke with Correa, and then he announced a popular referendum to be held in 2018, in which Ecuadorians voted overwhelmingly to reject the possibility of Correa’s re-election. (Although Correa, who is living in Belgium, is unlikely to return anytime soon—a judge has ordered his arrest in Ecuador based on his alleged participation in the failed kidnapping of an Ecuadorian opposition politician in Colombia.) Correa and his supporters argue that Moreno’s action shows the total reversal of his foreign policy. But Assange’s expulsion is only one example of how Moreno has largely reversed Correa’s plans for Ecuador since his election in 2017.
When Assange first sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy, Correa had been in power for six years and was leading a charge to upend all of the country’s political institutions. A participatory constituent assembly drafted a new constitution that enhanced several rights—and even gave rights to nature—while concentrating power in the hands of the presidency. Correa put the state at the center of development. Ecuador, a member of OPEC, counts on oil as one of its largest sources of export revenue. By reaping the fruits of extraordinarily high oil prices, Correa had the resources to increase the size of the state, redistribute income, and reduce poverty. Yet in doing so he also increased the country’s economic dependency on the extraction of oil and minerals, and just in time for 2014’s steep drop in oil prices.
Even though some leftists around the world saw in Correa an anti-imperialist and progressive leader, a reputation that was bolstered when he gave Assange asylum, his relationship with the Ecuadorian left and social movements rapidly deteriorated. The main controversies hinged on issues of autonomy: The state took over institutions and development programs formerly managed by social movements, including programs that taught indigenous languages. Correa also clashed with indigenous groups over his policies for natural resource extraction. His administration criminalized protest and accused hundreds of indigenous and rural leaders of terrorism and sabotage. He repressed parties on the left and drastically increased oversight of nongovernmental organizations. He also took on privately owned media, using the legal system to target journalists, political cartoonists, and media owners.
In the context of acute confrontation with the media, the protection extended to Assange allowed Correa to perform a role, at least internationally, as a beacon of free expression. Correa invested resources to represent himself as a leftist leader to international audiences. For instance, his government invited international celebrities to participate in a campaign denouncing the environmental damages of Chevron-Texaco. He also hosted regional conferences for leftist intellectuals and politicians. By symbolically defying countries he condemned as imperialistic, it became less appealing for domestic and international leftists to question his autocratic policies at home.
Yet as the price of oil plummeted, and social movements protested against his policies, opinion polls showed that Correa might not win in 2017. To keep his seat occupied in the meantime by friendly politicians, he put his former vice presidents, Moreno and Jorge Glas, on the party’s ticket and made sure that his candidates won, investing state resources in the election.
Once in office, surprising friends and foes alike, Moreno broke with his mentor to lead a return to democracy in Ecuador. Instead of covering up corruption scandals, the country’s comptroller and prosecutor investigated and jailed many of Correa’s former collaborators, including Glas, who was serving as Moreno’s vice president. Moreno also proposed a popular referendum for February 2018, the results of which ended Correa’s prospects for permanent re-election and allowed Moreno to dismantle the former president’s lasting control of the judicial system and other institutions.
The 2008 constitution created the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control in order to ensure transparency and give citizens another voice in governance. In practice, the seven-member body was stacked with Correa appointees, who in turn named the comptroller general, the attorney general, the human rights ombudsman, and the members of the National Electoral Council. After Moreno won the referendum, he was empowered to name a transitional social control council from lists of nominees submitted by civil society groups. The temporary council moved swiftly to replace Correa’s appointees, naming a new ombudsman, attorney general, and new members of the Judiciary Council and the National Electoral Council.
Moreno promised to re-establish democracy by respecting freedom of communication and the rights of free association for social movements, breaking with Correa’s style, in which he acted as the only rightful and authorized voice of the people. Many of Correa’s former fellow travelers shifted their support to Moreno and are aiming to transform Correa’s personalist party into a party of the broader democratic left. Moreno also inherited many unfinished infrastructure projects, such as oil refineries and electric dams—as well as Correa’s foreign debt. Moreno tried to avoid asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for relief, but in February he accepted IMF loans, something that Correa refused to consider.
Moreno also inherited the thorny political debate over Assange, who was steadily becoming a more complicated guest of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. At the beginning of Moreno’s administration, Foreign Minister María Fernanda Espinosa gave Assange Ecuadorian nationality, diplomatic status, and unsuccessfully tried to send him to the Ecuadorian Embassy in Moscow. But as Moreno’s foreign policy shifted—for instance, he broke with Russian-backed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Correa’s former ally, to support opposition leader Juan Guaidó—Assange’s tenancy was increasingly becoming a point of contention.
Moreno’s government argued that Assange defied orders to refrain from involvement in international politics, indirectly linking him to the hack of Ecuadorian government phones. His administration also argued that Assange’s presence in the embassy was unsustainable. Whereas Correa could use Assange to burnish his leftist credentials, for Moreno the asylum claim was an obstacle to re-establishing friendly relations with the United Kingdom and the United States. As he has done through his domestic policies, Moreno could show his distance from Correa on the international stage by evicting Assange.
Moreno is seeking a radical reversal of his predecessor’s legacy in Ecuador. It is uncertain whether he will be able to spur democratic participation, a vibrant public sphere, and independent social movements after 10 years of Correa’s autocracy. Ecuadorians will have to wait until the elections in 2021 to evaluate whether Moreno refrains from using the power of the state to influence electoral outcomes and whether Ecuador’s political elite will truly move from authoritarianism to democracy.
Moreno’s attempt might fail precisely because, like his predecessor, he is using laws instrumentally. For instance, his administration did not follow established procedures to review how Assange became an Ecuadorian citizen and swiftly dispossessed him of his citizenship. The temporary social control council did not allow the members of the National Electoral Council appointed by Correa to defend themselves and rapidly removed them. By employing a political logic that does not follow norms and procedures, the administration creates the possibility that decisions could be reversed when the political climate changes.
Correa could end up in jail if he chooses to return to Ecuador, yet after a few years or even months, he could attempt to return to politics as a redeemer figure unjustly put on trial by the elites. In the meantime, Moreno might be able to re-establish rule of law and permit democratic voices to flourish in Ecuador. Yet the measure of his success lies in how much distance he can put between his domestic legacy and Correa’s and the sustainability of his policy changes in upholding Ecuador’s rule of law.
Carlos de la Torre is a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. His latest book is Populisms: A Quick Immersion.