Why Might Ecuador Grant Snowden Political Asylum?

June 26, 2013

Various U.S. media outlets suggest ulterior motives for why Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa may want to consider granting political asylum to whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, writes “In championing Snowden, President Correa is further cementing his image as a successor to Chávez who can take on the US.” The Washington Post projected a similar theme with an article headlined, “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.” Public Radio International’s The World likewise headlined a piece with “Ecuador Leader Thumbs Nose at US, Trying to Help Snowden with Asylum.”

Writing in CNN online, however, Latin America scholar Steve Striffler advances an entirely different and apparently (to the media) incomprehensible notion: that Ecuador’s decision might be based on principles. Striffler writes that “The prevailing explanation among U.S. pundits … [that] Correa’s stance … is all about scoring political points …is too simplistic an explanation and relies on a misunderstanding of Correa and the leftward shift that has swept Latin America during the past 25 years.”

He goes on to write:

…when Correa offered Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange asylum in 2012, he had relatively little to gain politically beyond raising his international profile. At the time, he was expected to easily win re-election (which he did), in large part because under his administration unemployment levels had reached record lows, public spending on education had more than doubled and medical care was more accessible than ever. This was despite the fact that Ecuador had been hit harder than almost any country in the region by the financial crisis of 2008.

Correa pumped money into the economy, reformed the financial system, took control of the central bank and otherwise worked, however imperfectly, to build a government and economy that serves the interests of the people.

Simply put, Correa’s popularity insured that there was relatively little to be gained by taking on Assange in 2012. Quite the opposite, Correa’s embrace of Assange produced an intense backlash by the media in Ecuador, which then amped up opposition during the election.

Similarly, Correa will score relatively few political points by embracing Snowden in 2013. Correa’s stance is best seen as a principled one.

(For more details on Ecuador’s economic gains under Correa, see our recent report here.)

Meanwhile, in a piece for the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer examines some of the reasons that Latin American nations are breaking with past trends and demonstrating their independence from the U.S., offering a brief survey of U.S.-Latin American relations just since the ‘70s:

“Latin America is not gone, and we want to keep it,” President Richard Nixon told aides as he was pressing the covert operation that brought down the Chilean government in 1973. A decade later, the Reagan administration was fighting proxy wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. In the 1980s the US Army invaded two Caribbean countries, Grenada and Panama, to depose leaders who had defied Washington.

He could have added that more recently, Washington was involved in an unsuccessful coup in Venezuela (2002), helped a successful coup in Honduras (2009), and helped overthrow the government of Haiti (1991 and 2004) – all democratically elected governments – and more. He goes on to describe Washington-directed economic intervention:

During the 1990s the United States sought to impose the “Washington Consensus” on Latin American governments. It embodied what Latin Americans call “neo-liberal” principles: budget cuts, privatization, deregulation of business, and incentives for foreign companies. This campaign sparked bitter resistance and ultimately collapsed.

In spite of these military, political, and economic assaults – or perhaps because of them – much of Latin America has become profoundly dissatisfied with the made-in-USA model. Some of the continent’s most popular leaders rose to power by denouncing the “Washington Consensus” and pledging to pull their countries out of the United States orbit.

Indeed, as CEPR has continuously pointed out over the past 12 years, the “Washington Consensus” era coincided with a historical economic growth failure in Latin America and most middle- and low-income countries around the world. Whereas income per person in the region – the most basic measure that economists have of economic progress — grew by 91 percent from 1960 – 1980, it grew only a total of about 6 percent from 1980 – 2000, and another 1 percent from 2000 – 2005. In some Latin American countries, the IMF-mandated policy prescriptions crashed and burned, leading to “IMF riots” such as Venezuela’s caracazo in 1989 (in which a pre- Chávez government killed as many as 3,000 demonstrators in a crack-down), and Argentina’s financial crisis in 2001-2002.

Nor has the U.S. abandoned promoting such policies in the region, as evidenced by new trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the IMF’s pro-cyclical conditionalities for Jamaica, which remains stuck in a debt trap. (The U.S. Treasury Department wields effective veto power in the IMF, giving it a great deal of control.)

Many of the most visible controversies in the region over the past several years have pitted Washington on one side versus most of Latin America on the other: the coup in Honduras (which the Obama administration helped succeed), attempts to isolate Venezuela (the U.S. only succeeded in isolating itself), and the proposed “Free Trade Area of the Americas” (which died in a Mar del Plata, Argentina summit due to South American opposition), among others. Assange’s asylum case itself was another example; while Ecuador ultimately granted him asylum, Brazil’s former president Lula da Silva notably was an early champion of Assange.

But Kinzer and Striffler may both be right: the Ecuadorean government took a principled stand in granting Assange political asylum, and it is probably doing so again by carefully considering Snowden’s request. It just happens that these principled stands conflict with the goals and desires of Washington. That wouldn’t be unusual.

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