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You're reading: Ecuador leader stakes claim to moral superiority

LIMA, Peru — Rafael Correa is a committed leftist and former lay missionary whose first run at elected office was his successful 2006 election as Ecuador's president.

He is also a U.S.- and European-educated
economist who tempers his trademark impulsiveness with high calculation.
His decision to grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum Thursday
was anything but an emotional roll of the dice.

Correa, 49, knew
he would likely deeply offend the United States, Britain and Sweden and
likely the European Union. He also knew he would be inviting commercial
and political retaliation that might hurt his small petroleum-exporting
nation of 14 million people.

No such retaliation has yet come,
though Britain says it won’t allow Assange safe passage out of the
country. Sweden, where Assange is wanted for questioning for alleged
sexual misconduct, summoned Ecuador’s ambassador to issue a stern
protest.

Offering asylum to the man responsible for the
biggest-ever spilling of U.S. secrets was apparently too attractive for
Correa to resist. It let him stake a claim to moral high ground,
associating himself with a man whose loyalists consider him a digital
age Robin Hood crusading against abuses of big governments and
corporations.

U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, a ranking member of the U.S.
House’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee, has met Correa several times
and believes he understands the wager.

“He’s a very smart guy and
this wasn’t done in a vacuum,” Engel, a New York Democrat, said. “The
reason is to kind of be the head of the poke-the-United
States-in-the-eye group.”

He was referring to the alliance that
includes Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina and President Hugo Chavez
of Venezuela, whose longevity is in question after a bout with cancer.

“It’s
not just done because Julian Assange should have freedom or shouldn’t
be persecuted,” Engel said of Correa. “If that were the case, why is he
persecuting his own journalists?”

Correa was why the director of
Ecuador’s main opposition newspaper did some asylum-seeking of his own
early this year, holing up in Panama’s embassy in Quito for 14 days when
Ecuador’s high court upheld a criminal defamation ruling against him
and other top editors.

Correa later pardoned them and forgave a
$42 million damage award against the paper, but free press and human
rights groups say the Ecuadorean leader remains a threat to any speech
not to his liking.

He has also used media ownership restrictions
enacted by a loyal congress to gag opposition-owned media that he claims
are corrupt and intent on destroying him.

Political scientist
Vicente Torrijos of Universidad del Rosario in Colombia said giving
Assange asylum provides Correa with “a huge smokescreen to try to hide
his treatment of the press.”

Torrijos called it “propagandistic
pragmatism,” which he said is apt to play well among people who like to
cheer on anyone who stands up to the United States and its allies.

Such
people have played a big role in electing leftist leaders all across
South America over the past decade such as Evo Morales in Bolivia and
Cristina Fernandez in Argentina.

Marta Lagos, director of the
Chile-based Latinobarometro polling firm, said she found it remarkable
how Correa seized an opportunity to become standard-bearer of the
sovereignty of little nations fed up with the sometimes imperious U.S.
meddling in Latin America exposed in 2010 when WikiLeaks unleashed a
quarter million cables sent home by Washington’s diplomats.

“It
makes the world bigger,” she said. “There have been very few times when
an emerging, underdeveloped country like Ecuador has committed an
international political act of this potency.”

Correa was a big
cheerleader of that effort and he and Assange shared a clear affinity in
May when the former Australian hacker interviewed Correa for his
Kremlin-funded TV program.

“Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger,” he told Assange.

One
cable published by WikiLeaks prompted Correa to expel a U.S. ambassador
in 2010 for alleging a former Ecuadorean police chief was corrupt and
suggesting Correa had looked the other way.

Still, Correa has never been a shrill critic of Washington, though he has courted U.S. global counterweights like Russia, Iran and China. The latter is now Ecuador’s main lender and buys most of its oil.

But
he has cultivated a reputation as a diplomatic maverick, boycotting a
regional summit in Colombia in April to protest Washington’s continued
insistence on excluding Cuba.

Correa is up for re-election in
February and his approval ratings top 70 percent, in large part due to
generous public spending that has made him popular with the lower class.

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