By Michael Shifter
Editor’s note: Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue and
adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University.
Since President Rafael Correa came to power seven years ago, U.S. relations with Ecuador have been rocky. Most recently, in December 2013, the U.S. Agency for International Development decided to pull out of Ecuador in 2014 after the agency failed to reach an agreement with Quito over continued support of democracy promotion efforts, which the Correa administration regards as targeting the government. Just days later, the Correa government reacted angrily to a Washington Post report alleging that the CIA had offered crucial assistance to Colombia in a 2008 strike against FARC rebels in Ecuadorean territory; the U.S. had denied any involvement at the time.
It is ironic that Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois and presides over the only dollarized economy in South America, has such an antagonistic relationship with the United States. Also paradoxically, despite myriad problems, the U.S. remains Ecuador’s chief trading partner.
Re-elected twice, Correa has a dubious commitment to liberal democracy, but his popularity is beyond dispute—among the highest in Latin America. The stability he has brought is no small feat. In the decade before he came to power, Ecuador had 10 presidents.
Support for Correa can be attributed to many factors, including high oil prices in an economy reliant on petroleum, as well as Correa’s superb communication skills and attention to neglected rural areas of the country. Central to Correa’s political success have been his relentless attacks on anything—domestic or foreign—associated with an old order that remains widely discredited. Correa’s harsh indictments of Ecuador’s traditional power brokers have yielded political dividends.
From the outset, U.S. economic and political power has been among Correa’s favored targets. Correa quickly made good on a campaign promise to close Manta, a U.S. anti-drug base on Ecuador’s coast. To be sure, Correa’s populist posture fit with a broader regional trend—exemplified by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales but also supported by the governments of of Brazil and Argentina—to curtail U.S. influence. Tensions with the Bush administration were exacerbated by the Colombian cross-border attack into Ecuadorean territory in March 2008 because of Washington’s close security ties with Colombia.
The first Obama administration tried to patch things up, an effort that peaked in June 2010 with a meeting between then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Correa in Quito. Despite such attempts at engagement, strains intensified. Two issues have especially roiled relations. The first is a dispute between the Ecuadorean government and the U.S. petroleum multinational Chevron revolving around Ecuador’s demand for compensation for considerable environmental damage done to the country several decades ago. The complicated case, marked by charges and recriminations back and forth, has cast a shadow over bilateral relations. Angered by what it sees as Correa’s confrontational strategy and politicization of Ecuador’s judicial branch, Chevron has done all it can, especially through the U.S. Congress, to pressure Quito.
The second contentious issue concerns Correa’s restrictions on press freedom and attacks on journalists. Correa has exhibited little tolerance for dissent or criticism of his government. In May 2013, a communications law further tightened government control of expression. And in June, Correa issued a decree that granted the government far-reaching powers to oversee and dissolve nongovernmental organizations. Under that framework, in December the government shut down the Pachamama Foundation, an environmental NGO, alleging that it was “affecting the public peace.”
Such actions have been widely condemned by national and international rights groups, including the Organization of American States’ human rights commission and special rapporteur for freedom of expression. The U.S. State Department and Congress have joined in the criticism. Correa, in turn, has led the charge among the regional anti-U.S. bloc of countries known as ALBA to undermine regional human rights mechanisms. So far, his efforts have been thwarted.
In this context, it is hard to overlook the hypocrisy in Correa’s support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—holed up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June 2012—and, more recently, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Correa has portrayed himself as the global champion of press freedom and transparency while subverting such principles at home.
Bilateral ties perhaps hit bottom in April 2011 when, as a result of WikiLeaks revelations, Correa deemed then-U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges persona non grata, which led Washington to retaliate in kind. Though the U.S. returned an ambassador to Quito a year later, the mistrust between Washington and Quito has meant the winding down of two key areas of bilateral cooperation: counternarcotics and trade. At the end of July, the U.S. Congress decided not to extend the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, of which Ecuador had been a beneficiary for longer than two decades. Before Congress formally acted, amid the Snowden crisis and deepening bilateral tensions, Correa withdrew from the arrangement, which had given trade preferences to Ecuadorean products.
Meanwhile, faced with a measure of economic uncertainty, Correa is bent on forging closer economic ties with other nations, particularly China. According to a Reuters special report, in 2013 China is thought to have covered more than 60 percent of the Ecuadorean government’s financing needs. In return, China can claim roughly 90 percent of Ecuador’s oil shipments in coming years.
In dealing with Correa, Washington faces difficult policy choices. Since Chavez’s death in March 2013, there has been less concern about a now-weakened ALBA. Although Correa often assumes center stage with his rhetorical attacks, he has neither the resources nor the appetite to play Chavez’s role in Latin America. As the U.S. has learned, any hard-line response would be counterproductive and only bolster Correa’s standing.
In the second Obama administration, a slight shift can be discerned. U.S. officials now appear somewhat less inclined to invest scarce diplomatic resources in repairing relations with Ecuador and other unfriendly governments. Rather, the focus is on deepening ties with allies in the region, especially Pacific Alliance members—Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile—and, of course, Brazil, given its strategic importance. To be sure, the U.S. remains open to better relations with Ecuador and other ALBA nations. But don’t expect any initiative coming from Washington.
Credit: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com; Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton with President Rafael Correa in 20120.