This week, as Julian Assange marks his fifth year inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, international media coverage continues to strengthen Ecuador’s image as an international champion of free speech. While the diminutive Latin American nation should be applauded for its courageous stance against the US, the good PR masks much darker truths about Ecuador which rarely reach the attention of the international community.
The recent election of President Lenin Moreno, former Vice-President to Rafael Correa and candidate of Ecuador’s ruling party Alianza País, was good news for Assange. Polls had predicted the victory of Moreno’s rival, conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, who had promised to evict the Wikileaks founder from the embassy should he come to power.
As Moreno’s election victory was announced and Assange celebrated his continued safe haven, another political refugee wept. That April night, French Brazilian professor and journalist Manuela Picq was finally forced to accept her exile from Ecuador, the country she had called home for nearly a decade. In 2015, she had been peacefully covering a protest with her husband when the couple were set upon by police officers, beaten with batons and separated. Picq’s visa was revoked overnight and she was detained as an irregular migrant. Days later, she was expelled from the country for ‘participating in politics’.
In fact, Professor Picq was forced into exile by the very same government, led by Rafael Correa, which offered sanctuary to Assange and Edward Snowden. As Moreno was announced President-elect she knew she would be denied re-entry to Ecuador. After two years in limbo, she would have to start building a new life away from her husband, the indigenous lawyer and water defender Carlos Pérez Guartambel, and her job as a Professor of International Relations at a prestigious Quito university.
Picq’s detention was the culmination of months of government harassment against her for expressing criticism of Correa’s government, such as an article about the Vice-President’s father raping and impregnating a 12-year old girl. Without doubt, her detention was also a political retaliation against her husband, a key figure in the indigenous resistance movement, who has been imprisoned three times by Correa’s government for defending water against international mega-mining projects.
Picq was detained at a national protest against a law that would have permitted Rafael Correa’s indefinite reelection. The official version of events was that a foreign national had been attacked by unknown assailants in the street and rescued by police, who then discovered her illegal visa status and handed her over to immigration. However, a journalist filmed the moment that she and Pérez were brutally attacked by police, exposing the government’s lies. In fact, there were no ‘unknown assailants’ and her visa was valid at the time of her arrest, as verified by Human Rights Watch.
The attempt to silence Picq is just one example of many in Ecuador’s crackdown on dissenting voices. The day after her detention in August 2015 the government declared a state of exception to quell the protests, raiding houses in the indigenous town of Saraguro, beating and arresting hundreds. Picq is one of 700 people criminalized by Ecuador’s government, the majority indigenous leaders and environmental activists. While the government positions itself in the media spotlight as an international champion of free speech, within its own borders it is quietly implementing the most repressive media legislation in Latin America and forcibly closing NGOs and unions that disagree with its policies.
Many governments use oppressive tactics to silence critics. What sets Ecuador apart is a world class marketing department that proactively defines Ecuador’s brand. Public relations and marketing are the biggest ministerial expenditures, used to generate a smokescreen behind which the government feels free to implement its own agenda, largely free from scrutiny and media criticism.
It’s not just in the area of free speech where positive PR acts as a fig leaf for the Ecuadorian government’s less palatable activities:
Ecuador was applauded by the global community for its high profile Yasuni Initiative in 2014, when the government sought international funds in exchange for not exploiting the oil under the most biodiverse national park in the world. However, the Guardian revealed that the administration was simultaneously negotiating a secret $1bn deal with a Chinese bank to drill for the very same oil.
The use of PR as smokescreen can be blatant. In 2015, Ecuador was awarded the Guinness World Record for planting the most tree species in a single day. No mention was made of the auction of 3 million hectares of pristine Amazon rainforest to oil companies, a process known as the XI Oil Round.
The Ecuadorian government is widely viewed as an environmental pioneer for awarding legal rights to nature in its constitution, even though it constantly prosecutes, threatens, or assassinates those who attempt to uphold these rights. The rights of nature have become rhetoric, disconnected from the constant attacks against environmental defenders.
Ecuador promotes itself as plurinational state with constitutionally guaranteed indigenous land rights, however it commits ethnocide (according to the same constitution) by exploiting for oil in the territories of the country’s last two uncontacted tribes; and has undertaken the largest licensing of land for extractive industries in the history of Ecuador, much of it in indigenous territory.
The government celebrates the indigenous Shuar’s contribution to the war against Peru, while carrying out a campaign of repression against these war heroes’ communities. It has even fired upon them from helicopters and is actively militarizing their territory to make way for a billion-dollar Chinese-owned copper mine.
Correa often boasted about Ecuador’s financial independence from US, however, his administration more than doubled Ecuador’s external debt to $32 billion (32.9% of GDP), mostly in loans from China.
The recent Presidential election was one more example of things not being what they seem. Guillermo Lasso, who narrowly lost a second round vote to Lenin Moreno, presented convincing evidence of election fraud and a partial recount was undertaken, but with every institution controlled by Correa, there was little hope for a transparent outcome.
In the limited international media coverage it has received, the continuation of Correa-ism under Lenin Moreno has largely been portrayed as the triumph of a democratically elected socialist government over a right-wing, corporate-friendly, US-backed opposition. Many Ecuadorians, however, would tell a different story. In fact, a broad coalition of normally left-leaning Ecuadorian civil society groups, indigenous organisations, academics, activists and NGOs united behind Lasso. “Better a banker than a dictator,” explained Carlos Pérez succinctly.
To these sectors of Ecuadorian society, the election of Moreno represents the triumph of oppression, fraud and good marketing. It would be some comfort to these Ecuadorians if the international community recognized their government for what it is: an authoritarian, extractivist regime.
It is distressing that even world renowned critics and thinkers such as Chris Hedges appear to have been taken in by Ecuador’s PR. Chakana Chronicles wrote to Chris Hedges following this pro-Correa-ism podcast from his show ‘On Contact’, suggesting he does not limit his story to a government’s official narrative and proposing he interview Professor Picq to present a countervailing view, but received no response.
Why does the international left, including influential dissidents like Hedges, prefer to believe the lies of Ecuador’s government than the cries for help of Indigenous peoples and journalists on the ground? Indigenous peoples are stewards of the most threatened biodiverse regions, such as the Amazon rainforest, and play a key role in combatting climate change. As they put their bodies on the line to defend their lands from extractivist regimes, the left chooses to turn a deaf ear to their cries, continuing their oppression, rendering them voiceless.
So, as Julian Assange begins his sixth year inside the Embassy, the continuation of such an extractivist regime under Lenin Moreno might be good news for Julian Assange, but it is bad news for Manela Picq, Carlos Pérez and the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.