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.