The decision today by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to expel U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges has little to do with hurt feelings over circumspect observations in a Wikileaked cable. Rather, this move signals Correa’s intention to create a political free-fire-zone in his country, as he cracks down on internal opponents and imposes the "Chávez model."
Hodges is a career foreign service officer who, according to colleagues, was never comfortable with Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela’s determination to ignore Correa’s corrupt, anti-American, and authoritarian track record in a desperate bid to warm relations with the leftist government in Quito. Ironically, today’s decision to expel Ambassador Hodges vindicates her skepticism and scuttles Valenzuela’s obsequious campaign to court Correa.
It is clear now that Correa was never serious about seeking a mutually respectful relationship with Washington. He was left alone by the George W. Bush Administration, and he responded by marching in step with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez by, among other actions, expelling the U.S. from an anti-drug base in Ecuador in 2009. Since then, Correa has rewritten Ecuador’s constitution to concentrate power in his hands and has used a corrupt judicial system to harass political opponents and independent media.
Even during Washington’s courtship, Correa has continued to brandish the powers of the state against individual journalists and newspapers. Just last month, Correa filed two separate lawsuits meant to stifle criticism – one suit against the authors of a book, The Big Brother, that asserted President Correa was aware of his brother’s alleged corruption and another against a prominent columnist, Emilio Palacio, his newspaper, El Universo, and the owners of the publication. These recent lawsuits fit a pattern whereby Correa undermines freedom of expression hiding behind a patina of legality. The sustained, systematic persecution of media owners William and Roberto Isaias is another egregious example. Free press advocates have cited death threats against Ecuadorian reporters who have exposed official corruption. It is no wonder that the State Department’s own 2009 human rights report quotes Correa as branding the media “a grave political that must be defeated.”
That is just the sort of criticism that a budding authoritarian leader can do without – particularly as voters go to the polls on May 11 in a referendum on a series of constitutional amendments that will give the president broad powers to break up banks and media firms and to appoint pliant judges to the country’s courts.
So the stakes are higher than ever for Correa as he closes in on his vision of attaining virtually unlimited power to reward his cronies and punish his friends. The expulsion of the tough-minded Ambassador Hodges sweeps a potential critic out of his way.
If Correa is able to consolidate his absolute authority over the Ecuadorean state, he will be able to reinforce Venezuela’s dangerous agenda of courting drug traffickers, terrorists, and Iran. Correa’s ties to Iran were exposed recently by my colleague, José Cárdenas, in an AEI publication entitled, "The Chávez Model Threatens Ecuador."
In addition to his own alliance with anti-American rogue states from other parts of the world, Chávez has created a significant strategic platform for Iran and China in South America. Correa has made clear whose camp he is in. And, the rise of Chávez acolyte Ollanta Humala to the top of the presidential polls in Peru (with the first round of voting set for April 10) signals that the threat of authoritarian populism in the Andes remains a very tangible threat.