This week marked the one-year anniversary of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's finding refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid questioning on sexual misconduct charges in Sweden. In an irony no doubt lost on the self-styled transparency champion, his Ecuadorean patron, President Rafael Correa, commemorated the occasion by ramming through his latest assault on the Ecuadorean media that criminalizes, among other journalistic activity, the very type of leaks for which Assange is best known.
Correa, whose tenure in power has been characterized as one of "widespread repression of the media, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics, and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits," has capped it off with a new restrictive communications law that has been widely condemned by NGOs and human rights organizations.
The Inter American Press Association called it "the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America." Human Rights Watch described it as "clear attempts to silence criticism." Even the U.S. State Department was compelled to weigh in with a statement of concern.
This is only the latest example of Correa's bullying and heavy-handed rule, and it comes right before the U.S. Congress and Barack Obama's administration must decide by the end of July whether to renew trade preferences for Ecuador under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), an issue I have written on before.
Now, the extent to which freedom of expression is honored in a country may not be an explicit criterion for renewal of ATPDEA benefits, but it certainly cannot be ignored. Unsurprisingly, however, the Correa government doesn't fare any better when considering the criteria on which renewal is based: counternarcotics cooperation and treatment of U.S. businesses.
As I have written, Ecuador's commitment to counternarcotics cooperation has been lackluster and minimalist. After a poor report on Ecuador in 2012, the State Department's 2013 international narcotics report "strongly encourages Ecuador to place a higher priority on the interdiction of illicit drugs, chemical precursors, eradication of coca and poppy, and destruction of cocaine labs." That is diplospeak for the fact that the Correa government places no priority on those activities.
The treatment of U.S. companies in Ecuador under Correa has hardly been stellar either. Several business and trade associations have already weighed in against or expressed reservations about ATPDEA renewal (summaries can be found here) due to Correa's sketchy commitment to rule of law. Others have brought claims against Ecuador at the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.
Reviewing the entirety of the record, it is clear that the Correa government has made a mockery of U.S. attempts to build a mutually beneficial relationship that addresses U.S. concerns about narcotics trafficking while seeking to provide opportunities for Ecuadorean exporters in order to undercut the lure of illicit enterprises.
That is too bad. But it is time that the Rafael Correas of the world understand that they cannot have it both ways: You cannot grandly spurn U.S. interests for political effect on the one hand and then expect to receive concessions on the other. It's time these leaders learned there is a cost to their antagonistic behavior. Congress and the administration can start by sending such an unmistakable message and end undeserved trade concessions to Ecuador.
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