Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and the Alienation of Latin America

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, finds himself at the crux of an international maelstrom this week as he seeks safe passage from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to the airport, where he will flee to Latin America and begin his political asylum far from the clutches of Sweden and the U.S. This has undoubtedly exacerbated tensions between the United States and Ecuador, and earlier this week, the U.K. stated that it would exercise a little-known law in order to legally enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and remove Assange. Australia remains unsupportive of Assange while Sweden continues exhausting all possible ideas on how to successfully get Assange back on Swedish soil and begin addressing sexual assault allegations.

Julian Assange, however, is a small indicator of a much broader trend sweeping through Latin America: there is a new Left emerging, with many populist heads of state alienating themselves more and more from the United States and the rest of the Western world. In granting political asylum to Assange, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa may not be risking much diplomatically. It takes a lot more to draw the ire of the United States at a time when Iran is blatantly ignoring global exhortations to cease its uranium enrichment and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likewise blatantly ignoring multilateral pressure to step down. But President Correa is nevertheless acting defiantly, something his citizens will see as a flexing of strength and a reason to continue supporting him.
This is not the first time President Correa has aggravated relations between Ecuador and the U.S. In 2008, President Correa decided not to renew the U.S. lease on an air force base in Ecuador, effectively closing the base for good. Coincidentally, in an interview with Mr. Assange back in May, President Correa joked, “We can give the go ahead as long as we are granted permission to set up an Ecuadorian military base in Miami.” The Ecuadorean people once again saw the move, which outraged the U.S. government at the time, as a sign of strength, something incredibly important to a relatively unimportant country. The following year, President Correa easily won his re-election.

Ecuador is not alone in shuttering the West from its affairs. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been a staunch opponent of the U.S. since he has been in office. Argentina has not been without drama this summer either – several months ago they nationalized their oil company YPF which had previously been a subsidiary of the Spanish oil giant Repsol. This infuriated Spain, and led to the E.U. complaining to the WTO about Argentinean licensing laws. Then just yesterday, Argentina filed a formal complaint against Spain to the WTO, citing problems with Spain’s biodiesel exports.

I’m not sure yet whether this trend of populist left leaders is alarming or not. A decade or two ago, once the fad of import-substitute industrialization disappeared in Latin America, there was an increasing dependency on strong relationships with the West, primarily because it was Western countries with the capital to purchase much of the oil and other natural resources from Latin America. Today, this dependency has vanished; China’s growing population and industrialization has given rise to the need for natural resources, and China has almost enough capital to create a perfect monopsony for Latin American oil exports. The thing is, the U.S. doesn’t yet have a serious need for strong relationships in Latin America. They contribute little to the global political arena in terms of military capacity, diplomatic efforts, as well as aid. Let’s just hope that doesn’t change in the next decade or two.

You can watch Mr. Assange's speech from the Ecuadorean Balcony on Sunday here, and the episode of Mr. Assange's web series during which he interviews Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa here.

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