Julian Assange might be forgiven for feeling paranoid. Shortly after WikiLeaks posted a transcript of a speech delivered by Hillary Clinton to Goldman Sachs, his internet access at the Ecuador Embassy in London, where he has lived since 2012, went down. A few days later, a British bank suspended the bank accounts of RT, the Russian state-backed news outlet that has enthusiastically reported on WikiLeaks’ recent publications.
Assange immediately claimed that shadowy forces were acting against the WikiLeaks founder, and accused the U.S. government in a tweet of leaning on Ecuador to shut down his internet. Washington immediately denied the claim.
Denying Assange internet access amounted to something of a slap on the wrist of Ecuador’s moody boarder. But it also represents Quito’s acknowledgement that a shifting political and economic environment in Ecuador has turned Assange into a serious liability.
In a time of high oil prices, protecting Assange represented a convenient way for the anti-American government in Quito to poke at Uncle Sam. But amid collapsing commodity prices and an implosion of the Latin American left, Ecuador is confronted with an unappetizing future: A potential Donald Trump presidency, ushered in by Assange, that may damage Quito’s interests.
“Russia may be rooting for Trump, but Ecuador knows its best interests would be served by a Clinton administration,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said Wednesday.
In a statement confirming it had severed Assange’s internet, Ecuador’s foreign ministry struck a regretful tone. “Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states,” said a ministry statement issued Tuesday evening. WikiLeaks “published a wealth of documents, impacting on the U.S. election campaign.” As a result, Ecuadorian diplomats exercised its “sovereign right” to limit internet access.
The new stance represents a stunning evolution for a government whose provocations of Washington have, on occasion, risen to an art form. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, after all, once said Hugo Chavez’s comparison of George W. Bush to Satan was unfair to the devil.
Correa rode Ecuador’s oil boom to international prominence as part of a vanguard of 21st century socialism in Latin America. But that movement, buoyed by high oil prices and sustained by a fervent anti-Americanism, is now collapsing. Oil prices have cratered. Chavez is dead; Venezuela’s free-falling economy has dragged down Ecuador’s exports. And the Cuban revolutionaries who provided the intellectual base for this new brand of socialism have made peace with the United States.
Today, Correa presides over an economy gripped by recession. If growth is going to return to Ecuador, it will likely be with the help of its main trading partner, the United States. Ecuador has sent trade missions to the United States recently, Shifter said, and U.S. officials traveling to Quito report a noticeably warmer reception.
While it’s unclear exactly what Washington can do to boost the Ecuadorian economy, Correa isn’t confident about what Trump would do for the United States as president. If Correa were a U.S. citizen, he said in an interview earlier this month. he’d vote for Hillary Clinton.
But Correa also saw a silver lining to a Trump presidency. “I sincerely believe that it would be better for Latin America if Trump won,” he said in the interview. “When did progressive governments come to power in Latin America? During the Bush administration. His primitive policies were rejected so much that it caused reaction in Latin America. Trump would do the same.”
Experts said a Trump presidency might in fact boost the budgets of Ecuador and its leftist, oil-producing allies — a far better payoff than sparking an ideological renaissance. “If Trump’s policies created global instability, the oil price might rise, which would actually give Ecuador a big boost,” said Dan Altman, a professor of economics at New York University.
It’s unclear the degree to which Ecuador would suffer because of a Trump presidency. But as it stands now, in a far weaker geopolitical position than years past, cutting Assange’s internet access may well be what Altman called a “costless olive branch” to a country — the United States — that might be able to boost the Ecuadorian economy.
Despite losing internet access, Assange has continued his furious pace of publishing. On Wednesday, WikiLeaks released another batch of emails apparently belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
And Ecuador has not completely abandoned Assange. In its statement, Ecuador’s foreign ministry reiterated “its intention to safeguard his life and physical integrity until he reaches a safe place.”
Next year, Ecuadorians head to the polls to select a new candidate — and Correa will not be on the ballot. The government’s favored candidate is viewed as a more conciliatory figure than Correa, Shifter said. “If the opposition wins in February, relations with the U.S. are bound to improve,” he added.
In short, Ecuador has accomplished a neat diplomatic trick. It can say it has acted to rein in Assange, while also continuing to shelter him. Perhaps that will build some goodwill with its most important economic partner even as it allows the cypherpunk’s work to continue.
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