Whichever way upcoming elections in Ecuador go, it looks like the days of Julian Assange’s asylum at its embassy in London are numbered.
In an interview with the Guardian, the main opposition party candidate, Guillermo Lasso, said that housing the WikiLeaks founder is too expensive for a country in the throes of a recession and that he would swiftly evict him should he become president.
“The Ecuadoran people have been paying a cost that we should not have to bear,” he said during the interview in Quito. “We will cordially ask Señor Assange to leave within 30 days of assuming a mandate.”
Voting takes place Feb. 19 and is expected to narrow a wide field down to two, who will compete in an April runoff. Recent polls have Lasso trailing ruling leftist-party candidate Lenín Moreno by a significant margin. Nevertheless, analysts say the likely runoff means the race is competitive.
Should Moreno win, Assange is not guaranteed indefinite protection, either.
When current President Rafael Correa granted Assange asylum in 2012, the Ecuadoran economy was strong, and political rhetoric often faced outward, laced with anti-American fervor. That Assange was facing rape charges and extradition to Sweden was widely seen as an American ploy to smear a powerful detractor. Assange was seen as speaking truth to American hegemony, and Correa’s move was lauded at home for playing a key role in a global drama.
Since then, oil prices have tanked and taken Ecuador’s economy with them. Ecuadorans are less swayed by Correa’s leftist bravado than his party’s pledges to root out corruption and create new jobs. Assange is less a mark of pride than a nuisance.
The Guardian also spoke with Correa’s current foreign minister, who expressed nothing short of exasperation toward the burden that is Assange.
“Our staff [has] been through a lot. There is a human cost,” said the foreign minister, Guillaume Long. Assange cannot leave the premises of the embassy or else Britain will arrest him. Ecuador only just recently allowed a Swedish prosecutor to interview Assange regarding the rape case in hopes of negotiating better terms for his release. “We would like the next step to be tomorrow. We hope they are as swift as possible, because this has been going on for far too long.”
The beginnings of a real rift between the Ecuadoran government and Assange began when WikiLeaks released a trove of candidate Hillary Clinton staffers’ emails in October, just before the U.S. presidential election. Correa openly supported Clinton, saying that he would vote for her even though he expected antagonism to Trump would be more invigorating for the South American left.
Ecuador’s foreign ministry said the release of the emails was having a “major impact” on the U.S. election, and it evidently felt partly responsible for facilitating WikiLeaks’s work. They proceeded to temporarily shut down Assange’s access to the Internet. Quito denied that they did so at Washington’s request.
Analysts say that Moreno, should he win, would anyway be less inclined to go head to head with Washington over Assange.
“Even if Moreno wins, Ecuador will figure out a solution that sees Assange out of the embassy in the next presidential term,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “Lasso is saying 30 days. With Moreno, maybe it would be more like a year or two.”
It isn’t clear where Assange would go should Ecuador revoke his asylum status, but all eyes will be on Moscow.
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