Before I am accused of a colonialist, neo-imperialist mentality, may I be allowed to point out that the term 'banana republic' is a precise and literal description of Ecuador? It is one of the largest banana producers in the world and it is a republic.
But, its insertion into the Assange affair has also played to the stereotypes with which Latin America has long been afflicted. The decision to give Julian Assange asylum shows all the signs of rash international grandstanding, the long-term consequences of which have not been thought through. After all, by any objective standard, Ecuador does not have a dog in this fight, as Jim Baker, US Secretary of State under the first President Bush, put it in another context.
No doubt President Correa thinks that he is cutting a Latin American dash, putting him up there with President Chavez of Venezuela, who grabs most of the attention these days. In his stand-off with the UK and Sweden, you can be pretty certain that he will benefit from the support of neighbouring nations, for whom Latin American solidarity is an article of faith.
Given Ecuador's hyperbole, you might think that British gunboats were sailing even now towards Guayaquil. But, the diplomatic note that our man in Quito left with the Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry earlier this week was a model of moderation. It was prompted by justified and well-founded concern that the Ecuadorean government was about to announce that it was granting Assange's request for asylum. The main point of the note was to urge continued quiet diplomacy (which had been going on for the better part of two months) and to avoid any rash decision, which would make a solution infinitely harder. The note also pointed out, as it was reasonable to do, that to give Mr. Assange sanctuary was incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and an abuse of the London embassy's diplomatic status. It was also reasonable, therefore, to remind the Ecuadoreans of the existence of the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, which allows the government to remove diplomatic status from an embassy where it believes this privilege is being abused. It was in this context alone that the note referred to the possibility of arresting Assange on embassy premises. There was nothing whatsoever to suggest that the embassy was about to be stormed by the British police in violation of its diplomatic immunity.
The reaction in Quito has been extreme and hysterical. It started at the top with the President himself, who has warned Britain not to "terrorise" Ecuador. We have also been accused of "barbarism"; and our mild diplomatic note described as "unusual and arrogant". The foreign minister has ludicrously announced that he is calling for an emergency summit of the Organisation of American States to discuss the matter. Behind the deliberately intemperate language, whipping up emotions in the street, there also looks to be cold calculation and a smokescreen for a dodgy political decision cloaked in the hypocritical language of human rights.
The plain truth is that President Correa has led his country into a trap of his own design. The British government will not give Assange safe passage out of Britain. Ecuador is stuck with him indefinitely, the sitting tenant from hell, until either it gets tired of him or Assange himself gets tired of his rear-facing embassy bedsit. The British government need do no more than play the affair long and cool, always keeping open lines of communication into the Ecuadorean government. If there is still a role for diplomacy, it is to find a ladder for Ecuador to climb down without too much loss of face.
And the Americans, the 800 pound gorillas in the room? Who knows whether they will seek to extradite Assange. But, if the choice were between Britain and Sweden, many people would prefer to fight a US extradition request from Stockholm, whether or not from inside a gaol. The irony is that it may be more in Assange's interest to face the Swedish music. By all accounts, assuming he were found guilty of the sex charges, a Swedish prison would be luxury compared with his present accommodation.
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