By Nick Miroff – – – – – –
Ecuador treated Julian Assange like a trophy in 2012 when it opened the doors of its London embassy to the WikiLeaks founder, sheltering him from extradition to Sweden over rape allegations and, possibly, to the United States.
Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s leftist president, seemed to bask in Assange’s bad-boy glow, which gave the small South American nation a big role in a global drama. Protecting the WikiLeaks editor also gave Correa a way to poke Washington in the eye and look like a champion for press freedom even as he cracked down on journalists back home.
Correa embraced Assange’s mother at the presidential palace in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and championed the Australian “hacktivist” as an anti-imperialist comrade-in-arms.
Now he’s treating Assange like a bad tenant who won’t leave.
On Tuesday, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that it was giving Assange the equivalent of a timeout by cutting off his Web access. The release by WikiLeaks of Hillary Clinton staffers’ hacked emails was having a “major impact” on the U.S. presidential race, the ministry said in a statement.
Ecuador said the decision to cut off Assange’s Internet access was entirely its own. The State Department denied having anything to do with it.
Instead, the decision looks like the latest sign that Assange has worn out his welcome with his Ecuadoran hosts. And it comes at a time when a broader political realignment in South America has significantly reduced the advantages of having a human hot potato like Assange jolting the U.S. presidential election from the embassy’s Web server.
“The government of Ecuador respects the principles of nonintervention in the affairs of other nations, does not meddle in electoral campaigns nor support any candidate in particular,” the Foreign Ministry statement said.
WikiLeaks has claimed that U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry personally intervened to ask Correa to rein in Assange, allegations the United States denies. Regardless, there may have been no need for something so blunt.
WikiLeaks’ latest releases have taken the organization in a direction that is more explicitly partisan than ever before. It is publishing private communications — stolen by Russian hackers, according to the U.S. government — and using them in a way that appears intent on influencing the outcome of the election on behalf of a candidate, Donald Trump, who has been favorably inclined toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Ecuador and its president have changed, too.
Correa in 2012 was something of a junior partner to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávezas the loudest critic in Latin America of U.S. foreign policy. Correa, leader of a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was riding high on oil profits at the time.
Since then, Chávez has died, oil prices have crashed, and a political shift in South America is favoring more moderate and conservative leaders.
Correa will not be a candidate in Ecuador’s next presidential election, scheduled for February. The leading contender, his former vice president, is viewed as far less inclined to clash with Washington over someone like Assange.
But relations between Assange and his hosts were fraying well before the embassy cut off his WiFi.
In 2014, when Assange attempted to help win asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, whose U.S. passport had been revoked, the Ecuadoran Embassy granted Snowden a travel document to reach Quito.
But the pass was abruptly revoked before Snowden could board a flight, leaving the American stranded in Russia. Correa was reportedly outraged that he had not been consulted by the embassy staffers who gave Snowden the document.
Reports of tensions between Assange and Ecuadoran Embassy staff in London also have periodically surfaced, and Ecuador said this year that it would allow Swedish prosecutors to interview Assange at the diplomatic compound about the sexual assault allegations.
Assange has refrained from criticizing his hosts in public and said he would like to visit Ecuador to thank Correa in person and to talk with him about the president’s support for new laws removing protections for journalists.
Assange cannot leave the embassy grounds without risking arrest by British police, and he has told reporters that he avoids going outdoors for fear of being shot. He lives in a former office that has been converted into an apartment, with a kitchenette, a treadmill and a television.