The List

Five Reasons Julian Assange Will Love Ecuador

If he manages to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, a world of inviting dance clubs and sympathetic political leaders awaits.

Now that Ecuador has granted Julian Assange political asylum, the speculation has shifted to just how the WikiLeaks founder could bust out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he's been holed up for two months, and travel to the Andean nation. It won't be easy. The United Kingdom has not relented in its commitment to extradite Assange to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, even floating the idea of revoking the Ecuadorean embassy's diplomatic status so that British police can enter the mission and detain Assange.

But if Assange somehow finds a way out of London and gets himself to Ecuador, how might he like his new home?

We know he already has friends in high places; Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, after all, tweeted "no one is going to terrorize us!" on the eve of the Assange announcement on Thursday, and former Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas eagerly offered Assange Ecuadorean residency back in 2010. Public opinion, however, may be more divided. Online polls run by Ecuadorean newspapers suggest support for Assange's relocation to Ecuador (sample sizes are admittedly small), but critics such as Colombian international law professor Carlos Estarellas have questioned the wisdom of the government's decision. An editorial today in the daily Hoy wonders whether it will be possible to "reconcile respect for the institution of political asylum with good relations with Great Britain and Sweden."

Whether or not he's welcomed in Quito with open arms, Julian Assange may be charmed by Ecuador. Here are a few reasons why.

Anti-Americanism

There's debate about whether WikiLeaks specifically targeted the United States in releasing secret documents and diplomatic cables, but Assange certainly doesn't have warm feelings toward U.S. officials -- especially given the detention of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning and Assange's own fears about Sweden handing him over to U.S. authorities. "I have been attacked by the U.S., from the vice president down, as a high-tech terrorist," he declared in June.   

Assange will find a sympathetic ear in Ecuador's Rafael Correa, a U.S.-trained economist who has established alliances and trade relationships with American opponents such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, cancelled plans for a trade deal with the United States, prohibited the U.S. military from using an air base on Ecuador's Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights, and kicked two U.S. diplomats out of the country in a row over an aid program. During an appearance (or should we say love fest?) on Assange's talk show in May, Correa, who was initially critical of WikiLeaks and who expelled the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador after the release of a cable suggesting that Correa had appointed a corrupt police chief, praised the organization. "The WikiLeaks have made us stronger," he noted, "as the main accusations made by the [U.S.] embassy were due to our excessive nationalism and defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean government."

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Friendly Neighbors

Correa has allied himself with other left-wing Latin American leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the Castro brothers in Cuba, all of whom have issued defenses of WikiLeaks as well. Morales claimed that the cables exposed the "empire's" efforts to interfere with Latin America's economies, policies, and identities through "espionage," while Chavez lauded WikiLeaks' "bravery and courage" and demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resign over revelations of a U.S. strategy to isolate Venezuela. At a forum of leftist Latin American leaders in Sao Paulo in July, a joint resolution expressed support for "the universal right to free information" and "the protection offered by Ecuador to Julian Assange."

Perhaps no one, however, was as effusive as Fidel Castro, who called the leaked diplomatic cables a "colossal scandal" for the United States and admiringly dubbed WikiLeaks the "Deep Throat of the Internet" (of course, he also argued that WikiLeaks demonstrated that Osama bin Laden was a U.S. spy).

Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

 

Press Restrictions

Many commentators have noted the incongruity of Assange, a champion of free expression (WikiLeaks expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay ‘all the mysteries and secrets of government' before the public," he writes), hitting it off with Correa -- who has repeatedly butted heads with Ecuador's private news outlets, in the process winning major libel lawsuits against the newspaper El Universo and two journalists and shutting down radio and television stations. Ecuador has one of the worst press freedom records in Latin America, according to Freedom House, and Correa has referred to journalists as "assassins with ink."

Assange did ask Correa about free expression during his talk show interview, but he largely let Correa's contention that economic elites control the media and harass the government go unchallenged. Perhaps that's due to Assange's own relationship with some of WikiLeaks' major media partners souring in recent years; his partnership with the New York Times crumbled in part because of a front-page profile that the WikiLeaks founder dismissed as a "smear piece." When Correa, at the end of his interview, signed off with, "Welcome to the club of the persecuted," Assange chuckled and nodded knowingly. Perhaps he'll find the Ecuadorean press less "hostile."

Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

A Wide-Open Internet Market

As an accomplished hacker and Internet denizen, Assange may be interested to learn that only 20 percent of Ecuadoreans have Internet access, with web users primarily concentrated in large cities. As the New York Times noted back in 2003:

Internet entrepreneurs flourish in Ecuador's largest cities, but many are educated businessmen with ties to the United States. Thousands of households in Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil (the largest city) have Internet access, but few rural communities have telephone lines.

The discrepancies make experts pessimistic. They worry that the rapid pace of change in the technology industry will cause third-world nations like Ecuador to slip further behind Europe and North America.

Might Assange launch an improbable second career as an Internet consultant or a pitchman for Ecuadorean broadband?

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Dance Clubs

On Thursday, the New York Times included a strange blurb in its report on Assange's asylum case: friends have encouraged the WikiLeaks founder to play music and dance for physical activity as he huddles in the Ecuadorean embassy. In fact, the anecdote isn't all that surprising. In April 2011, after all, a video surfaced on YouTube that allegedly showed Assange at a night club in Reykjavik, Iceland, showing off his incredibly awkward dance moves (a former colleague once recalled that "Julian took up a lot of space when he danced -- almost like a tribesman performing some ritual").

As the Guardian's Ben Westwood recently pointed out in a travel guide for Assange, Ecuador offers excellent dancing -- from salsa to reggaeton -- in Quito's Mariscal district and in the coastal cities of Guayaquil and Montañita. Whatever venue Assange chooses, it's sure to have more space for dancing than his current digs in London. 

Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP/Getty Images

The List

Putting the Vice Back in Vice President

Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate may be controversial. But it's safe to say he's probably less trouble than these five veeps.

MOHAMMAD QASIM FAHIM

Afghanistan

Accused of: Human rights abuses, drug trafficking

The Tajik former warlord was instrumental in helping allied forces oust the Taliban in 2001 and served for years as President Hamid Karzai's defense minister, but Karzai's choice of Mohammad Qasim Fahim as vice president in 2009 raised more than a few eyebrows in Washington. The New York Times reported at the time that the CIA believed Fahim was still closely involved in Afghanistan's lucrative drug trade and "now had a Soviet-made cargo plane at his disposal that was making flights north to transport heroin through Russia, returning laden with cash."

This would be particularly worrying if proved true, as Washington was sending millions of dollars in military aid -- some of it aimed at combating the drug trade -- and U.S. law prohibits sending aid to known drug traffickers. There were also persistent rumors that Fahim had committed human rights abuses during Afghanistan's civil war. A Human Rights Watch representative described him as "one of the most notorious warlords in the country, with the blood of many Afghans on his hands from the civil war." Nonetheless, U.S. officials have continued to maintain ties with Fahim, and the vice president attended a meeting with President Barack Obama in Kabul in 2010.

An unreleased report commissioned by Karzai reportedly details the involvement of Fahim -- along with a number of other senior Afghan officials -- in mass killings during the 1980s and 1990s. The report's release has been indefinitely delayed, and Fahim reportedly demanded punishment for the official responsible for it, reported telling a cabinet meeting, "We should just shoot 30 holes in his face."

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images


TARIQ AL-HASHIMI

Iraq

Accused of: Terrorism

On Dec. 19, 2011, the day after the last U.S. troops departed Iraq, the Iraqi government accused Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of abetting terrorism in a highly promoted half-hour television special. On the program, a man claiming to have been a bodyguard for Hashimi, said he had been assigned by the vice president to plant bombs throughout Baghdad and assassinate an official from the Foreign Ministry. Hashimi was in semiautonomous Kurdistan at the time, outside the grasp of Iraqi national security forces. He has since taken refuge in Turkey, creating a new source of tension between Baghdad and Ankara.

The charges against Hashimi were difficult to verify, and many saw them as an attempt by Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to push aside a rival. (Hashimi is a prominent Sunni political leader.) Hashimi denied the charges, and in a Dec. 21 interview with Foreign Policy, he argued that "many of Saddam's behaviors are now being exercised by Maliki." Hashimi has continued to make foreign trips as vice president of Iraq, though he has been unable to return to Baghdad.

BRUNO VINCENT/Getty Images

ALI OSMAN TAHA

Sudan

Accused of: Abetting war crimes, attempted assassination

A lawyer and former opposition activist, Ali Osman Taha has been at Omar Hassan al-Bashir's side since 1989, when the Sudanese president came to power in a military coup. He was promoted from second vice president to first vice president in July 2011 when Salva Kiir stepped down to become president of newly independent South Sudan.  

Taha is suspected by many, including U.S. diplomats, of involvement in a 1995 assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak, when the Egyptian president was visiting Ethiopia. Mubarak apparently didn't hold a grudge, however, and according to one diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, he joked about Taha when visiting Khartoum in 2008.

According to International Criminal Court documents, Taha played a key role in organizing the janjaweed militias responsible for attacks of civilians in Darfur. In 2002, he reportedly secured the release of a janjaweed leader who had been jailed on armed robbery charges so the leader could fight the rebels in Darfur. In a 2004 interview with the BBC, Taha dismissed reports that the Sudanese government was responsible for atrocities, saying, "These reports are reports of war, and everywhere there is war, there could be atrocities."

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

AMADO BOUDOU

Argentina

Accused of: Tax evasion and money laundering

Known for wearing leather jackets, riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and jamming on his guitar with famous Argentine musicians at campaign rallies, Amado Boudou became known as the "rock 'n' roll vice president" when President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner surprised Argentina's political establishment by adding him to her ticket when running for reelection in 2011. Since taking office last December, however, Boudou's tenure has been more Whitewater than Whitesnake.

Prosecutors are investigating Boudou for influence peddling, illegal enrichment, and money laundering in connection with the purchase of a bankrupt printing company. Allegedly, while still a midlevel government official, Boudou helped engineer the purchase of the company by the Old Fund -- a shell company connected to him and his friends -- and then helped it win a lucrative contract to print the country's bank notes. Adding another wrinkle to the scandal, Kirchner has announced plans for a government takeover of the company. Some opposition members have implied that the president might herself have been involved in an illegal coverup.

The opposition has demanded that Boudou step down, but the vice president has rejected the charges, blaming a "mafia" led by a leading opposition newspaper and the head of the country's stock exchange for trying to bring him down. At least he didn't compare his accusers to the people that cleaned the Nazi gas chambers, as he notoriously called a couple of journalists in 2010. In any event, it's not the first year the rock-star veep was hoping for.

CHRIS RATCLIFFE/AFP/Getty Images

SAMUEL SAM-SUMANA

Sierra Leone

Accused of: Graft, illegal logging

In November 2011, Samuel Sam-Sumana was the target of an Al Jazeera investigation into illegal logging practices in Sierra Leone, where rain forests have been devastated by rampant illicit deforestation in recent years and the government has made forest protection a major priority. In the sting operation, journalists posing as businessmen looking to start a timber export business met with Sam-Sumana and two of his associates. In a later meeting, the two associates promised to secure the vice president's support for the business in exchange for cash payments. The government of Sierra Leone promised to investigate the charges raised in the video; Sam-Sumana denied any wrongdoing, saying that he knew the men but that they were not advisors and were not authorized to speak on his behalf.

This July, another controversy erupted around the vice president when an opposition newspaper published a letter from the president of a Minneapolis-based diamond company alleging that Sam-Sumana, who went to college in Minnesota, "has not only stolen large amounts of money from the people of  the country he professes to love, but also from former and current business partners in the United States."

According to the letter's bizarre tale, Sam-Sumana, when he was a parking lot attendant in Minneapolis, offered to help the businessman, Mark Heiligman, get into the Sierra Leonean diamond business, but took the money provided and used it to fund his political ambitions and those of President Ernest Bai Koroma. According to local media, Heiligman later apologized for making accusations against the president, but the dispute with Sam-Sumana apparently hasn't yet been resolved. The vice president recently held a news conference aimed at clearing his name.