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Correa’s Hand in the Snowden Affair

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said Monday that Ecuador will not grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former contractor wanted by the United States for leaking National Security Agency information, unless he reaches Ecuadorian territory.

Correa maintained his support for Snowden, whose actions he said were a brave act against tyranny—in defense of universal freedoms and human rights. Yet, without dismissing the dangers that the U.S. government’s surveillance program poses to freedom worldwide, the Snowden affair has only cast a light again on Correa’s own failure to promote freedom of expression in Ecuador.

Indeed, Rafael Correa may have been recently re-elected with over 57 percent of the vote, but Ecuador is an increasingly repressive society. The republican principle that the majority should consent to and abide by its obligations to protect the rights of minorities is evermore elusive.

Dissent is not tolerated and political decisions, big or small, rest in the hands of the very few. Since Correa came to power in 2007, Ecuador’s political parties have disappeared. Correa successfully dissolved an opposition Congress and instituted a plebiscite to draft a new constitution that greatly expanded executive powers. Members of Correa’s political movement, Alianza PAIS (Alliance of the Proud and Sovereign Fatherland), now hold 100 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. Municipalities, ministries and the judiciary exhibit a similar homogeneity.

This homogeneity, itself a product of Ecuadorian democracy, would not be so alarming if the state responded well to criticism. But, as evidenced by the new communications law enacted in June, the state is dangerously close to having a monopoly on criticism.

Apart from mandating a reduction in the number of privately owned media in favor of state-owned outlets, the law allows officials accused of corruption to denounce the accuser for libel—or “lynching,” as it’s worded in the law.  The Consejo de Regulación de Medios (Council of Content Regulation), a regulatory body created by the law and made up of five members who themselves respond to Correa, decide on the case’s legitimacy.

The Council is also granted the power to sanction press outlets that fail to cover news which it deems is in the public interest. And, ironically, the law allows the state to take action against individuals responsible for divulging state secrets—along with the press outlets that report them—before a trial has taken place.

In a letter to the Ecuadorian government, Catalina Botero, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), called the law “incompatible with democracy.”

Still, attacks on freedom of expression in Ecuador are nothing new. In 2011, for instance, a journalist and three executives from Ecuador’s largest newspaper, El Universo, were sentenced to three years in prison and fined $40 million after losing a defamation suit against Correa. After much international backlash, Correa eventually pardoned the four men. But a culture of oppression against ideological minorities pervades. It is Correa who exercises effective control over all levels of government.

And his influence extends to the everyday. Rafael Correa’s picture hangs in every public school and is printed in every public school textbook; giant banners that read, “Brought to you by the Citizens’ Revolution”—Correa’s political slogan—drape over public hospitals and official buildings; the president’s weekly address to the nation plays over radio and television, reaching millions of homes for four hours every Saturday morning.

Indeed, government is the biggest advertiser in the country. Government spending on publicity totaled $229 million in 2012, according to numbers from the official state budget compiled by Hoy newspaper.

Government spending on publicity has increased dramatically since Correa came to power. According to El Comercio newspaper, spending on publicity increased by a factor of 23—from $2 million to $46 million—in Correa’s first year in office. In 2011, the NGO Participación Ciudadana (Citizen Participation) estimated that the president’s office ran nine advertising spots per day. Publicity has increased from year to year, spiking during referendums and other important political campaigns.

Despite these efforts, however, Correa’s management of the country has turned many disciples into skeptics. Although Correa still enjoys great popularity, response to the Snowden affair has been rather mixed.

“Now all the delinquents will want to come here,” comments a waitress in Quito.

“We are not doing this. We’re doing what the boss says,” says a bellboy at a local hotel.

In Ecuador, the boss is always right. And now the boss says Edward Snowden is Russia’s responsibility.

*Estefanía Marchán is a researcher at the Global Development and Environment Institue's China and Latin America Program. She writes about economic and political developments in Latin America and emerging markets. Follow her on Twitter at @estefmarchan.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Rafael Correa, Ecuador, Edward Snowden

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