Wikileaks has claimed another victim in U.S-Latin American relations. Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino asked U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges yesterday to leave the country as soon as possible citing her persona non grata.
The announcement comes on the heels as a cable signed by Ambassador Hodges accused the Ecuadoran police force of widespread corruption. The cable, published by Spanish newspaper El Pais, specifically singles out senior policeman General Jaime Aquilino Hurtado Vaca. Hurtado’s service to the Ecuadorian National Police (ENP) dates back from the 1990s and served as the Commanding General from 2007 until he resigned in 2009. Ambassador Hodges accuses Hurtado of “using his position to extort bribes, facilitate human trafficking, misappropriate public funds, obstruct investigations and prosecutions of corrupt colleagues, and engage in other corrupt acts for personal enrichment " and, that “internal ENP investigations reportedly suggest that Hurtado has been engaged in corrupt activities within the ENP since the early 1990s.” Also included in the cable are accusations that President Rafael Correa knew about the widespread corruption.
El Pais published the cable on its website on April 4. According to Minister Patino, he asked the Ambassador to leave when she failed to give a satisfactory explanation of the cable. He also stated that this is not aimed at the United States in general or at the Obama Administration, but only against one official who had made serious allegations against Ecuador. The Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington DC released a statement that also noted that “relations between the two countries continue to be strong with cooperation and mutual respect.”
The State Department quickly came to Ambassador Hodges’ defense calling her “one of our most experienced and talented diplomats and the Department considers her expulsion unjustified.” State spokesman Mark Toner refused to answer questions about Washington’s response to the expulsion—only that it is “evaluating… options.” When pressed about State’s views on corruption within the ENP, Toner did not mention Ecuador by name but responded that it was a “fair question.”
Ambassador Hodges is the second U.S. ambassador in Latin America to be forced out of their post because of Wikileaks. Carlos Pascual resigned last month from his post in Mexico City after cables leaked criticizing President Felipe Calderón and questioning whether his anti-crime strategy would succeed, as well as the effectiveness of Mexican security agencies.
As President Obama just wrapped up a five-day tour of Latin America, some critics would see this the expulsion as a splash of cold water on U.S.-Latin American relations. However, the Ecuadorian government clearly went out of their way to not make this a personal issue with President Obama or the United States—one has to think this certainly would not have been the case had the incident occurred under President George W. Bush’s watch (see Correa calling President Bush the devil, was unfair to the devil).
The fact that both sides continue to praise their relationship signals that even through this snafu, relations have significantly improved under President Obama. It was only last June that Secretary Clinton praised President Correa on her own Latin American tour citing that while no two nations agree on everything the U.S. feels “very much as though we are forging a new set of relationships.”
Bottom line: the Wikileaks continue to pose challenges for U.S. relations, revealing concerns that should have remained confidential. But both presidents look intent on continuing to build their relationship and not taking this glitch too seriously. Obviously President Correa, like President Calderón could not have a U.S. ambassador undermining his administrations as this does not hold up in the court of domestic public opinion.
No word yet on any potential future ambassador to Ecuador. And without an ambassador, that is where our relations will surely suffer.
*Melissa Pitts is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is an associate at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and is a former staffer for Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) where she worked on foreign policy, defense and trade issues.