19 August 2012

Correa and Assange: Contradictions and Convolution as Antiheroes Align

Ah, the poignant poetry, the rich wrinkling, the incising irony, the heartbreaking hypocrisy, the contradictory clusterfuckery, the alluring alliteration!

Correa and Assange: a match made in someplace decidedly unheavenly, a place where hormones betray heroes and authoritarians rally righteously upon their duplicitous daises.

On their blog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) begins their analysis of this bizarre matchup like so:

The Quito government's decision to grant Julian Assange political asylum comes at a time when freedom of expression is under siege in Ecuador. President Rafael Correa's press freedom record is among the very worst in the Americas, and providing asylum to the WikiLeaks founder won't change the repressive conditions facing Ecuadoran journalists who want to report critically about government policies and practices.
Research by numerous international human rights defenders--including CPJ, Human Rights Watch [HRW], the Ecuadoran press group Fundamedios, and the Organization of American States' special rapporteur for freedom of expression--has concluded that the Correa administration does not brook dissent and is engaged in a campaign to silence its critics in the media. 
Delphine Halgand, D.C.-area director for the group, Reporters Without Borders, put it more delicately: "Ecuador is not a paradise for journalists." Speaking to Courthouse News, she added, "If Correa wants to pretend that he's a defender of press freedom, he can begin by decriminalizing media offense in Ecuador."

While press-freedom groups say the Ecuadorean president has created a climate of intimidation to silence criticism of his government, Correa and his supporters justify his harsh dealings with the media as necessary in the fight against a biased and entrenched media establishment that favors the wealthy owners and controllers of the media companies.

One supporter in particular – a journalist, no less, by the name of Mark Weisbrot – goes so far as to rise up on his hind legs and attack his own defenders, practically screaming from the commentary section of the Guardian, “Free speech advocates should defend WikiLeaks’ founder from US spying charges, not invent a media crackdown in Ecuador,”  going on to accuse HRW and CPJ of mounting a political campaign against Ecuador with false charges of media repression, “taking advantage of the fact that few people outside of Ecuador have any idea what goes on there,” and conveying “a completely false impression of the state of press freedom there.”

News flash for Mark Weisbrot: HRW and CPJ unequivocally support Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (see here, here, and here.)

Furthermore, not only is support for Assange a completely separate issue from criticism of the Ecuadorean government’s policies and actions toward free speech, but so too is Weisbrot’s argument that “any of the other independent democracies in South America would also grant asylum to Assange” (which may very well be true, as they have all rallied around in support of Ecuador and expressed outrage at Britain) a separate issue from the fact that many other countries in South America are also repressive of free speech and Internet freedom – and so is the United States (see Daniel Ellsberg’s Website), the United Kingdom (two words: News Corporation), and many other countries in the world, for that matter.

In their Press Freedom Index 2011-2012, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders begins their reporting on the Americas with this:

The worldwide wave of protests in 2011 also swept through the New World. It dragged the United States (47th) and Chile (80th) down the index, costing them 27 and 47 places respectively. The crackdown on protest movements and the accompanying excesses took their toll on journalists. In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.
This is not exactly a glowing report or the furthering of a political agenda on the part of the United States. And while Mr. Weisbrot seems to think that it is necessary for Latin America’s progressive governments to take aggressive action against hostile right-wing media, which are powerful corporations with allies in the US, his argument becomes a twisted rationalization for the media and journalist persecution by the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Nicaragua that ignores the simultaneous manipulations of their own messages through favorable media outlets. One of the lessons learned by the failings of so many violent uprisings that characterized the Cold War was that real progressives do not stoop to the levels of violence or coercion that the oppressors use, because real social change is a process that must be pursued from within the mechanisms of civil and just societies.

In the case of Ecuador, take a wild guess where columnist and editorial page editor Emilio Palacio fled to after he and three executives of El Universal newspaper were sued for criminal libel and sentenced to three years in prison and US$42 million in damages... That’s right, he went to the good ol’ USA, and as of late February 2012, he was still in Miami seeking political asylum. After the Supreme Court upheld the prison sentences, two of the executives also fled Ecuador, and one went to the Panamanian Embassy, all fearing for their safety. Oh, but it’s all OK, because President Correa pardoned them in the end... probably due to international pressure from other governments and human rights groups.

This brings up the point that James Bosworth makes about other political asylum cases throughout Latin America. He presents an impressive list from the past five years, alone, of Peru granting asylum to a Venezuelan and a number of Bolivians, another wanted Bolivian living free in the United States, A Colombian with alleged connections to the FARC being harbored by Venezuela, former Peruvian President Fujimori trying to hide in Chile, another Peruvian who went to Nicaragua, and of course, former Honduran President Zelaya holing up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa during the 2009 coup d’état. Boz also reports that presently, Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto is living in the Brazilian Embassy in La Paz, having been granted asylum by the Brazilian government but not safe passage from the Bolivians, who are persecuting him for having revealed information about ties between the government and drug traffickers – only a minor rewrite of the Assange saga, itself.

The convoluted nature of relations between Latin American nations, of course, plays a key role in why Ecuador, rather than any of those other independent democracies in South America that might also have done so, has invited Assange into their bed in the first place. I wrote about something that lies at the heart of this drama back in April 2011, when US Ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, was declared “persona non grata” after WikiLeaks began to publish diplomatic cables that shone a bright light on how US “diplomats” spoke behind the backs of the foreign agents with whom they were supposed to be conducting diplomacy:

The leaked cables quote Ambassador Hodges discussing the suspicion that President Rafael Correa was aware that the man he had appointed as Police Commander had previously been found guilty of embezzlement, and chose him because he knew he could manipulate him. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño asked her to leave the country immediately, stating that she had failed to explain her allegations, given the opportunity.
While some are wondering why the US Ambassador to Ecuador would trouble herself with police corruption in a Latin American country, which is not exactly anything new and has little to do with bilateral relations, I am wondering if this might have anything to do with another WikiLeaks disclosure of a cable from 27 March 2008 titled, Colombia’s Strategy To Exploit Info From FARC, which describes how the US government was coordinating with the Colombian government in a “public relations strategy” linking Correa, Chávez, and their governments to the Colombian guerrilla group. It was President Juan Manuel Santos, then Colombia’s Minister of Defense, who was in charge of the devious plan. So this points to a conspiracy all right. But it was something that happened during the previous administrations of George W. Bush and Álvaro Uribe, and Ecuador’s displeasure with the US ambassador may have more to do with drastic changes in Colombia’s improved relationships with its neighbors along with its cooling relationship with the US [under the leadership of Santos] than anything else.
Of course, the Kabuki dance of Latin American interrelationships is par for the course, and the outing of this type of snide talk behind other’s backs on the part of US “diplomats” was not great for relations because it was personally embarrassing to most Latin American leaders. But digging into the cables reveals the US’ devious, stability-undermining, antidemocratic black operations that left-wing leaders such as Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez have long been complaining about. And the allegations that the Colombians set Chávez and Correa up with their selective release of documents gleaned from the computer archives of FARC leader Raul Reyes that were recovered after a Colombian Air Force incursion into Ecuadorian territory is something to take quite seriously, since their “information” was supposedly authenticated in a detailed report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). But of course, the IISS is really none other than a Cold War holdover thinktank with corporate as well as US and British government ties, and the question of chain of command of the information is extremely valid, not to mention Uribe’s own “parapolitics,” that is, the growing web of known connections between the former president of Colombia with drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary groups.

There are no white hats versus black hats, no "good guys" and "bad guys," no "us and them," rather, there are a variety of actors and shifting alliances that, as the Correa-Assange Saga highlights, make for some strange bedfellows.

...Which reminds me that I wanted to touch on Julian Assange’s sexual misconduct allegations. I have managed to subvert my queasiness about supporting a potential sexual miscreant because, in the larger context of who Julian Assange is and how the most powerful government in the universe would do just about anything to get this guy, the circumstances surrounding the two women in Sweden and the extremely unusual way that this particular case is being prosecuted are mighty suspicious. Calling it “a pimping of feminism,” the amazing Naomi Wolf gives great credence to the notion that these allegations are politically motivated and that such a miscarriage of justice is respectful to neither rape victims nor those accused of rape. The biggest disappointment in all of this is to see yet another in a long line of heroic men whose achievements apparently get their testosterone a-flowing falling victim to the imprudent stupidity of their penises.

President Correa himself made clear Saturday during his weekly address to his nation that this is not about trying to deny the women in Sweden their right to justice:

"We've never said that Julian Assange shouldn't answer to the Swedish justice system nor contribute to the investigation into these supposed crimes."

"What we have always asked for is a guarantee that there won't be a second extradition to a third country as that would put at risk Mr Assange's life and freedom."
Also clearly at play here is the theme of Latin America’s desire to get out from under the yoke of the imperialism that has been the cause of so much social inequity and strife in their history. Correa said, in the same speech to the nation, “What sort of mentality is it that still doesn't realize Latin America is now sovereign and free?" And Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño threw in a defiant “We are not a British colony” when announcing to the world that the UK had threatened to raid the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Yes, as many observers have pointed out, the timing of this offering of asylum to Julian Assange indicates political motivations, as election season nears and Correa strives to gain brownie points within the Ecuadorian electorate by reshaping the discussion about whether he is an enemy or a champion of free speech. Standing up to The Man is another way to score populist political points, with Ecuador being small enough to pull off the whole David and Goliath thing quite well. Don’t forget about the Chevron case, where the US-based corporation was sentenced to pay US$18 billion for environmental damage by an Ecuadorean court, but Chevron refuses to pay, painting Ecuador as a backward Banana Republic with the charge that the judgment was corrupt. ...Not that the Ecuadorian government has been very respectful of the indigenous people under whose traditional lands all the oil happens to be.

Irony fatigue threatens to set in like a certain heavy curtain closing across the stage, as during the past few years, many of us who worked so hard to help get Barack Obama elected, only to have his use of the occasion of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize to rationalize his troop-surge in Afghanistan, nearly lost our sanity, and still, many of the Guantanamo prisoners languish in fetid limbo and rights to fair trials and privacy and access to the truth about what our government does in our names continues to slide down that same, shit-slippery slope. And among the many ironies in this case is that of Julian Assange, aside from the boring old penis problem, himself. As the cofounder of the Personal Democracy Forum, Micah Sifry, points out:

The idea of a transnational, or "stateless" as Jay Rosen put it, news organization that anyone could safely and anonymously leak to, in order to blow the whistle on all kinds of official misbehavior, and that no single government could intimidate, seemed unstoppable.
But as has become clear, Wikileaks also had a single, internal point of failure. When Assange stumbled in his personal life (and that's the most charitable way to put it), his response to the crisis broke the trust of his closest allies.
 This excellent essay concludes:
The cause of transparency is far, far bigger than the legal troubles of one brilliant, courageous but ultimately flawed individual. Britain ought to let Assange flee to Ecuador, because there's little chance he can get a fair trial in either Sweden or the United States. But then let's be done with him. Those of us who want freedom of information to thrive should learn a key lesson from Assange's case. For information to flow freely, there can't be any single point of control. 

There is no "us and them," and when it comes to social justice, no "I," because as "flawed individuals," we must become links in the beautiful chains of communication that tie us all together as human beings.

Committe to Protect Journalists – CPJ Blog. 16 August 2012As it backs Assange, Ecuador stifles expression at home 

Courthouse News Service. 16 August 2012
Assange Asylum Underscores Tensions in U.S. & Ecuador

The Guardian – Comment is free. 21 July 2012
The rights groups that lost the plot on Ecuador and Julian Assange

Human Rights Watch. 15 December 2010
US: WikiLeaks Publishers Should Not Face Prosecution

Human Rights Watch. 16 December 2010
Q & A: Human Rights and the WikiLeaks Cable Release

Committee to Protect Journalists. 17 December 2010
CPJ urges U.S. not to prosecute Assange

Reporters Without Borders.
Press Freedom Index 2011-2012 

The Guardian – Comment is free. 8 January 2010
Power versus the press

The New York Times. 27 February 2012
President of Ecuador to Pardon Four in Libel Case 

Bloggings by boz. 16 August 2012
Assange and other asylum cases

Scoop – WikiLeaks.
Cablegate: (C) Colombia's Strategy to Exploit Info From Farc

from 27 March 2008

Amazon Watch. 16 August 2012
Sarayaku Celebrates Human Rights Victory

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