IMPORTANT NOTE: The Washington Diplomat’s interview with Ecuadorian Ambassador Nathalie Cely Suárez and the printing of the July 2013 issue took place before NSA leaker Edward Snowden left Hong Kong to seek political asylum in Ecuador. The online version of this cover profile has been rewritten to reflect those developments.
As Nathalie Cely Suárez is quickly finding out, being Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States isn’t a job for sissies.
Her country’s president, Rafael Correa, has never missed an opportunity to thumb his nose at Washington. And he’s relishing yet another chance to act as the region’s anti-America antagonist, even if it means risking access to crucial U.S. trade preferences that keep 400,000 of Ecuador’s mostly impoverished 15 million citizens employed.
In late June, Edward Snowden — leaker of National Security Agency secrets and a fugitive from U.S. justice — thrust relatively insignificant Ecuador onto the world spotlight with his petition for political asylum.
Snowden abruptly left Hong Kong the day after The Washington Diplomat’s July edition went to press. As this updated story went online June 27, the 30-year-old former U.S. defense contractor was believed to be hiding out in a transit zone in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, though one reliable source in Quito told us his departure for Ecuador was imminent — and that an entire upper floor of the luxury five-star Swissôtel Quito has been blocked off for Snowden and a local security detail assigned to protect him.
Not surprisingly, Cely was reluctant to delve into the Snowden case, which could easily escalate into the most serious crisis in the history of bilateral relations if the NSA leaker is granted asylum in Ecuador.
“My job is to represent the policies and priorities of my government,” she told The Diplomat. “In the case of Mr. Snowden, we have clear legal requirements to review his application for asylum. It’s in our constitution. We know the U.S. has a clear position on the issue, and we respect that, but we are a sovereign nation and our legal and moral obligations require a thorough review before a decision can be taken.”
A statement posted June 26 on the embassy’s website and attributed to Cely’s deputy chief of mission, Efraín Baus, also says that Ecuador is not provoking the “current situation” and that it “strongly rejects recent statements made by United States government officials containing detrimental, untrue and unproductive claims about Ecuador.”
Pretty provocative language for a mission that insists it’s doing everything it can to improve ties between Washington and Quito.
In a two-hour interview at her Kalorama residence last month (weeks before the Snowden flap), Cely called her president “a man of principles” and insisted that the blistering criticism leveled against him by Washington is deeply unjust.
“This is beyond ideology,” she said of Correa. “He’s a very pragmatic man, and sometimes his narrative to the United States has been very direct.”
Direct — and rash, his critics say. The president — who was sworn in May 24 for his third term in office — recently announced that Ecuador would renounce tariff benefits given to it by the United States under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (known as ATPA), which expires July 31. Given the Snowden debacle, Ecuador could’ve pretty much kissed those preferences goodbye, but Correa seemed to beat Congress to the punch, even offering the United States $23 million to go learn about civil rights.
Correa, 50, talks a good anti-Washington game, even if it is laced with hypocrisy. On the one hand, the president embraces whistleblowers like Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — who remains holed up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, to which he fled a year ago after Correa granted him political asylum — in the name of free speech and government transparency. On the other hand, critics say Correa has gone on a campaign to muzzle the media back home and silence political opposition.
Earlier this year, America’s ambassador in Quito, Adam Namm, blasted Correa for pushing through a press freedom law he said was anything but free or fair. In response, Correa accused Namm of meddling in Ecuador’s internal affairs. He also claimed the CIA was using drug profits to destabilize his government, proof that the Obama White House was in no position to lecture him about human rights.
“We don’t allow corporations to flood our streets with guns,” Correa ranted to reporters on national TV. “We also don’t execute foreigners without a trial with drone attacks. And we don’t torture prisoners in offshore prisons like Guantánamo.”
Such fiery rhetoric tweaking “the Empire” helps divert attention away from Correa’s own democratic shortcomings. It also helps to bolster his anti-Yankee credentials as the new standard-bearer of Latin America’s leftist movement following the death earlier this year of his friend, the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
But Cely claimed it’s important to make a distinction between Correa and fellow leftists like Chávez, who clearly despised the United States, and the anti-capitalist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. Unlike Ecuador, neither Venezuela nor Bolivia — which expelled the American ambassadors in Caracas and La Paz in unison nearly five years ago — have formally repaired their relations with Washington.
“Those comparisons are totally unfair,” she argued. “Sometimes people still see Latin America through the lens of the ’70s and ’80s, when there was a good left and a bad left. It’s so easy to box us in with what’s called the bad left. As much as we respect Venezuela and Bolivia, I can argue that we have a different model. Americans forget that Correa has won three elections in a row. His popularity rating is over 80 percent.”
Correa is hugely popular, riding to a third term in office on a wave of voter support for increasing education and health care for the poor, improving infrastructure, strengthening the economy, and bringing stability to a country rocked by years of political turmoil.
But a few Ecuadorians are voicing concerns that the president’s eagerness to confront a global superpower may be going too far. Even before Snowden spilled the beans on the NSA’s extensive intelligence-gathering operations and then threw himself at Correa’s mercy, there was bad blood between the two countries.
After all, it was barely a year after another fugitive, WikiLeaks brainchild Assange, walked into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seeking asylum. The 41-year-old Australian remains there under the protection of the Correa government — and out of reach of Sweden, which wants to question him on rape charges. Assange says the case is just a ploy to eventually extradite him to the United States, which is none too happy with Assange for exposing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables with the help of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who’s currently on trial for the leaks.
One of those classified cables resulted in the April 2011 expulsion of the American ambassador in Quito, Heather Hodges. In her July 2009 dispatch to the State Department, Hodges suggested that Correa had named a senior official commander of Ecuador’s national police force even though the president knew he was corrupt.
Hodges was promptly booted out of the country and in response, the State Department declared Quito’s man in Washington, Luis Gallegos, persona non grata and gave him 72 hours to leave the country.
Neither Hodges, who’s since retired to her native Ohio to head the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, nor Gallegos, who represents Ecuador at the United Nations in Geneva, would comment on the circumstances of their respective expulsions, though Cely told The Washington Diplomat that the whole tit-for-tat episode was “really sad.”
“She wasn’t the most loved person in Ecuador,” Cely said of Hodges. “When you’re ambassador, you need to be very careful what you say. It wasn’t just about corruption in the police force. That wouldn’t have raised such concerns. Basically [Hodges] said that President Correa was aware of the corruption and didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t provide any facts. We requested several times to retract [those accusations]. She refused to comment, so our government was forced to take this very difficult decision.”
John Maisto doesn’t buy a word of that. A former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Organization of American States, Maisto calls the expulsion of Hodges “outrageous.”
“It was done because she faithfully reported what ambassadors do,” he told us. “The real reason was the Ecuadorian government pointing at the foreign devil to deal with its own problems — a basic truth that is studied in international relations 101.”
Four months after the two countries kicked out each other’s ambassadors, as if by divine conspiracy, the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood was badly damaged in a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, forcing its 30-member staff to work out of temporary quarters in Georgetown while the old mission underwent $5 million in repairs (it finally reopened in late June).
Meanwhile, Assange’s continued presence at Ecuador’s mission in London has exhausted the patience of both British authorities and the Correa government, which in early June fired its envoy to Great Britain, Ana Alban, reportedly for failing to resolve the crisis.
“It’s a very difficult issue. We haven’t been able to take an immediate decision [on what to do with Assange],” said Cely, though she suggests that the hacker — some call him a traitor — remains a popular figure in her own country for standing up to Washington. “So many people in Ecuador think that what Assange did was for the greater good of the world. They believe that thanks to what he did, people know more about how foreign policy has been crafted.”
Now both Assange and Snowden remain in diplomatic limbo. Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, told reporters June 26 that it might be awhile before Ecuador rules on Snowden’s asylum request.
“It took us more than two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time,” Patiño said. Later, he clarified his comments via Twitter, saying, “The decision about asylum could be settled in a day, a week, or as with Assange, it could take two months. Some media outlets took off the first part of the statement and left only the second. They are seeking to confuse. We’ve seen it before.”
Either way, warned Maisto, if the final answer is yes, the consequences for Quito would be grave — considering that Snowden could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted of espionage, theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified intelligence.
“Snowden is charged with a serious violation of U.S. law, and for any country to provide asylum on that basis would affect their relationship with the United States seriously and negatively,” he said.
But Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 1994 and now lives in Miami, said it’s rather ironic that Washington is now warning Correa not to offer safe haven to Snowden — especially given the large numbers of wealthy, corrupt Ecuadorians who fled to South Florida in the wake of Correa’s 2006 election.
“The possibility of Ecuador granting asylum to Snowden as well as to Assange — under diplomatic protection for over a year now at Quito’s embassy in London — should not be interpreted as some kind of intelligence master stroke by Correa’s government against the CIA or anything like that,” he told us.
Rather, said Amuchastegui, these actions are aimed at responding in kind to U.S. hostility and its “permanent refusal” to meet its obligations in similar extradition cases.
“What Assange and now Snowden — and perhaps similar cases down the road — are going to do with the amount of classified information they have already made public is not of any special concern to Correa’s government,” he said. “Its goal is to respond in kind and have significant leverage to force a settlement, and eventually perhaps a permanent treaty for similar cases. The United States must understand that Ecuador is bound by the Vienna Convention on asylum and be more receptive to its claims.”
Yet claims that Ecuador is merely trying to follow the law under the Vienna Convention are likely to fall on deaf ears in Congress.
Even before Correa renounced trade benefits under ATPA, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a hard-line Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, already wanted to end trade perks for Ecuador nearly a year ago due to what she called abuses of human rights and a worsening business climate.
“Since his rise to power, Rafael Correa has led attacks on democracy and freedom of speech, and has waged a campaign to silence any and all opposition voices,” Ros-Lehtinen fumed in an Aug. 2, 2012, press release. “Correa has corrupted the judicial branch and punished independent journalists with a series of politicized court rulings and lawsuits. The U.S. must not reward Correa’s radical behavior and extend Ecuador’s trade preferences under ATPA.”
Originally, ATPA was designed as an economic incentive to help Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru fight drug trafficking. But Bolivia has since withdrawn from the program, and Colombia and Peru have free-trade agreements with the United States — leaving Ecuador as the only real beneficiary of ATPA.
Cely herself warned that the end of such preferences could devastate a variety of Ecuadorian exports — from broccoli and quinoa to roses and canned tuna. That could put hundreds of thousands of jobs in jeopardy.
“If this happens, it could have a huge impact on Ecuador. We provide 30 percent of the roses to the U.S. market. Think how important this trade is for places like Miami and Los Angeles,” she said. “Colombia has a free trade agreement with the United States, so that would create a problem for us to compete. After all the money the U.S. has invested in Ecuador, all we’re asking is to cooperate and keep our access to this market.”
The embassy even recently launched a Keep Trade Going (KTG) campaign with an interactive website, letter-writing and petition drive to keep Ecuador’s duty-free access, which is now a moot point. Cely also said her country had been spending “a couple of million dollars” on promotions aimed at making average Americans aware of her country’s progress. “Brown Lloyd James is helping us with public relations. We used to have a lobbyist but we don’t have one at the moment. We’re looking to hire one.”
But there aren’t enough lobbyists in the world to help Ecuador’s image in the United States if it welcomes such a high-profile American fugitive as Snowden with open arms.
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue — a Washington-based think tank — said it’s hard to imagine how granting Snowden political asylum wouldn’t have “very serious consequences” for bilateral ties.
“Relations are already strained and pretty shaky, and this would be a very significant setback,” he told The Diplomat. “It would clearly mean there’s no renewal of any trade preferences. There might be pressure for removing the ambassadors from both capitals. This would be a very defiant move by Correa — and it would be viewed very seriously by the administration and by Congress.”
Even so, Shifter called Cely a “moderate voice who’s trying her best” to patch things up.
“She clearly doesn’t represent a hard-line position, and she understands what’s at stake,” he said. “But obviously, if Correa decides to grant Snowden asylum and receives him, it’s going to be hard for her to do anything to prevent that relationship from deteriorating.”
It is this troubled relationship into which Cely plunged herself on Jan. 18, 2012, the day she presented her credentials to President Obama as Ecuador’s new ambassador in Washington.
Cely, 47, was born and raised in Portoviejo, a sleepy Pacific fishing port in the coastal province of Manabí. In 1983, at the age of 15, she arrived in Macedonia, Ohio — a town where high school girls from South America were still a rarity.
“When I came back to America in 2002 for my master’s degree, it was a totally different story,” she recalled. “Jennifer Lopez was in, and learning salsa was a cool thing to do. It was cool to be Latin American. I was so pleased to see Americans embracing Latin culture.”
Backed by a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, she graduated from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public administration. Earlier, Cely graduated from Universidad Católica de Guayaquil in 1990 with a degree in economics. She worked in the private sector until she was 30, as a currency trader for the financial firm Stratega and later an executive at Banco Unión. She was also president of Edúcate, a foundation that works to improve education through information and communication technology. Along the way, she got married and had two boys.
“I was vice president of a very large bank, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “I didn’t feel I was contributing to my country. I had a very early middle-age crisis.”
Cely and her husband, Ivan Hernández, moved from Guayaquil to Quito, where she finally found her calling: public service. Cely eventually joined President Jamil Mahuad’s economic team — then in the process of dollarizing Ecuador’s economy — and worked on initiatives to bolster education, health and housing. Later, as an official of the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank, Cely spent much of her time implementing low-income projects in Guatemala, Guyana, Suriname and the Bahamas.
The envoy, who first met Correa while the two studied at Universidad Católica in Guayaquil, conceded that Ecuador’s economic recovery didn’t start with Correa, but with the country’s dollarization in 2000 by then-President Mahuad. That was the year Ecuador got rid of its worthless sucre and adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency — the only South American country ever to do so.
Since then, Ecuador’s GDP has grown an average of 5.5 percent a year — ranking the nation of nearly 15.5 million inhabitants behind Chile and Peru but ahead of Colombia and Brazil. Ecuador’s annual per-capita income stands at around $8,500 (although the CIA puts it slightly higher, at $10,200). Oil revenues now account for 7.1 percent of GDP, compared to 14.2 percent for tax revenues.
Up until the Snowden blowup, Cely said her job in Washington was “to educate congressmen, the U.S. government and the American people” about Correa’s pro-business policies.
“In the beginning, President Correa had a difficult relationship with the private sector. We passed a law that cut all the tax loopholes and increased our GDP by four points in the last four years,” she said. “By law, our debt cannot go higher than 40 percent of GDP. Also, if you have windfalls from oil, you cannot use it for current expenditures, or to hire more teachers and doctors, as important as they are. You can use it only to invest in infrastructure.”
This increase in state revenue, she said, has been pumped into roads, ports, airports, hydroelectric power and other infrastructure. Within five years, she predicted, Ecuador will generate 83 percent of its power from hydroelectricity.
“When you hear a leftist president talking about efficiency, it’s very important,” Cely told us. “President Correa sees the private sector as an engine of growth. In Venezuela and Bolivia, the state has a much larger role in almost every single sector. In Ecuador, even in strategic sectors, we welcome private-sector participation, allowing us to have a fair share.”
Over the last five years, Ecuadorean exports to the United States grew at an annual clip of 26.6 percent, from $2.94 billion in 2007 to $6.06 billion in 2012. That was a faster growth than any other country in the Western Hemisphere, she said.
Nearly 1.5 million Ecuadoreans also live in the United States, and around 60,000 Americans — mostly retirees — live in Ecuador.
“Sometimes in the United States, President Correa is wrongly portrayed as a person who doesn’t appreciate American culture. But that’s totally untrue because the president really admires this country’s deep values,” Cely insisted. “He went to the University of Illinois and has always praised the U.S. educational system. He’s also praised your solidarity, the way when very difficult things happen, like the Boston Marathon bombing, you forget your differences and you seek the truth.”
Yet Correa’s actions tell a different story. Long before Snowden and Assange, in 2009, Correa booted the Americans out of a large anti-narcotics surveillance base in Manta — not far from where Cely grew up in Portoviejo — that was used to track clandestine cocaine shipments over a vast area of the Pacific Ocean. Under a 10-year lease negotiated in 1999, up to 475 American servicemen were allowed to be stationed in Manta, but that agreement ended after Correa decided that the U.S. presence was anachronistic — despite the $71 million a year the deal pumped into the local economy.
The ambassador insisted that her government is doing its part to curb the trafficking of drugs destined for American consumers.
“The fight against drugs is our main concern,” Cely said. “People can tell you differently, but I’m an economist, and if you look at our budget priorities, we have invested $2.1 billion over the last four years in security. That’s more than what President Obama had requested for the whole region. We bought four drones from Israel and we’re buying more. They’re now flying over our coast. We have drastically reduced human trafficking. We’re also investing heavily to properly equip our police forces.”
Ecuador’s image in the United States took another hit after the government approved a controversial media law that was widely opposed by the country’s top newspapers and broadcast outlets.
The law, passed June 14 by a National Assembly overwhelmingly dominated by Correa’s ruling Alianza Pais party (which controls 100 of 137 seats), redistributes the airwaves, sharply cutting private media’s share from 85 percent to a third in radio, and 71 percent in TV. Under the measure, a 33 percent share will go to state media and another 33 percent to community radio and TV. It also sets up a new regulatory body with the power to sanction and fine any company that refuses to correct published information.
That doesn’t sit well with U.S. Ambassador Namm, who in early May not only attended a Quito protest to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, he also penned a quotation by Thomas Jefferson — “The only security of all is in a free press” — on a giant cartoon that included criticism of Correa.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists agrees.
“The Quito government’s decision to grant Julian Assange political asylum comes at a time when freedom of expression is under siege in Ecuador,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “President 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 Ecuadorian journalists who want to report critically about government policies and practices.”
Cely said she’s invited CPJ officials to Ecuador to see for themselves.
“There’s always another side to the story,” she told us. “I acknowledge there’s been a lot of polarization on this issue, but I think the majority of Ecuadorians are aware of this and have spoken out. President Correa’s re-election reflects the fact that Ecuadorians don’t think this is an issue.”
She argued that Ecuador’s establishment press is linked to old money and they resent the fact that they no longer hold absolute economic power.
“We had a draconian law, a very old law from the dictatorship of the 1970s that only regulates TV media, not the written press. Under this new law, everybody will be regulated. You need to find a balance between responsibility and freedom of expression. Here you have so many outlets that you can clearly differentiate between right-wing and left-wing outlets. We strongly believe we need to have options for Ecuadorians to decide who’s telling them the truth. We honor a press that respects collective rights.”
Cely added: “The only thing that remains controversial is going to prison for libel or slander. But even on that, the president is open for discussion. There’s no restriction on social media in the proposed law. Everybody can express their opinions freely.”
Of course, Correa has had no problems freely expressing his contempt for Washington, undercutting Cely and her attempt to mend frayed relations. But the ambassador insists she’s up to the task.
“When I was minister of production, my role was to create bridges between the private and public sector, and I’ve managed to do that. I translated not only languages but also visions,” she said. “Sometimes you get lost in translation. I am looking for issues that can bring our nations together.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.