QUITO, Ecuador — President Rafael Correa’s decision to offer Julian Assange asylum appears to have divided citizens of this South American country.
Some regarded the move as a humanitarian gesture while others viewed it as a ploy to distract voters from Correa’s own problems. Those include a rumbling scandal about false signatures allegedly used to register the president’s party for next February’s elections — when Correa hopes to win a third term.
But even some who disagreed with the asylum offer for WikiLeaks’ founder rejected the British government’s suggestion that it would withdraw diplomatic status from the Ecuadorean embassy in order to arrest the Australian.
Nicholas Gaoht, a 21-year-old economy student at Quito’s San Francisco University, defended Ecuador’s right to offer Assange asylum although he was no admirer of the Australian’s work, or Correa’s handling of the affair.
“I think WikiLeaks is just a rumor mill. I don’t view what it did as important,” he told GlobalPost. “And there are double standards in the way Correa has given him asylum but treats the press here.
“If Assange was an Ecuadorean journalist, the government would persecute him. But now that the decision has been made, it needs to be accepted, including by the British government.”
His friend, Sheila Broano, a 23-year-old law student, agreed. “I think there is a limit to freedom of expression. What he [Assange] has done has compromised national security. I don’t agree with giving him asylum, but Ecuador had every right to do so.
“Britain should give him safe passage out of the country. And they should respect the Vienna Convention. It would be a breach of our national sovereignty if they [the British] try to enter the embassy. I don’t think anyone in Ecuador would think that was acceptable.”
But Martin Varea, 33, who owns a small technical college, was more damning. “This whole thing with Assange is just a smokescreen. Correa wants to distract attention from his own problems. He probably planned this weeks ago,” Varea said.
“This is not about freedom of expression. You have to understand what is going in this country. For us as Ecuadoreans, it is a little scary when a foreigner like you starts asking us about these things. There is a climate of fear here,” he added.
And Marlon Orbea, 35, a political communications specialist, said: “Correa’s political machinery is always rustling up some kind of scandal. It happens every few months.
“If it hadn’t been Assange, it would have been something else. It is constant theater here. It is very intelligent. It is part of his [Correa’s] marketing, the way he maintains his popularity.”
But Jose Bunay, a 41-year-old tourism guide, disagreed. “The real smokescreen is from the US. They always just do whatever they want. They are used to being powerful.
“Correa was just helping Assange for humanitarian reasons because no other country would do it. It is the UK that is pushing this issue, not Ecuador. Ecuador has to do the right thing without worrying about the possible repercussions.”
He was speaking as the Obama administration finally broke its silence on the diplomatic row. On Monday, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland accused Assange of making “wild assertions” to distract observers from the fact that he was wanted for questioning over alleged sex crimes rather than publishing official secrets.
Nuland also criticized Ecuador for granting the WikiLeaks guru asylum and triggering an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States “to gin up trouble” when there were more important issues to be dealt with, the Associated Press reported.
Despite the lively opinions on the streets of Quito, Ecuadorean media largely avoided commenting — rather than simply reporting — on the diplomatic storm swirling around their country.
One exception was El Universo, the newspaper that Correa sued for criminal defamation earlier this year after one of its columnists savaged him in an op-ed, repeatedly referring to the president as “the Dictator.”
Columnist Simon Pachano claimed that Correa’s posturing as a defender of international press freedom was a “gross contradiction with what he does at home, and this will inevitably lead to an airing of [his] dirty laundry.”
More from GlobalPost: Ecuador libel case pits Correa against the press
Earlier this year, Correa won $40 million in damages, potentially forcing the closure of El Universo, and jail terms for columnist Emilio Palacio and the paper’s owners. Palacio is now in exile in Miami, and one of the owners, Carlos Perez, sought refuge in the Panamanian embassy in Quito.
Perez eventually made it to Panama in mysterious circumstances, without, apparently, ever being granted safe passage out of Ecuador by Correa’s government. The government claimed safe passage was not needed as Perez was not wanted by Ecuadorean authorities.
The president eventually pardoned the journalists but not, his critics say, before achieving his goal of scaring local media into carefully tempering their words when referring to the president.
Pachano also used heavy irony to contrast Perez’s treatment by Ecuador to that of Assange by the UK: “The option is closed that the foreign minister [of Great Britain, William Hague] will offer to pay the taxi as his Ecuadorean counterpart [Ricardo Patino] did when the director of El Universo was in the same situation.”
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of UNASUR, the organization of 12 South American nations, issued a joint statement in which they warned London not to breach international law by attempting to enter the Ecuadorean embassy.
The text also reaffirmed Ecuador’s right to offer asylum although it carefully avoided taking a position on Assange’s specific case.