U.S.-Ecuador relations have become tangled. In June, president Rafael Correa made headlines when he offered NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (who has been living in an airport terminal in Moscow for weeks), political asylum. This was considered an attempt by Correa to demonstrate that he was not controlled by “el imperio” (the empire, as Washington is labeled by several left-leaning Latin American governments). But Quito ultimately withdrew its offer and, in baffling recent news, has hireda public relations firm,Van Scoyoc Associates(VSA), based in Washington, D.C., to improve its relations with the U.S. government.
The Snowden proffer was not an isolated incident. Since Correa assumed the presidency in 2007, one of his leadership trademarks has been diplomatic clashing with Washington. In 2009, he famously terminated the U.S.’s lease with Ecuador regarding amilitaryfacility in Manta. The base had been an important part of Washington’s efforts to combat drug trafficking in South America. In June, in a move largely overshadowed by the Snowden affair, Ecuador terminated a bilateral trade agreement with Washington, the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (the ATPDEA) — though it is worth noting that the treaty was close to expiring and the U.S. Congress was unlikely to renew it. The cancellation of ATPDEA occurred essentially simultaneously to Correa offering Snowden asylum in his country. Hence, both initiatives were interpreted as back-to-back acts of defiance against Washington’s historical, but currently changing, influence over Latin America.
While the Snowden affair was supposed to showcase Correa as a leader who could pose a viable challenge the U.S., as the late Hugo Chávez had successively (and successfully) done, the Ecuadorian leader ended up worsening his position. As Snowden waited in a Moscow airport, some of Correa’s own government officials called into question the rationality of offering him asylum. Moreover, rumors started spreading that there was concern within the Ecuadorian government that it wasWikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, who was the puppet master and was coordinating Snowden’s trip to Quito. (Assange himself has been living inEcuador’s embassy in Londonfor over a year to avoid a possible extradition to Sweden).
Given this complicated situation, VSA’s staff will certainly have their hands full if they aim to improve Washington-Quito relations. According to reports, the contract between the Ecuadorian government and this D.C.-based PR firm will last six months and will cost $300,000.The public relationscompany’s goal is to “provide counsel to the Embassy of Ecuador on strengthening the Embassy’s ties to the United States government and relevant U.S. institutions.”
Since Snowden did not manage to fly to Ecuador, there is room for improving diplomatic relations between the two governments, particularly as media attention has quickly switched gears to other Western Hemispheric issues (it’s currently fixated in as the North Korea-bound ship that was stopped inPanama, carrying Cuban weapons). Van Scoyoc will probably want to lobby key U.S. government officials that handle commercial issues — such as the new U.S. Trade Representative,Michael Froman— and highlight the advantages of continuing trade ties with the South American nation. Imports of agricultural and nursery products (particularlyflowers) to the U.S. will probably be one of the cornerstones of renewed bilateral relations, should VSA be successful.
But if the Snowden affair and the hire of a D.C.-headquartered PR firm have shown anything, it is the lack of consistency in Ecuador’s foreign policy. These recent contradictory decisions make analysts and scholars alike wonder exactly how Ecuador’s foreign policy decisions are being formulated. What kind of advice is Correa receiving from his foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, or from his ambassador to the U.S.,Nathalie Cely? Indeed, even as ATPDEA was falling apart, Cely publishedan op-ed in the Huffington Postthis past June discussing (and generally advocating for) U.S.-Ecuador trade relations. That’s what you call a mixed message.
If Correa was hoping that offering Snowden asylum would be a milestone in his presidential term and would cement his international pedigree within Latin America and the ALBA bloc, he made a severe tactical miscalculation. He’s laying out a hefty chunk of change to help rectify that error. But every day that his administration delays rebuilding a unified foreign-policy message is going to cost him even more.