Politics makes strange bedfellows. But even by those standards, the pairing of Julian Assange and Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, is a little hard to fathom. The Wikileaks founder has been holed up in the South American nation’s embassy in London since mid-June, seeking refuge from the British government’s attempts to extradite him to Sweden, where he is under police investigation for two alleged sexual assaults. Correa, a left-leaning populist, has offered him asylum, suggesting the charges—which basically boil down to Assange refusing to wear a condom—are trumped up and political. “The alleged sexual offences are not considered crimes in Latin America, or in 95 per cent of the world,” the president declared last week.
Whether or not there is a wider conspiracy to neuter the Internet muckraker is debatable. But surely someone who crusades for freedom of information and expression should be able to pick better friends. Since taking office in 2007, Correa has shut down or nationalized dozens of media outlets in Ecuador. And after tweaking the country’s libel and press laws, he has made full use of the courts to go after his critics—most infamously in a 2011 suit against an opposition newspaper that resulted in a $42-million fine and three-year jail terms for four journalists. (Under international pressure, the president later set the verdict aside and pardoned the men, although all four have since fled Ecuador.) In its most recent Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 104th in the world, noting a worrying uptick in physical attacks on the media as well.
“Rafael Correa is building an authoritarian system,” says Simón Pachano, a political scientist at FLACSO, a social sciences school in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital. “He doesn’t understand democracy as pluralism. He thinks all media are in opposition and that any critical position is against his government.”
Nonetheless, the 49-year-old remains immensely popular at home. Public spending has doubled since he took power, with billions in new investment in housing, education, health care and infrastructure. Poverty and unemployment levels have both declined sharply, while the economy has experienced double-digit growth and tax revenues have surged. He’s a virtual lock to retain office in next year’s presidential election.
And as much as the world press likes to cast him as a junior Hugo Chávez, Correa defies easy categorization. Yes, he has cozied up to China and Iran and taken on the World Bank, but the U.S.-trained economist has also declared the country open to foreign mining and oil companies—as long as they will cut the kind of deal he likes.
Some international observers have suggested that Correa has taken up Assange’s case to deflect attention from his poor record on press freedom. But the standoff has received little attention in Ecuador, and his bluster seems unlikely to win him many friends abroad. Still, the president appears to be in it for the long haul, saying Assange can stay in the embassy for “years” and gifting him a makeshift apartment, complete with microwave, treadmill and shower. Two career rebels who have found a common cause.