Britain, Sweden have little leverage with Ecuador over Assange

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Granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Ecuador in a testy standoff with Britain over the fate of the provocative activist, still holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

Britain said it was disappointed and would not allow Assange safe passage out of the country. Sweden, which is seeking Assange for questioning on allegations of sexual assault, was also dismayed.

But beyond that, it’s unclear what Britain or Sweden could do to show their displeasure with Ecuador, say analysts on both sides of the Assange debate. Neither country has strong ties with the South American nation in the first place, said Gregory Weeks, editor of the Latin Americanist.

PHOTOS: WikiLeaks founder granted asylum in Ecuador


“If anything, Britain is running the risk of putting Ecuador in a stronger position,” Weeks said. “They’re pretty limited in what they can force Ecuador to do one way or another.”

Storming the embassy to arrest Assange, as Ecuador says Britain has threatened to do, could easily backfire. The threat has made other Latin American countries more likely to side with Ecuador, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“You talk to any foreign minister in Latin America, they can’t believe the British even made this threat,” said Weisbrot, who has argued that Assange faced a real threat of persecution if extradited.

The United States, which Assange claims is secretly seeking to prosecute and possibly execute him for “political crimes” because WikiLeaks exposed government secrets, has more leverage than Britain or Sweden. Ecuador now enjoys trade preferences that make it cheaper to sell flowers and other goods to U.S. markets. The benefits are due to expire next year and hinge on Congress to decide if they continue.

Though the U.S. is unlikely to say it dropped the trade preferences because of Assange -- a statement that would play into his claims -- the asylum decision is likely to weaken already feeble support for Ecuador on Capitol Hill, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has already suggested that the trade deal should not be renewed after Ecuador argued it should be able to enforce an $18-billion judgment against Chevron Corp. for oil contamination over the objections of an international arbitration tribunal. Other U.S. legislators have been alarmed by complaints of a media crackdown and overtures to Iran under Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

“This is just another nail in the coffin,” said Stephen Johnson, Americas program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The Correa administration has gone out of its way to take potshots at the U.S. government, and extending asylum to Assange is a potshot.”

Correa may have been more willing to put his nation’s American trade advantages at risk because of the increased Chinese investment in Ecuador, Shifter said, which gives the U.S. less bargaining power. But he was already testing that relationship well before the Assange case.

“This is not a winning issue for the Correa government,” Shifter said. “But I think Correa saw Assange as a victim of the United States. And that’s the way Correa sees himself.”


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: British police officers stand guard outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in central London on Thursday after Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that his nation had granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Credit: Sang Tan / Associated Press.