- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
- Tommy Greene
When Julian Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in April, the country’s former left-wing president Rafael Correa knew who to blame. According to Correa, his successor Lenin Moreno — vice-president during Correa’s own presidency — “had sold Assange to the United States.” He accused the new president of having “displayed a pathological hatred” of the Wikileaks founder, after his website had revealed details of a corruption scandal involving Moreno’s family.
Correa’s decision to grant Assange asylum in 2012 came at the height of Latin America’s Pink Tide, as progressive governments across the continent challenged US interference in the region. Assange’s arrest six and a half years later comes as the Latin American left is in open retreat, underscoring the rupture between Correa’s presidency and that of his party’s chosen successor. When Moreno secured electoral victory in 2017, the country seemed to be bucking the wider reactionary trend in the region. But upon taking office the new president quickly turned to the Right — implementing a conservative economic agenda that has seen poverty levels rising anew.
To examine Ecuador’s approach to the Assange case and how its position has evolved over the last seven years, Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene sat down with Txema Guijarro. Currently an MP for Spain’s radical-left Podemos party, Guijarro previously worked as an advisor to the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño. In 2012, he spent several months in London charged with organizing Assange’s asylum, before being sent to Moscow the following year to facilitate Edward Snowden’s abortive efforts to reach Latin America. As he tells Jacobin, Moreno’s opposition to Assange’s asylum pre-dates his presidency and was already evident as early as 2012.
What was your first mission for the Ecuadorian government in regard to Julian Assange?
I had my first contact with Julian at the end of 2010. It came in the wake of the publication of the first round of stories based on the US diplomatic cables. At that point, Ecuadorian media outlets were beginning to gain access to the material but only publishing selective extracts relating to Ecuador. The cables had become a major domestic issue after the then-US ambassador had been expelled from the country over one of these published messages. In the cable, she had accused President Correa of appointing a new police chief whom he knew to be corrupt in order to consolidate his control over the police force.
Ecuador was one of the few countries where the cables provoked such a high-level expulsion but the media was also being very selective — only publishing the material that suited them. So I was charged with making contact with Wikileaks, with the aim of working with them to publish all information in the cables that had to do with Ecuador. I had my first face-to-face meeting with Julian a few months later in May 2011, and he seemed surprised by our request — that a government was seeking to publish such sensitive material relating to itself and without redaction. But we established a secure line of communication and a few days later he agreed to our request.
When did the question of Assange’s asylum first get raised? And how did the Ecuadorian government go about responding to such a sensitive request — both in legal terms and as a question of international diplomacy?
Julian entered the embassy in June 2012, but we received word that he was interested in discussing the possibility of asylum in February that year. I then went to meet him in March and explained to him that the government would study his case. But I never gave him any guarantees beyond saying that Ecuador was bound by a set of international commitments around asylum and human rights. In particular, we had signed the 1954 Caracas Convention which established diplomatic asylum [asylum granted within an embassy or legation] as a recognized legal principle among Latin American countries.
Yet this agreement has no equivalent in broader international law, and the principle of diplomatic asylum is not accepted by the United Kingdom. The unit I ran in the foreign ministry wrote a report warning about this in February-March 2012. I made it clear that if we granted Julian asylum, the lack of international legislation in this area would mean we would very quickly find ourselves at a diplomatic impasse with no clear way out.
But from the beginning president Correa approached the case as a matter of principle. Within the government, the consensus was that if we were convinced there was a real threat to Julian’s human rights, as a signatory to the Caracas agreements, we had the obligation to protect him.
After Assange entered the embassy, our strategy was to act as an “honest broker” — being very open about our legal commitments but while also engaging with our international partners to find a way out of this standoff. Yet none of the actors involved — the United States, the UK, and Sweden — were willing to offer us guarantees that his basic human rights would be respected. We told Sweden that if it could guarantee that Julian would not be extradited back to UK or on to the US after his legal obligations had been fulfilled there, we would hand him over. But they were never able to do so. Nor was the US able to rule out the existence of a Grand Jury investigation. And so at that point, we had the moral and legal obligation to offer him asylum.
Clearly there was also an element of political interest here. In Ecuador at that time, a fierce debate was raging about freedom of speech at that. It had been provoked by president Correa’s legal case against the journalist Emilio Palacio, who had printed a series of slanderous accusations relating to the attempted coup in September 2010. When Correa won the case, major media outlets, which had always been hostile towards him, interpreted this as an attack on the free press. And so the Assange case was also an opportunity to show that Ecuador was on the side of free expression — though not on the side of smears. We were literally the only country in the world willing to protect this publisher’s [Assange’s] rights.
You spent more than six months in London organizing Assange’s asylum and working on the logistics of his stay in the embassy. What types of tensions were there in this initial period between Assange and the diplomatic staff? And can you also talk about Operation Hotel, the security program the Ecuadorian government spent millions on, and which according to the Guardian also included surveillance operations against Assange? You installed cameras, heightened security on communications, as well as monitored his guests.
In May 2012, the Ecuadorian embassy was one of the least secure in London. You could pretty much walk straight in. Suddenly you had hundreds of protesters outside everyday with the embassy surrounded by British police and international media. Operation Hotel aimed to protect not only Julian but also the embassy itself from this level of pressure. We had to mount a rapid security operation, which involved the measures you mentioned. But these were not directed towards spying on Julian as such.
Instead, they were a response to the level of threats and external interference we were suffering. We had no choice if the embassy was to continue functioning as a diplomatic mission. It was that or chaos.
For example, during my seven months in London, I was continually followed by British intelligence. They never hid the fact. They wanted us to know we were being watched.
But it is true that the cameras annoyed Julian. He was worried about the images being hacked by the intelligence services, and that we would end up doing the British’s work for them. He repeatedly warned us that any information or documents circulating through the embassy could be intercepted and used by our opponents.
But more generally, I think relations between him and the embassy staff were better than what anyone could have expected. The staff had amazing patience and, under difficult conditions, they managed to combine their diplomatic work with the task of caring for our famous guest. Of course, Julian was a very a libertarian character, and this created significant challenges. But he was free to continue his work as a publisher and journalist.
Imperial Power Up Close
The following year, 2013, you were sent to Moscow after Ecuador became involved in the Edward Snowden case. Can you talk about this experience?
I arrived in Moscow a day after Snowden and in the week I was there, I interviewed him three or four times in the airport. He had only managed to leave Hong Kong because he received a letter of safe passage from Ecuador, signed by the UK Consul Fidel Narvaez. In reality, it was a document with absolutely no legal validity whatsoever, since it was an Ecuadorian consul in London attempting to authorize a US citizen’s safe passage from Hong Kong.
Assange had phoned Fidel at night, telling him that Snowden was leaving and that he needed a letter of safe passage — or else the whole mission would be aborted. So Fidel, under pressure, signed and dispatched the letter of safe passage himself, without any authorization from above. This would ultimately cost him his position.
I was then sent to Moscow as we were examining the possibility of granting Snowden asylum or alternatively arranging safe-passage to another Latin American country. Yet my memory of that week was of being confronted by US imperial power in a very concrete manner. Before, it had always been something more abstract, a metaphor. But there in Moscow I saw the lengths to which the US was willing to go to achieve its objectives.
To start with, wherever I went there were people photographing me — every time I was on the streets, this happened. Then after my first meeting with Snowden, we got a clear warning.
At the end of the interview, Snowden handed me a pen drive with a letter of gratitude for President Correa. I sent on the letter to the president’s office via a secure channel. Only Snowden, a highly-trusted official in Quito, and I had access to this letter. But the next day it appeared in the media. The letter itself had nothing newsworthy in it, but it was a warning from the US intelligence services making it clear to us that they knew everything. They were telling us that even when we used our security protocols, everything would be tracked and end up in their hands.
Then after a week of working with Snowden, I received a phone call from foreign minister Patiño telling me to abort and come home. I had no idea what had happened. We had been making progress in terms of organizing an exit for Snowden. Having to then go tell him it was not possible was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I later found out that the United States had threatened to cut off Ecuador’s supply of dollars, which would have provoked a major monetary crisis. It is a dollarized country which does not have its own currency.
Against an imperial power willing to go to such extremes, we could not continue. You can fight a battle of principles up to a certain point, but you cannot put the welfare of your country at risk. This, of course, was the moment Putin stepped in to offer Snowden refuge — as a sign of Russia’s power and sovereignty. He wanted to make it clear the means used to pressure other countries did not work with a superpower like Russia.
One of the most shocking episodes associated with the Snowden case was when Evo Morales’ presidential jet was forced to land in Austria after European countries refused to grant it permission to enter their airspace. This was due to intelligence that Snowden was onboard. Can you explain why US intelligence services believed he was on the plane?
A number of factors came together. Firstly, Evo had indicated publicly that he would study Snowden’s case and was open to the possibility of asylum. Secondly, when I was in Moscow, one of the main exit routes we were studying for Snowden was via Venezuela. However, when discussing the Venezuelan option, we referred to it under a kind of codename as the “Bolivian solution.” Whenever we mentioned the Bolivian solution, we really meant Venezuela. And these communications would have been monitored.
Then the third factor arose on the day of the incident. I was in a meeting where the Russians asked Snowden to keep his electronic devices in this type of silver-colored envelope which was designed to cut off any electronic signal coming from them (which normally only happens when you are flying). When I saw on the news that they were bringing down Morales’ plane, I realized that Snowden had put his devices in the Russian envelopes (and so the Americans lost their signal) at the same time as a number of Latin American presidents were leaving the Second Global Summit of Gas Exporting Countries, which took place in Moscow that year. All the other Latin-American presidents who had been in Moscow were returning via non-direct routes — for instance, Nicolas Maduro stopped off in Minsk. But Evo didn’t. Evo returned to Bolivia direct from Russia, and this must have set off an alarm after having lost Snowden’s signal.
The episode was also definitive proof that the Americans would stop at nothing to get hold of Snowden. In diplomatic history, it was completely unprecedented that countries such as France, Spain, and Italy should deny entry to a head of state’s presidential jet. Austria was the only one that allowed the plane to land, because it was running out of fuel — and at that point, the president’s life was being put in danger.
You have told me that you first had doubts about Lenin Moreno in 2012 after you attended a meeting between him and the UK’s then-foreign secretary William Hague. Can you explain what happened at the meeting?
Moreno, who was then vice-president, had an official visit to London planned long before Julian had entered the embassy. As part of that visit, which coincided with the Paralympics, he had a courtesy meeting scheduled with Hague. When the British did not cancel the meeting even after all the controversy, we were surprised but took it as an opportunity to communicate our position directly to the foreign secretary.
On the request of the foreign minister, I wrote a brief for Moreno laying out our line on Assange and detailing the type of responses to be given if questioned by the press. We wanted to say as little about it as possible — any comment could trigger a news story.
My first surprise, then, was at the airport, just after Moreno had landed. He was immediately asked about the case by an Italian journalist and his response was: “I have a bad impression of Mr. Assange. He rubs me up the wrong way.”
I could not believe it. This was the vice-president speaking — it does not matter who makes a good or bad impression on him personally. He is talking to foreign media about a matter of state, not gossiping about friends.
I thought that maybe it had been a slip and he had not read the brief. But a few hours later, we had the meeting with William Hague in which he began straightaway by repeating the same message. He said something like: “I find it annoying that this man entered our embassy, and he rubs me up the wrong way.” At this point we had not even granted Julian asylum. We were still studying the case. And this was our first message! I remember Hague looking to his translator to see if this was correct and then to his advisers with an expression of incredulity. It was such reckless behavior. It was clear that Moreno was unhappy about the Assange case even then.
The impression created in many media reports over a number of years was that Assange had abused the hospitality of the Ecuadorian government in various ways. Was it your sense that these reports were fair and grounded in fact, or that there was an agenda behind them?
From the beginning, the Moreno government were trying to build up an argument and an evidence base in order to expel him later on. All these previous political conflicts that were cited in support of this decision — for instance, the idea that Assange had out-and-out supported Catalan independentists and in so doing engineered a diplomatic crisis with Spain — were seriously exaggerated. Since 2012, Assange continued to carry out his own political work [with Wikileaks], which never gave us a massive problem.
When we started seeing that there were efforts to relay conflicts that would take place within the embassy to the media — and to spin them in such an exaggerated way — I got the clear sense there was a political objective in all this, which was to justify the subsequent action against Assange.
It’s curious the extent to which he’s been figured as a key actor within a kind of neo-Cold-War discourse, as an ally or useful idiot for Russia. For instance, in the suggestion that he almost single-handedly swung the 2016 US elections in Trump’s favor after Wikileaks published Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Absolutely. Such political earthquakes are never solely determined by one character in that way. That’s why I’m convinced they were building up a case against Assange. When all these maneuvers began, along with Moreno’s reaction in London, I started to think they were coordinated, and that they would end sooner or later with Assange’s expulsion.
But it was clear that they couldn’t do that right away — it would have provoked a huge political storm against Moreno. They first had to generate the necessary conditions — discrediting Assange, smearing him, etc. — that would later justify the executive action.
Correa described Moreno as the “greatest traitor in Ecuadorian history” after Assange was arrested. Can you explain how their relationship broke down, particularly after Moreno took office?
Moreno was selected as the candidate for a number of reasons. Firstly, he enjoyed high levels of popularity, as the soft or likeable face of the government, as against Correa, more of an executive figure. He was confrontational, while Moreno would tend to shy away from conflict if possible. This distribution of roles worked very well during Correa’s tenure.
Once it was clear Correa would step down, the decision was taken to present a softer face, considering that now it was time for a less combative, more managerial approach after the upheaval of the citizens’ revolution. At the time this seemed like a sound plan — within Ecuadorian public opinion, there was also a certain sense of saturation, given Correa’s quasi-permanent confrontations. So, the idea of a softer president ostensibly more given to dialogue seemed attractive. This was the initial plan, anyway.
The Ecuadorian left would always relativize these positions. The rationale was that in order to govern you have to seek majorities, agreement, consensus. But at the same time, you have to be very clear who you’re governing for and who you’re governing against. And this means at certain moments you have to confront and fight. You generate alliances precisely for this reason.
When Moreno came to power, we initially interpreted his government’s actions as a change of style. But when it becomes clear this adaptation is increasingly serving to silence your own side, and not to confront powers imposing a program of economic and financial adjustments on the country, suspicions begin to grow.
Politics is the art of knowing when to confront and when to negotiate. And in this sense, we went from one extreme to the other. You could criticize Correa for certain failings, but the content of his policies was based around the defense of the social majority. With Moreno, you have to recognize that, when all his concessions appear to be almost systematically in favor of big business in Ecuador, the banks, and the US Embassy, you’re no longer talking about alliances or consensus — you’ve passed to the other side of the river.
Was Moreno promised anything in exchange for handing Assange over — in terms of financial assistance for example?
Some have claimed this was the case, but I do not think he was promised anything concretely. In the end, Assange had just become a nuisance who served no purpose for Moreno and made relations with the US and the EU more complicated. He wanted Assange gone from the beginning but, as I’ve said, he had to build up a case and turn public opinion against him.
This unfortunately is where the Swedish internet activist Ola Bini comes in. He was detained in Quito the same day Assange was arrested, held for two months without charge, and now also risks being extradited to the US. He finds himself being used as a pawn by more powerful actors. Moreno is using him as a justification for Assange’s arrest — claiming the two men were involved in hacking the Ecuadorian government — while the US see him as part of its case against Julian.
When was the last time you had contact with Assange, be it via media or in person?
The last time I had a conversation with Julian was face-to-face in the embassy. I don’t think Moreno had even come to power yet, or if he had it was only very recent. I say this because at this point I wasn’t visiting as part of any mission, but simply came to see how a friend was holding up.
As soon as Moreno took over, these kinds of visits were no longer possible. He imposed a very strict system of visits, whereby Assange could only see his lawyers. So, finding that this was the case, I was forced to take a step back.