QUITO – Ecuador’s diplomatic protection of Julian Assange once allowed the small Andean nation’s leftist government to antagonize its US foe and argue that it was defending free speech, while cracking down on the press at home.
But after seven years and a new government, that relationship frayed, as President Lenin Moreno sought to improve Ecuador’s relations with the US.
After calling the WikiLeaks founder an “inherited problem,” Moreno on Thursday revoked Assange’s asylum, allowing his arrest. Officials described him as an intolerable tenant at its London embassy, accusing him of blocking security cameras, mistreating guards and once spreading feces on the walls.
“The patience of Ecuador has reached its limit,” Moreno said.
Public cracks in Ecuador’s patience with Assange emerged toward the end of the administration of Rafael Correa, the leftist leader who granted the asylum in 2012 and who criticized Moreno’s decision, calling him a traitor.
In October 2016, Correa temporarily restricted Assange’s internet access after WikiLeaks began publishing messages apparently sent and received by Hillary Clinton’s top aide John Podesta related to the 2016 US election.
When he took over the presidency in 2017, Moreno, a former vice president under Correa, was expected to continue his predecessor’s policies, including asylum for Assange. However he quickly took a different path, setting off a bitter feud between the two men and raising doubts about how long Assange would be allowed to remain at the embassy.
Central to Moreno’s shift was an interest in deepening ties with the US Moreno, a 66-year-old who uses a wheelchair since being shot during a robbery two decades ago, ended Ecuador’s alliance with Venezuela and a leftist bloc of nations, choosing instead to pursue a trade deal with Washington. He’s looked to renegotiate Chinese oil-backed loans and signed a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund to shore up a troubled economy.
The new president described Assange as a “stone in our shoe” that was hurting Ecuador’s relations with other countries.
“This was something that many people thought was coming and at a time when Ecuador is really trying to get closer to the US it makes sense,” said Michael Shifter, president of the inter-American Dialogue, a think tank.
Ecuador began looking for ways to get Assange to leave. It granted him Ecuadorean citizenship in late 2017, hoping the UK would provide him with diplomatic status and immunity from arrest if he left the embassy. The UK government denied the request.
In early 2018, the government again restricted Assange’s communications, accusing him of breaking a written agreement not to meddle in the affairs of other countries. The decision came after Assange took to Twitter to criticize the detention of a former Catalan leader and the UK for expelling Russian diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy.
A few months later, Vice President Mike Pence visited Moreno in Quito to discuss trade and a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Ecuadorean officials continued to hold regular meetings with their US counterparts in recent days.
“I think it is very unlikely they didn’t talk to the US first” about ending Assange’s asylum, said Sebastian Hurtado, president of Profitas, a Quito political-risk consulting firm.
In October, the government laid out a list of rules that Assange would have to follow if he wanted to remain at the embassy, where he lived in a small corner room and received guests including the actress Pamela Anderson, who lashed out at governments in the US, UK and Ecuador.
“You are devils and liars and thieves,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Aside from barring any political meddling, Ecuador also required Assange to clean the bathroom and take care of a pet cat. Moreno said he repeatedly broke those rules, pointing to WikiLeaks’ leaking of Vatican documents earlier this year. He said Assange also installed “electronic and distortion equipment” that are prohibited in the building and accessed embassy security files without permission.
WikiLeaks alleged that Ecuador had conducted an espionage campaign against Assange and secretly cooperated with the US.
Ecuador also accused Assange of trying to destabilize the government by allegedly leaking documents tying Moreno to a corruption scandal involving payments to an offshore account from a Chinese firm that built a dam. Moreno denied any wrongdoing.
Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo said authorities had detected that a member of WikiLeaks was living in Ecuador and working with a former minister in the Correa administration to allegedly undercut the government. Russian hackers had set up shop in the country, she said.
“We aren’t going to allow Ecuador to be turned into a center for hacking, “ she said. “And we can’t allow illegal activities developed in the country to harm citizens from Ecuador or other countries or any government.”
Ecuadorean business leaders hope removing Assange from the embassy will speed up talks for a trade agreement with Washington. Analysts say that Moreno’s decision will likely be welcomed by many Ecuadoreans who saw Assange as a nuisance. “Most people are ok with just having this guy leave the embassy, finally, “ said Hurtado, the analyst. “What I always wondered was why they took so long.”