Out of Ecuador: Another U.S. Ambassador Bites the WikiDust

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Updated: April 7, 2011

Another U.S. Ambassador in Latin America bit the WikiDust this week. This time it was a leftist rather than a conservative government pushing the yanqui envoy out, but the reason was similar – and similarly lame. WikiLeaks recently released a confidential U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 – which the Spanish daily El País published on Monday, April 4 – in which Heather Hodges, the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, calls the former head of the country’s national police corrupt and recommends revoking his U.S. visa. She also suggests that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was aware of the problem – and goes on to assert that “corruption among Ecuadorian national police officers is widespread and well known.”

That’s certainly not the kind of foreign-service chatter the U.S. or any country wants the public ogling; and it certainly doesn’t enhance U.S.-Ecuador relations. But as I argued in this space two weeks ago regarding Mexico, it’s not cause to ask an ambassador to leave your country the way Correa abruptly showed Hodges to the airport on Tuesday, branding her persona non grata. Last month, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, was forced to resign after Mexican President Felipe Calderón spent weeks publicly complaining about a WikiLeaked cable in which Pascual questions the drug-war trustworthiness of the Mexican military. In contrast to leaders in other parts of the world – who have largely shrugged at the deluge of embarrassing WikiLeaked communiqués because they understand this is the way diplomats, including their own, confer in private – Calderón took the Pascual cable as a personal affront.

While that might have won Calderón short-term political points at home, ousting an ambassador is a serious diplomatic gesture that, if done impulsively, can cost you relationships abroad in the long run. “It risks making these Presidents look excessively thin-skinned and capricious,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.

That said, however, Sabatini thinks it’s not so surprising to see this reaction from Latin America to the WikiLeaks cables. For one thing, the region has a “long, proud tradition of beating up on U.S. ambassadors,” he argues, a sort of defense mechanism against Washington’s often imperious hegemony in the western hemisphere. Even as U.S. hegemony has waned, the yanqui envoy-bashing has continued – especially among leftist governments opposed to the U.S., like Venezuela and Bolivia, which expelled its U.S. ambassador in 2008 and has yet to welcome another – as a way to assert independence from Washington and to let the Obama Administration know, fairly or not, that it hasn’t done much more than its predecessors to improve U.S.-Latin American relations. “WikiLeaks,” says Sabatini, “has simply given Latin governments new fodder.”

As TIME’s reporter in Ecuador, Stephan Küffner, reminds us, questions about Jaime Hurtado, the former national police general commander Hodges targets, had been coursing through the Ecuadorian media long before El País published her WikiLeaks cable. (Hurtado has publicly denied the allegations Hodges brings up, including kickbacks and human trafficking.) But the leftist Correa scores his own nationalist points by booting Hodges: it helps galvanize his base a month before a May 7 referendum in which the President hopes to gain more control over sectors like the judiciary and media.

Unlike Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, the most hard-line of the left-wing, anti-U.S. governments in Latin America today, Ecuador was seen to have a friendlier relationship with Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even made a point of visiting Correa in Quito last summer to underscore that fact. And Correa’s own Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patiño, insisted this week that the move against Hodges (who he insisted was not officially expelled) was “aimed solely at the individual involved” and wasn’t something that should “interrupt the cordial relations between our two nations.”

Problem is, in cases like this, an ambassador isn’t just an individual. She represents a nation, and if you give her the heave-ho for seemingly petty reasons – she wasn’t calling for the overthrow of a government here, she was conveying widely held concerns about corruption in a police force, and she did so in a confidential cable – you can’t expect it to not somehow interrupt cordial relations. (Update: The Associated Press and Reuters report Thursday morning, April 7, that the U.S. will now expel Ecuador’s ambassador, Luis Gallegos, and cancel high-level U.S.-Ecuador talks set for June.) Countries like Mexico and Ecuador might want to pause and ask how they themselves would react if the U.S. were to boot their ambassadors over similar criticism leaked from a private cable (and you can believe their cables overflow with it). They’d cry foul in a minute – gringo high-handedness! – yet when they do it, it’s a noble defense of sovereignty. That sounds like WikiHypocrisy.