The Gunboat Diplomacy Trap: How Ecuador Used Assange to School the Brits

U.S. and British diplomats should read up on Latin American history before they try to strong-arm regional governments and their embassies.

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Erick Ilaquize / Reuters

Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño addresses the media during a news conference to announce his government's decision over Julian Assange's case at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Quito, Ecuador, on Aug. 16, 2012.

Judging by the Stonehenge-to-Sgt. Pepper spectacle of the London Olympics’ opening ceremonies, Brits take jolly good pride in knowing their history. But here’s an early 20th-century episode that Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service apparently forgot: the Venezuela Crisis of 1902, when British and other European warships blockaded and bombarded the South American country’s ports to force it to pay foreign debts. It was a classic instance of “gunboat diplomacy,” and it’s the sort of thing that Latin Americans, given the centuries of often ugly foreign intervention they’ve experienced, certainly tend to remember.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa remembers it so well, in fact, that he sucked Britain into a diplomatic blunder this week. For much of the summer, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s wanted in Sweden to answer charges of sexual assault, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition – not just to Sweden but possibly also to the U.S., where he could face trial for espionage. The leftist Correa professes to admire Assange for releasing thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables (one of which gave Correa a pretext for booting a U.S. ambassador out of Ecuador last year). On Wednesday, as Correa moved closer to granting Assange political asylum, frustrated U.K. authorities reminded Ecuador, in writing, of a British law that revokes an embassy’s diplomatic immunity if it’s judged to be harboring a fugitive.

MORE: Assange’s Special Asylum: Why Ecuador Isn’t Nice to Anyone Else

But that simply opened the door to accusations from Ecuador that the Brits were threatening to storm the embassy – shades of 1902! – if it didn’t hand Assange over. It also gave Correa, who’s been accused of offering Assange sanctuary as a way to deflect attention from his petulant crackdowns on freedom of expression back in Ecuador, enough of a diplomatic upper hand to go ahead and give the WikiLeaks leader political asylum on Thursday. “No one is going to terrify us!” Correa tweeted. He succeeded in evoking the ghosts of gunboat diplomacy – and in turning the subject from an extradition case, if not Ecuador’s possible flouting of international law, into a heroic standoff between a defiant underdog and an imperialista power.

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

It was just the latest example of how absent-minded governments in the developed world can still be when dealing with developing regions like Latin America. That’s especially true in countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, where leaders are apt to exploit a national sense of vicitimization. When a coup briefly ousted socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, the Bush Administration, wittingly or not, gave the world the impression that it supported the putsch against a democratically elected head of state – even though Washington had to know what a raw nerve the history of yanqui-backed coups in Latin America was (and is). A popular uprising against the coup leaders restored Chávez to power – and ever since, the anti-U.S. firebrand, who looks set to win yet another term this year despite battling cancer, has been able to use Washington’s missteps in that episode to leverage his political power and increasingly authoritarian governance.

The Obama Administration hasn’t always performed adeptly south of the border, either. In 2009 it decided to move U.S. counter-drug operations in South America from Ecuador to bases in Colombia. But it didn’t consult the other South American governments about the possibility that the Colombia-based mission might also include counterinsurgency, even beyond Colombia’s borders. This despite the fact that those countries share historically founded anxieties about U.S. military involvement on their continent. Washington’s naive failure to allay those fears drew an angry earful from even moderate governments like Brazil’s – and dropped yet another gift into the lap of Chávez, who in typically hyperbolic but politically effective fashion declared that the U.S.-Colombia pact had “loosed the winds of war.”

Little wonder, then, that Chávez keeps going to that well, especially now that he’s finally facing strong opposition in the October election. Last weekend he announced that authorities had detained a former U.S. Marine who tried to enter Venezuela illegally from Colombia – an American “mercenary,” Chávez insisted, bent on fomenting anti-government unrest before the presidential contest. U.S. diplomats were finally allowed to visit the man on Wednesday, but so far there’s little evidence to back up Chávez’s “mercenary” charges.

Still, this week’s British slip-up was a reminder of how easy it remains for First World countries to set off the Third World’s gunboat diplomacy sirens. It also recalls how easy it is for leaders like Correa – who, given the condemnation he’s received from international human rights groups for criminalizing journalists and other critics inside Ecuador, is the unlikeliest of patrons for a free-speech champion like Assange – to use that noise as convenient cover. These are the sorts of things we expect our diplomats, especially in a foreign service as elite as Britain’s, to take into account before they move  the chess pieces. Correa isn’t likely to checkmate London in the end; Assange still faces arrest if he leaves the embassy. But for a moment, at least, Ecuador’s president has schooled the Brits in history.

MORE: Correa’s Clemency: Why Critics Say Ecuador’s Correa Is Still a Threat to Press Freedom