US improves ties with Ecuador after Assange expelled

By FRANCO ORDONEZ | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: May 15, 2019

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Now that Ecuador has expelled Julian Assange from its embassy in London, the Trump administration is opening a “new chapter of cooperation” with the South American government.

USAID Administrator Mark Green will join Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Valencia in Ecuador on Wednesday in signing a memorandum of understanding to work together on a series of economic and democracy initiatives. They include emergency response to natural disasters, economic development, environmental coordination and strengthening democratic institutions.

“This MOU is the next step in this partnership,” Tom Babington, a spokesman for USAID, told McClatchy. “It demonstrates USAID’s commitment to helping Ecuador on its journey to self-reliance, capitalizing on Ecuador’s commitment to its own democratic strengthening and development.”

The agreement reflects a new level of coordination since the Ecuadorian government kicked the WikiLeaks founder out of its embassy to the delight of U.S. officials long frustrated with Ecuador for granting asylum to Assange.

Ecuador President Lenin Moreno, who took office two years ago, has sought to improve relations with the country’s top trading partner after ties with the United States became strained during the decade when former president Rafael Correa was in power.

The left-wing leader, in 2007, wouldn’t renew a U.S. lease of a military base in Ecuador. In 2011, he kicked out the U.S. ambassador, and a year later gave political asylum to Assange. Throughout his leadership, Correa sided with other leftist governments that painted the United States as an imperialist bully bent on punishing Latin American governments that didn’t do its bidding.

The signing of the MOU on Wednesday represents a big step toward cooperation from 2014 when USAID and Ecuador were unable to reach agreement on a revised bilateral assistance agreement, after which USAID closed its Mission in Ecuador. Since then, USAID said it’s been focused on helping the people of Ecuador through programs that support civil society and independent media.

Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, said there is “a lot of underbrush that has to be worked out before they can seriously talk about a trade agreement,” but emphasized that Moreno has helped reorient his government’s perspective so that this kind of discussion is even possible.

“Does this translate yet to concrete shifts, trade agreements, increased trade, investments in certain sectors, I don’t know that we can say the answer to that is yes,” Farnsworth said. “But the body language has clearly shifted.”

David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd., which has been working with Ecuadorian exporters in food and beverage, agriculture and other industry groups to take advantage of new relations with the United States, said Moreno has helped turn around 10 years of stagnation.

He cited Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Ecuador, Moreno’s visit to the United States and increased discussions between the two governments’ top officials on trade and investment. Assange, Lewis said, was just the final step.

“That was the coup de grace,” Lewis said. “The move on Assange was the final dot the i, cross the t’s. But even before the culmination of the Assange debacle, they had already made the moves.”

Pence, who brought up Assange in meetings with the Ecuadorian government, cited the improved relations during a visit to Quito last year where he thanked Moreno for his leadership.

“Prior to your election, our nations had experienced 10 difficult years where our people always felt close but our governments drifted apart,” Pence said. “But over the past year, Mr. President, thanks to your leadership and the actions that you’ve taken have brought us closer together once again.”

The United States has provided more than $30 million to assist Venezuelans and other vulnerable populations that have fled to Ecuador since Fiscal Year 2018. Ecuador is currently hosting more than 300,000 people who have fled Venezuela.

USAID is exploring different options to reestablish a presence in Ecuador. But Babington said it would not be the USAID model that existed in Ecuador in the past. He emphasized that any new programs will require congressional approval.

“We congratulate President Lenin Moreno on ushering in a new era of U.S.-Ecuador bilateral cooperation focused on mutual interests,” Babington said.

©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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