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Ecuador leader seeks moral halo in asylum fight
Assange » Rafael Correa tries to seize the global spotlight by defying U.S., Europe.

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Correa, 49, met the 41-year-old Assange for the first time in May, in a long-distance video hookup, when the Australian ex-hacker interviewed the president for his Kremlin-funded TV program.

"Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger," Correa told Assange. "Welcome to the club of the persecuted."

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A month later, Assange was bedding down inside Ecuador’s embassy in London.

One cable published by WikiLeaks prompted Correa to expel a U.S. ambassador in 2010 for alleging a former Ecuadorean police chief was corrupt and suggesting Correa had looked the other way.

Correa has spurned U.S.-backed multinational lenders and alienated international capitalists as he courts the likes of Russia, Iran and China. The latter is now Ecuador’s main lender and buys most of its oil.

At home, analysts don’t think the Assange embrace will have much effect on Correa’s high popularity. His approval ratings top 70 percent, in large part due to generous social welfare spending.

Outside is another question.

"It is hard to see how Correa comes out a winner," said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "There are no gains, only potential losses."

Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said he was surprised by the move.

"Ecuador’s diplomatic relations with Europe, especially the U.K., are in danger of collapsing," he said.

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Engel expects the decision will alienate the U.S. Congress, prompting it to vote against renewal of the Andean Trade Preference Act, which allows Ecuadorean goods into the United States free of tariffs.

Forty-five percent of Ecuador’s exports go to the U.S., accounting for about 400,000 jobs.

Trade with Sweden and Britain, by contrast, are piddling. Ecuador exported $23 million in goods, mostly food, to Sweden and $134 million in goods to Britain last year. Sweden doesn’t even have an embassy in Ecuador.

A preferential trade pact with the European Union expires at the end of 2013 and if it’s not renewed, Ecuador’s exports could be cut 4 percent, costing it jobs. Talks on renewing that pact already have been stalled for six months.

Correa, in typical fashion, proclaims that he doesn’t want a free trade agreement. He wants a different sort of pact, one that would protect Ecuador’s weaker agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

It’s a bit like Correa’s proposal for preventing oil development in Ecuador’s pristine Yasuni rainforest reserve. He has been asking European nations to pay Ecuador not to drill in the reserve.

So far, commitments have been few.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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