The Washington Diplomat / July 2013
By Larry Luxner
As Nathalie Cely Suárez is quickly finding out, being Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States isn’t a job for sissies.
In April 2011, the State Department declared her predecessor, Luis Gallegos, persona non grata and gave him 72 hours to leave the country in retaliation for Ecuador’s expulsion of the American ambassador in Quito, Heather Hodges. The crisis — unprecedented in bilateral history — was sparked by WikiLeaks’s release of a secret U.S. diplomatic cable in which Hodges suggested that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa knew a senior policeman was corrupt when Correa named him commander of Ecuador’s national police force.
Four months later, as if by divine conspiracy, the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood was badly damaged in a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, forcing its 30-member staff to work out of temporary quarters in Georgetown while the old mission underwent $5 million in repairs (it finally reopened in late June).
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, to which he fled a year ago after Correa granted him political asylum. Assange is wanted for questioning on rape charges in Sweden, although he says the case is just a ploy to eventually extradite him to the United States. The 41-year-old Australian’s continuing presence at the embassy is exhausting the patience of both British authorities and the Correa government, which in early June fired its envoy to Great Britain, Ana Alban, reportedly for failing to resolve the crisis.
Back home, the hugely popular Correa isn’t worried about losing his job. He was sworn in May 24 for his third four-year term in office, riding a wave of voter approval for increasing education and health care for the poor, improving infrastructure, strengthening the economy, and bringing stability to a country rocked by years of political turmoil.
But the president also faces blistering criticism from Washington’s ambassador to Quito, Adam Namm, over a recently passed press freedom law Namm says is anything but free or fair. Among other provisions, the law prohibits journalists from smearing a person’s “good name” and restricts private media ownership. Correa’s critics say the law is part of a broader campaign to silence the opposition. Correa in turn has accused Namm of meddling in Ecuador’s internal affairs and recently accused the CIA of using drug profits to destabilize his government.
As if all this isn’t enough, the increasingly nasty battle threatens Ecuador’s continued access to U.S. trade preferences that Quito says are crucial to the country’s economic prosperity — but it also elevates Correa’s status as the new standard-bearer of Latin America’s leftist movement following the death earlier this year of his friend, the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
“President Correa is a man of principles, and he always defends his principles,” Cely told The Washington Diplomat in a two-hour interview at her Kalorama residence last month. “This is beyond ideology. He’s a very pragmatic man, and sometimes his narrative to the United States has been very direct.”
Cely blamed the 2011 crisis that triggered the mutual expulsion of ambassadors squarely on veteran diplomat Hodges, who — she said wryly — “wasn’t the most loved person in Ecuador.”
“When you’re ambassador, you need to be very careful what you say,” Cely told us. “It wasn’t just about corruption in the police force. That wouldn’t have raised such concerns. Basically she said that President Correa was aware of the corruption and didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t provide any facts. We requested several times to retract [those accusations]. She refused to comment, so our government was forced to take this very difficult decision. We think it was really sad. It revealed that our relationship was not based on a profound, deep dialogue.”
It is this troubled relationship into which Cely plunged herself on Jan. 18, 2012, the day she presented her credentials to President Obama as Ecuador’s new ambassador in Washington.
Cely, 47, was born and raised in Portoviejo, a sleepy Pacific fishing port in the coastal province of Manabí. In 1983, at the age of 15, she arrived in Macedonia, Ohio — a town where high school girls from South America were still a rarity.
“When I came back to America in 2002 for my master’s degree, it was a totally different story,” she recalled. “Jennifer Lopez was in, and learning salsa was a cool thing to do. It was cool to be Latin American. I was so pleased to see Americans embracing Latin culture.”
Backed by a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, she graduated from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public administration. Earlier, Cely graduated from Universidad Católica de Guayaquil in 1990 with a degree in economics. She worked in the private sector until she was 30, as a currency trader for the financial firm Stratega and later an executive at Banco Unión. She was also president of Edúcate, a foundation that works to improve education through information and communication technology. Along the way, she got married and had two boys.
“I was vice president of a very large bank, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “I didn’t feel I was contributing to my country. I had a very early middle-age crisis.”
Cely and her husband, Ivan Hernández, moved from Guayaquil to Quito, where she finally found her calling: public service. Cely eventually joined President Jamil Mahuad’s economic team — then in the process of dollarizing Ecuador’s economy — and worked on initiatives to bolster education, health and housing. Later, as an official of the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank, Cely spent much of her time implementing low-income projects in Guatemala, Guyana, Suriname and the Bahamas.
Cely said that despite the recent bad blood, relations between her government and the Obama administration are actually getting better.
“Sometimes in the United States, President Correa is wrongly portrayed as a person who doesn’t appreciate American culture. But that’s totally untrue because the president really admires this country’s deep values,” Cely insisted. “He went to the University of Illinois and has always praised the U.S. educational system. He’s also praised your solidarity, the way when very difficult things happen, like the Boston Marathon bombing, you forget your differences and you seek the truth.”
Nearly 1.5 million Ecuadoreans live in the United States, and around 60,000 Americans — mostly retirees — live in Ecuador.
The problem, she says bluntly, is that this Colorado-size country, which straddles the Equator, is lousy at marketing.
“For so long, Ecuador has been a hidden secret. But now we have a sense of pride that we didn’t have in the past. President Correa has helped put Ecuador on the map,” she said. “Finally we have this sense of uniqueness that we can promote. We are not only diverse in nature, but also in our people. They are warm, nice, honest and hardworking.”
Cely said it’s important to make a distinction between Correa and fellow leftists like Chávez, who clearly despised the United States, and the anti-capitalist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. Unlike Ecuador, neither Venezuela nor Bolivia — which expelled the American ambassadors in Caracas and La Paz in unison nearly five years ago — have formally repaired their relations with Washington (although Venezuela may soon be sending an envoy back to the United States after a recent thaw in ties). She argues that lumping Ecuador in with Venezuela and Bolivia as the region’s anti-American leftists is a gross oversimplification.
“Those comparisons are totally unfair,” she said. “Sometimes people still see Latin America through the lens of the ’70s and ’80s, when there was a good left and a bad left. It’s so easy to box us in with what’s called the bad left. As much as we respect Venezuela and Bolivia, I can argue that we have a different model. Americans forget that Correa has won three elections in a row. His popularity rating is over 80 percent.”
Cely said her job in Washington is “to educate congressmen, the U.S. government and the American people” about Correa’s pro-business policies and why Ecuador needs trade preferences to stay prosperous.
The envoy, who first met Correa while the two studied at Universidad Católica in Guayaquil, conceded that Ecuador’s economic recovery didn’t start with Correa, but with the country’s dollarization in 2000 by then-President Mahuad. That was the year Ecuador got rid of its worthless sucre and adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency — the only South American country ever to do so.
Since then, Ecuador’s GDP has grown an average of 5.5 percent a year — ranking the nation of nearly 15.5 million inhabitants behind Chile and Peru but ahead of Colombia and Brazil. Ecuador’s annual per-capita income stands at around $8,500 (although the CIA puts it slightly higher, at $10,200). Oil revenues now account for 7.1 percent of GDP, compared to 14.2 percent for tax revenues.
“In the beginning, President Correa had a difficult relationship with the private sector. We passed a law that cut all the tax loopholes and increased our GDP by four points in the last four years,” the ambassador said. “By law, our debt cannot go higher than 40 percent of GDP. Also, if you have windfalls from oil, you cannot use it for current expenditures, or to hire more teachers and doctors, as important as they are. You can use it only to invest in infrastructure.”
This increase in state revenue, she explained, has been pumped into roads, ports, airports, hydroelectric power and other infrastructure. Within five years, she predicted, Ecuador will generate 83 percent of its power from hydroelectricity.
“When you hear a leftist president talking about efficiency, it’s very important,” Cely told us. “President Correa sees the private sector as an engine of growth. In Venezuela and Bolivia, the state has a much larger role in almost every single sector. In Ecuador, even in strategic sectors, we welcome private-sector participation, allowing us to have a fair share.”
Over the last five years, Ecuadorian exports to the United States grew at an annual clip of 26.6 percent, from $2.94 billion in 2007 to $6.06 billion in 2012. That was a faster growth than any other country in the Western Hemisphere, she noted.
But those exports will be threatened, Cely warned, if market access under the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) is allowed to expire on July 31 as scheduled. Originally, ATPA was designed as an economic incentive to help Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru fight drug trafficking. But Bolivia has since withdrawn from the program, and Colombia and Peru have free trade agreements with the United States — leaving Ecuador as the only real beneficiary of ATPA.
Cely warned that the end of such preferences could devastate a variety of Ecuadorian exports — from broccoli and quinoa to roses and canned tuna. That could put hundreds of thousands of jobs in jeopardy.
“If this happens, it could have a huge impact on Ecuador. We provide 30 percent of the roses to the U.S. market. Think how important this trade is for places like Miami and Los Angeles,” she said. “Colombia has a free trade agreement with the United States, so that would create a problem for us to compete. After all the money the U.S. has invested in Ecuador, all we’re asking is to cooperate and keep our access to this market.”
Noting that military expenditures now eat up 2.7 percent of Ecuador’s GDP, she said the country is doing its part to curb the trafficking of drugs destined for American consumers. “We want this extension because we think it’s an effective program and we’re doing our job. Every single Ecuadorean is paying for this, for a fight that we didn’t create. We are not [drug] consumers.”
Cely said some members of Congress want to punish Ecuador because of the country’s $19 billion judgment against Chevron over alleged contamination of groundwater in a remote swath of Amazon rainforest populated by indigenous tribes. (Despite the 2011 verdict against the oil giant, Chevron has vowed not to pay a dime and the case is still grinding its way through various appeals courts.)
“Some congressmen are against trade preferences because Chevron lost the case. That creates a lot of noise in the relationship,” she said. “I can understand Chevron’s choosing the United States as a place for the legal battle, but what gets on my nerves is when they try to take jobs in Ecuador as hostages and go after trade preferences.”
It’s clear Ecuador has some enemies on Capitol Hill, but who are its friends?
“A couple of senators are sensitive to Ecuador,” the ambassador replied without naming names, “but with the gridlock you now have, I don’t see a champion who really understands what’s happening.”
It doesn’t help that in 2009, Correa booted Americans out of an anti-narcotics surveillance base in Manta — not far from where Cely grew up — that was used to track clandestine cocaine shipments over a vast area of the Pacific Ocean. Under a 10-year lease negotiated in 1999, American servicemen were allowed to be stationed in Manta, but that agreement ended after Correa decided that the U.S. presence was anachronistic.
“The fight against drugs is our main concern,” Cely said. “People can tell you differently, but I’m an economist, and if you look at our budget priorities, we have invested $2.1 billion over the last four years in security. That’s more than what President Obama had requested for the whole region. We bought four drones from Israel and we’re buying more. They’re now flying over our coast. We have drastically reduced human trafficking. We’re also investing heavily to properly equip our police forces.”
Meanwhile, Cely said her country is spending “a couple of million dollars” on promotions aimed at making average Americans aware of her country’s predicament and the positive strides it’s made in fighting drug trafficking and improving the economy. “Brown Lloyd James is helping us with public relations. We used to have a lobbyist but we don’t have one at the moment. We’re looking to hire one.”
Despite Cely’s best intentions, she might want to speed up that hiring process.
Ecuador’s image in the United States will only get worse now that the government has adopted a controversial media law that’s widely opposed by the country’s top newspapers and broadcast outlets.
The law, passed June 14 by a National Assembly overwhelmingly dominated by Correa’s ruling Alianza Pais party (which controls 100 of 137 seats), redistributes the airwaves, sharply cutting private media’s share from 85 percent to a third in radio, and 71 percent in TV. Under the measure, a 33 percent share will go to state media and another 33 percent to community radio and TV. It also sets up a new regulatory body with the power to sanction and fine any company that refuses to correct published information.
That doesn’t sit well with U.S. Ambassador Namm, who in early May not only attended a Quito protest to celebrate World Press Freedom, he also penned a quotation by Thomas Jefferson — “The only security of all is in a free press” — on a giant cartoon that included criticism of Correa.
Correa reacted angrily, ranting that it was ironic for a diplomat like Namm to get involved in such a protest given Washington’s own foreign policy.
“We don’t allow corporations to flood our streets with guns,” he shouted to reporters on national TV. “We also don’t execute foreigners without a trial with drone attacks. And we don’t torture prisoners in offshore prisons like Guantánamo.”
Cely expressed the same sentiments, though perhaps in a more delicate way.
“In the United States, freedom of expression is the most important right, something I deeply admire. You can laugh about yourself; you don’t take things too seriously. But that’s because you’re not descended from Spain. In Latin America, we have a different culture. We treasure freedom of expression — it’s a core value — but we also value our honor. For Americans, this is sometimes difficult to understand.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), for one, obviously doesn’t see things that way.
“The Quito government’s decision to grant Julian Assange political asylum comes at a time when freedom of expression is under siege in Ecuador,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “President Correa’s press freedom record is among the very worst in the Americas, and providing asylum to the WikiLeaks founder won’t change the repressive conditions facing Ecuadorian journalists who want to report critically about government policies and practices.”
Cely said she’s invited CPJ officials to see Ecuador for themselves.
“There’s always another side to the story,” she told us. “I acknowledge there’s been a lot of polarization on this issue, but I think the majority of Ecuadorians are aware of this and have spoken out. President Correa’s re-election reflects the fact that Ecuadorians don’t think this is an issue.”
She argued that Ecuador’s establishment press is linked to old money and they resent the fact that they no longer hold absolute economic power.
“We had a draconian law, a very old law from the dictatorship of the 1970s that only regulates TV media, not the written press. Under this new law, everybody will be regulated. You need to find a balance between responsibility and freedom of expression. Here you have so many outlets that you can clearly differentiate between right-wing and left-wing outlets. We strongly believe we need to have options for Ecuadorians to decide who’s telling them the truth. We honor a press that respects collective rights.”
Cely added: “The only thing that remains controversial is going to prison for libel or slander. But even on that, the president is open for discussion. There’s no restriction on social media in the proposed law. Everybody can express their opinions freely.”
And by her government’s standards, that certainly includes Assange, who earned the eternal wrath of the United States for exposing hundreds of thousands of top-secret U.S. diplomatic cables through his WikiLeaks website.
“It’s a very difficult issue. We haven’t been able to take an immediate decision [on what to do with Assange],” said Cely, though she suggests that the hacker — some call him a traitor — remains a popular figure in her own country for standing up to Washington. “So many people in Ecuador think that what Assange did was for the greater good of the world. They believe that thanks to what he did, people know more about how foreign policy has been crafted.”
Given the precarious state of relations between Washington and Quito, Cely certainly has her work cut out for her, especially if Assange ever does one day leave the London embassy and wind up in Ecuador — but the ambassador said she’s up to the task.
“When I was minister of production, my role was to create bridges between the private and public sector, and I’ve managed to do that. I translated not only languages but also visions,” she said. “Sometimes you get lost in translation. I am looking for issues that can bring our nations together.”