The Washington Diplomat / April 2015
By Larry Luxner
After three years and four months as Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States, Nathalie Cely Suárez is leaving Washington at the end of March — satisfied that she helped bring bilateral ties back from the abyss.
“Our relations are vibrant, with lots of potential,” she said. “We are at a level we haven’t experienced in a long time. I’m really glad we’ve overcome the hurdles.”
It’s hard to imagine just how high those hurdles were when Cely, 49, arrived here in January 2012 at the behest of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.
Eight months earlier, her predecessor, Luis Gallegos, was declared persona non grata by the State Department and given 72 hours to leave the country. That followed the expulsion of Heather Hodges, the U.S. ambassador to Quito, after WikiLeaks released a secret diplomatic cable in which Hodges accused Correa of appointing an official to command Ecuador’s national police force even though he knew that official was corrupt.
As if that wasn’t enough, four months later Ecuador’s embassy in Washington’s Columbia Heights district was badly damaged in a 5.8-magnitude earthquake — forcing its 30 staffers to work out of temporary quarters in Georgetown until their old mission could be repaired.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London for the past three years to avoid extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors want to question him about allegations of rape and sexual molestation. The cost of providing a constant police presence to guard Assange should he try to leave the embassy has already exceeded £10 million ($15.3 million), according to Scotland Yard.
Finally, Correa himself has come under frequent criticism by Adam Namm, the U.S. ambassador in Quito, for restricting press freedoms, limiting private media ownership and silencing the opposition.
Even the more surprising, then, that Cely would lavish praise on a diplomat who was openly accused by her president of meddling in Ecuador’s internal affairs.
“Adam Namm is a great ambassador. He’s a very candid person, and he’s part of the rebuilding of this trust. It wasn’t easy for me in the beginning, nor for him,” she said. “Little by little, Ambassador Namm has built a very important relationship in Ecuador.”
Yes, times have certainly changed for this oil-exporting country of 14 million inhabitants known to the world for Galápagos tortoises, Amazon rainforests, snow-capped volcanoes and Mitad del Mundo, the monument that marks the spot where the Equator crosses the Pan-American Highway.
“The United States did not have an ambassador in Ecuador for a year, and we didn’t have one here,” Cely told the Washington Diplomat one recent Sunday during an interview at her official residence on Bancroft Place.
Besides the WikiLeaks scandal, she said, Ecuador was still seething over what it saw as U.S. complicity in a 2008 Colombian government incursion — using missiles with GPS technology — into Ecuadorean territory across the Río Putumayo. Twenty members of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC were killed in the raid, which produced evidence of FARC’s dealings with the governments of both Ecuador and Venezuela.
“That created a lot of distrust,” she said. “From our point of view, there was no justification whatsoever for that attack.”
Yet in the years since then, tensions have cooled down, to the point where, in Cely’s own words, “Ecuador has found its dignity again” and doesn’t feel the need to thumb its nose at Uncle Sam.
“We are now in a different moment, and little by little our government has made efforts to look into the future, rather than in the past,” she said. Today, more than a million Ecuadoreans live in the United States, and some 50,000 Americans — mostly retirees — live in the South American country.
Cely, who was born and raised in the Pacific fishing port of Portoviejo, and in 1983 became a high-school exchange student in Macedonia, Ohio. She returned to U.S. shores nearly two decades later to finish her education, eventually graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public administration.
The ambassador and her husband Ivan Hernández have two sons; one studies at Penn State and the other at George Washington University.
Despite her obvious affection for the United States, Cely still bristles when people lump Ecuador’s Correa — who took office in 2007 — with Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
“It’s an oversimplification of Latin America to put all the ‘bad leftist’ countries in the same basket,” she said. “We have our own economic model, and even though we dearly respect other countries in South America and of course throughout the world, each country is entitled to shape their own future for their own citizens.”
She added that even though Ecuador shares some values with these left-leaning countries — all of which belong to ALBA, a Caracas-based regional alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States — the reality is much more complex.
“I would argue that the economic model Ecuador has implements is way different than those other countries,” Cely told us. “We have experienced 10 years of sound growth. The country has modernized in a way that hasn’t happened in centuries.”
Indeed, Ecuador expects to see GDP growth of up to 4 percent and inflation of only 3.2 percent in 2015 — a far cry from 1999, when Ecuador’s economy contracted by 7 percent and inflation topped 60 percent. The following year, then-President Jamil Mahuad replaced the worthless sucre with the U.S. dollar as Ecuador’s official currency, pegging the exchange rate as 25,000 sucres to one greenback.
“Oil has played an important role in Ecuador’s economy since the 1960s, but the growth we have experienced in the last 10 years is not related to petroleum,” she said. “More than 50 percent of our revenues used to come from oil; now it’s just one-fourth.”
In fact, Ecuador — the smallest of OPEC’s 13 member countries — is far less dependent on oil revenues than Venezuela, where food shortages and political unrest is on the rise despite that country’s vast petroleum wealth.
While Venezuela’s Chávez squandered his country’s petrodollar bonanza when times were good, leaving his successor, Nicolás Maduro, to scramble for handouts now that world oil prices have fallen by more than half, Correa — an economist educated in the United States and Belgium — wisely cut his country’s budget by 4 percent to about $35 billion, secured a $7.5 billion loan from China to maintain public spending and announced a tax reform that could generate $200 million a year.
“Now our growth has come more from sound internal demand,” said the ambassador. “We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Latin America, at less than 4 percent, and total U.S.-Ecuador bilateral trade is more than $19 billion.”
She said that annual U.S. exports to Peru have jumped from $2.4 billion to more than $8 billion in the last five years, making Ecuador a more important U.S. trade partner than much larger Peru — even though Peru and the United States have a free-trade agreement in place.
“What’s different about our socialism is that the well-being of our citizens is at the center. We’re trying to find a better balance between markets and the private sector,” said the ambassador. “That doesn’t mean we don’t believe the private sector is the true engine of growth. Ecuador, in fact, has shown the largest increase in Latin America, according to the World Competitiveness Index.”
Cely is quite proud of the fact that Americas Barometer — a study funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development — ranked Ecuador at the top of South American countries in the percentage of citizens who trust their nation’s judicial system (47.9 percent), followed by Colombia (42.7 percent) and Uruguay (40.8 percent).
Americas Barometer also ranked Ecuador second-best in evaluation of public safety management and said it was one of only two countries where a majority of citizens approved of the performance of their national police in ensuring security. In addition, she said, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last year ranked Ecuador the Western Hemisphere’s second-most productive country in drug seizures.
Things are so upbeat back home, she said, that young professionals from Spain are now flocking to Ecuador, reversing a decades-old trend that saw struggling ecuatorianos emigrating to the motherland in the hopes of finding menial labor.
Tourism is also booming, thanks partially to Ecuador’s use of the dollar as well as the country’s relatively low incidence of violent crime. Ecuador now receives 1.5 million tourists a year (including 260,000 Americans), up from less than 700,000 in 2008. One in four of those tourists visits the Galápagos Islands.
To boost those numbers, Ecuador recently paid a whopping $3.8 million for a TV commercial that aired at halftime during the 2015 Super Bowl. That made it the first foreign government to ever buy ad time to promote itself in such a way.
“We needed some huge event that would put Ecuador on the radar of the Americans,” said Cely. “This was the president’s idea. He thought, why not buy an ad during the Super Bowl?”
The 30-second spot, which ran in selected markets, featured tortoises, waterfalls, rainforests, historic churches and mountain vistas, with the soundtrack playing the Beatles hit “All You Need is Love” in the background.
“It’s too soon to measure, but a lot of people are talking about it on social media and blogs,” Cely said of the ad, noting that if tourism arrivals rise by even just 1 percent, the ad will have paid for itself. “People loved it — even those who usually have strong opinions against President Correa because they don’t believe the socialist model is the way to go.”
Glitzy tourism promotion ads aside, Correa’s critics are seething at what they see as attempts by an authoritarian president to muzzle the press at all costs.
Current legislation to amend Ecuador’s constitution to categorize communications as a “public service” has sparked fierce debate in Quito, with one pundit comparing the amendment to efforts by Stalin and Hitler to use the press as a propaganda tool.
“A public service is one in which the state, more or less, oversees that service,” Edison Lanza, special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organization of American States, said at a recent conference in Quito. “That’s fine for water, electricity, health and education. But we are not talking about that. We are talking about freedom of expression. This is an erroneous vision.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Correa regularly accuses the press of being corrupt, insults journalists, and tears up newspapers in public. In two separate cases he successfully sued the independent daily El Universo and two investigative reporters who wrote a critical book about his brother.
“Rafael Correa has repeatedly used the ‘public service’ argument as pretext to exercise broad regulatory powers over the media and influence news coverage of his government,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We urge Ecuadorean legislators to modify the proposed constitutional amendment to ensure that it respects international guarantees of freedom of expression.”
Asked about accusations of press censorship, Cely conceded that this is “a highly debated topic,” but “totally denies” that such a thing is going on in her country.
“I don’t blame them,’” she told us. “Journalists tend to worry about journalists not being able to do their job. But the debate is full of vivid, colorful, different opinions. We totally welcome constructive criticism. That’s how you create dialogue. That’s how society builds common goals and common dreams.”
Exactly what constitutes “constructive criticism” is itself debatable, though Cely is quick to blame the “media elite” in Ecuador for distorting the whole issue.
“You need to understand history. Sometimes Americans tend to forget their own history, and I think that’s condescending,” she said. “I can clearly remember when there was only one voice being heard, one single ideology being preached — and citizens being lied to about the fact. That’s what created such a disaster in my country.”
On the other hand, critics accuse Correa of using U.S. laws to take down content critical of the president posted on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in 1998, was intended to combat online piracy but in fact is being exploited by Correa to silence critics on the grounds their posts constitute copyright infringement.
“This is an attempt to control anything that is uncomfortable for the government. Correa can’t tolerate criticism,” opposition filmmaker Pocho Alvarez recently told GlobalPost. “Correa likes to sell himself as a progressive, a leftist, but his behavior could hardly be more reactionary.”
Correa has made no secret of his disgust at those who lash out at him on social media. The president recently warned in his weekly TV appearance that, “for every lying tweet they send out, we will send 10,000 that are truthful.”
Perhaps no surprise that Cely is also an avid Twitter fan. Since signing up in 2010 she’s sent out close to 30,000 tweets and has amassed nearly 61,000 followers.
“I tweet for various reasons,” she said. “I believe in direct communications, and there’s a lot of advantages in being able to pass your messages to such a large audience. Also, there was so much to debunk about Ecuador that I was using every available means to do just that.”
The ambassador, who’s been a currency trader, head of an educational foundation, vice-president of a large bank and now diplomat, isn’t sure what she’ll do once she returns to Quito — though chances are pretty good she’ll land a cabinet-level job in the Correa administration.
“Ecuadoreans are not shy,” Cely said of the man who’s led her country for the past eight years. “Everybody is free to say how they feel, and have their own opinions. If President Correa is trying to control the press, he’s doing a very lousy job.”