QUITO, Ecuador -- Pablo Castro keeps glancing over his shoulder, and only once he’s in a park alone does he start talking. He says he likes open spaces, but he also has reasons for caution. Last year, while gathered with nine colleagues, planning to join protests over water rights, police broke down the door and arrested them. The men and women — most students in their 20s — were accused of planting small explosives that scattered pamphlets. The government never proved a connection, but the Luluncoto 10, as they’re known, were charged with terrorism and spent a year in jail. Castro, 25, says their only crime was opposing the administration.
Ecuador is back in the spotlight as it mulls giving NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum in the name of democracy and human rights. President Rafael Correa, who granted WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange asylum last year, is being hailed as a champion of free speech and is cementing his role as one of Latin America’s leading leftists.
But at home, his record is more complicated. As he’s fought for WikiLeaks’ right to publish secret and confidential information, he’s imposed some of the hemisphere’s most draconian regulations on his own press. This week, a new media watchdog with sweeping powers began operating. It’s headed by a Correa appointee. The president has also passed decrees hobbling civil-society groups and, as Castro discovered, dusted-off dictatorship-era laws from the 1960s that give authorities a wide dragnet to sweep up “terrorists.”
“They were never able to prove anything in our case, but they still charged us with terrorism,” said Castro, a longtime student activist. “What were they trying to say with that trial? That whoever opposes the government is a terrorist.”
His case isn’t isolated. Two weeks ago, Mery Zamora, a leader of a teachers’ union, was sentenced to eight years in jail on terrorism and sabotage charges. Her crime? Inciting students to take to the streets of Guayaquil in 2010 at a time when Correa was briefly held hostage by police. The government says Zamora’s acts were tantamount to supporting a coup. Seven people in Cotopaxi are also facing terrorism charges for leading a similar protest.
Through 2011, there have been at least 204 cases of civil society and environmental leaders charged with terrorism and sabotage, according to the Andino University’s human rights program. In addition, 48 union leaders and 20 journalists have faced criminal charges. The university won’t provide updated figures because the government backlash against the 2011 report forced the university to vet its data with an international commission, which has yet to release its findings.
Laws were broken in some of those cases, said Carlos David Herrera, a human rights professor at Quito’s Catholic University, but few, if any, qualify as terrorism. Instead, the charges seem designed to silence government critics.
“You hear the word ‘terrorism’ and it conjures up all sorts of images,” he said, noting that some human rights groups are wary of defending terrorists. “But the reality is these people were holding marches that have, for the most part, been absolutely innocent, and when there has been violence they weren’t directly involved.”
The government says it’s simply enforcing the law and reining in organizations and media conglomerates that act more like political parties than neutral observers. Before Correa took office in 2007, the country churned through seven presidents in a decade — some toppled during mass demonstrations. Many in this nation of 15 million are grateful for the stability, and Correa easily won reelection in February.
“Correa is taking power away from the rich to focus on the poor — he’s the only one who has ever cared about us,” said Gonzalo Perez, a 65-year-old electrician, sitting in front of the presidential palace. “That’s why the media hates him, because they’re losing power.”
But Correa’s popularity has been hard on the opposition, said Zamora, the union leader sentenced to eight years in jail. She claims she was targeted because she led thousands of teachers to the capital — weeks before Correa’s hostage crisis — to protest education reforms that included layoffs. During her trial, Correa and his ministers openly called for her conviction, she said.
“My only crime was to have the bravery and guts to defy the government’s arrogance and authoritarianism and not submit the teachers’ union to Correa’s blackmail,” said Zamora, who is free pending appeal. “I go to school everyday and teach 10 year olds. How can I be charged with terrorism and still be a teacher? I’ll tell you, because I’ve never committed a crime in my life.”
A U.S. trained economist, Correa has embraced Latin America’s left as he’s bristled at what he sees as U.S. hypocrisy and undue influence in the region. While the United States blasts media laws in Ecuador and Venezuela, it spies on its own press, he recently told supporters. And while it questions other countries’ human rights records, it has acknowledged torturing terrorism suspects and holding detainees at Guantanamo for years without trial.
Last week, after rejecting U.S. trade preferences that were being used to pressure the government in the Snowden case, Correa said he’d send $23 million a year to the U.S. to help it improve its human rights record.
“Ecuador is not morally above any country in the world,” Correa said. “But we also can’t accept cynical positions full of double morals that aren’t based on logic or truth, but on force and power.”
Correa is often mentioned as the successor to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and embracing conflicts like the Snowden affair only bolsters that perception.
“As he disengages [from] the United States, Correa is emerging as the region’s most powerful leftist leader,” wrote Stratfor, the U.S.-based research group. “Correa has provided the political stability the country lacked for a decade prior to his rule. Along with increased social spending, this stability gave Correa substantial political support that other leftist leaders do not have.”
Still, openly championing Snowden is a risk for this country. The United States is Ecuador’s largest trading partner and provides about $21.3 million in annual aid to Ecuador. U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell warned that offering Snowden asylum could lead to “grave difficulties” and “very negative repercussions” for the country.
Correa seems confident the nation will rally behind him in the uneven battle.
“We know they have the power to destroy us,” Correa said of the United States. “But if my honest and sovereign position provokes retaliation that hurts my country then I have no problem in stepping aside. My job is always at the disposal of my bosses, the Ecuadoran people.”
Castro, the student leader, admires Correa’s principled stand and says giving asylum to Assange and Snowden is the right thing to do. He just wishes the government was as generous with its own critics.
“If someone here reveals documents or acts of corruption in this government, then they better go find some other country to live,” he said. “If I was a journalist, and truly understood Ecuador’s domestic policies, this is the last place I would ask for asylum.”