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.”