César Muñoz/ANDES

UK-Latin American Relations after the Assange Scandal

On August 2nd, I wrote a brief commentary for International Policy Digest with my thoughts about Ecuador’s foreign policy which I argued that, while Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa is not necessarily as ambitious as his Venezuelan friend and counterpart, Hugo Chavez (nor does he have the same amount of resources) Quito has carried out several interesting foreign policy initiatives in the past few years.

Among the issues that I mentioned was that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was in Ecuador’s embassy in London. I also stated that I had mixed feelings about what should be Assange’s ultimate fate, meaning whether he should be extradited from the UK to Sweden over sexual assault allegations (and possibly to the U.S.) or receive asylum. In the past 72 hours Ecuador has granted Assange asylum thus creating a diplomatic storm between London and Quito.

The whole situation has become a circus, with journalists and police camped outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London. There are a plethora of issues that are currently being discussed, including whether the British government can forcefully enter the embassy and physically remove Assange.

The BBC recently reported that “UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was ‘no legal basis’ to allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the country and warned that the case could go on for a ‘considerable’ time. In a statement issued after the Ecuadorean decision, Mr. Hague said that Britain was under a ‘binding obligation’ to extradite him to Sweden.”

Putting the Scandal in the Greater Sphere

Whatever happens to Assange will also affect relations between the UK and Ecuador. While this, at first glance, may not sound like a big issue, it will be as it will also affect the relations between the United Kingdom and the rest of Latin America. Over the past several years, the UK has been trying to revamp its foreign policy towards different regions, such as Latin America and the Caribbean. For the sake of brevity, I will direct readers to my organization’s November 2011 publication on UK-Latin America relations. Nevertheless, London’s attempts to improve relations with Latin America have faced major challenges over the years, namely, Argentina’s dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas islands.

This dispute became even tenser this year as 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the 1983 war between the two countries. There have been plenty of nationalistic declarations from both Buenos Aires and London, both from the governments and the population in general (particularly on the Argentine side). This situation did not help improve London’s relations with other South American governments as Buenos Aires was adamant to rally regional unity around its claim for the islands. For example, at one point Peru was pressured into not allowing a British warship, the HMS Montrose, to dock in the port of Callao, as Buenos Aires regarded this as a way of dissent. It is worth noting that, apart from the Montrose incident, Lima and London enjoy strong diplomatic and trade relations.

Trying to Figure Out the Future

As with any developing story, particularly when it involves inter-state relations, it is too early to make accurate predictions of what will be the future of UK-Ecuador and UK-Latin America relations as a whole, after the Assange scandal. Much will depend on whether the Australian citizen actually is able to travel to Ecuador and for how long he chooses to remain there. As a recent commentary in MercoPress called it, the Assange-Ecuador issue could become, if it continues, a new “Falklands” type of situation, which hampers London’s initiatives in the region.

Certainly, trade will continue to be a major factor, and it’s doubtful that regional states, in Latin American or the Caribbean, that have heavy commercial relations with the UK, will put them in jeopardy to demonstrate solidarity with Ecuador. Then again, tense diplomatic relations are generally unwanted by everyone, that’s just what we may get.

Several major Latin American organizations such as ALBA, UNASUR and the Organization of American States are in the process of organizing emergency summits to discuss the Quito-London diplomatic crisis. In the meantime, the member states of the Quito-friend and Hugo Chavez-led ALBA, have already pronounced themselves rejecting “the threats” by the UK government and have expressed their “unfailing solidarity” with Quito’s position.

The way the Assange issue plays out will have important repercussions for the future of the UK’s relations with Latin America. Should Assange be able to actually travel to Ecuador and stay there for any period of time, will there be any kind of backlash from London or Washington? Will Ecuador become more diplomatically isolated? The coming days will hopefully clear the air, particularly regarding what diplomatic positions other Latin American governments take. In any case, it seems clear that London’s attempts to have deeper relations with Latin America as a whole, now that the Falkland’s issue seems to be calming down, have just gotten that much more difficult.