Now that Ecuador has expelled Julian Assange from its embassy in London, the Trump administration is opening a “new chapter of cooperation” with the South American government.
USAID Administrator Mark Green joined Minister of Foreign Affairs José Valencia in Ecuador on Wednesday to sign a memorandum of understanding to work together on a series of economic and democracy initiatives. They include emergency response to natural disasters, economic development, environmental coordination and strengthening democratic institutions.
Green said the partnership would not be possible without Ecuador’s “sincere commitment” to democratic reforms and reengaging with the United States and the international community.
“It’s our neighborhood,” Green told McClatchy in a phone interview. “Ecuador presents economic opportunities for the U.S. and an enhanced trade and investment relationship, but there are also deep cultural ties and value-based ties between our two countries. It’s beneficial to both sides to find ways to cooperate and build those relationships.”
The agreement reflects a new level of coordination since the Ecuadorian government kicked the WikiLeaks founder out of its embassy to the delight of U.S. officials long frustrated with Ecuador for granting asylum to Assange.
Ecuador President Lenin Moreno, who took office two years ago, has sought to improve relations with the country’s top trading partner after ties with the United States became strained during the decade when former president Rafael Correa was in power.
The left-wing leader, in 2007, wouldn’t renew a U.S. lease of a military base in Ecuador. In 2011, he kicked out the U.S. ambassador, and a year later gave political asylum to Assange. Throughout his leadership, Correa sided with other leftist governments that painted the United States as an imperialist bully bent on punishing Latin American governments that didn’t do its bidding.
The signing of the MOU on Wednesday represents a big step toward cooperation from 2014 when USAID and Ecuador were unable to reach agreement on a revised bilateral assistance agreement, after which USAID closed its Mission in Ecuador. Since then, USAID said it’s been focused on helping the people of Ecuador through programs that support civil society and independent media.
Green said the agreement focuses on advancing key priorities, including reducing the risk of national disasters, fostering economic growth and promoting a quality education. It also includes working together to strengthen Ecuador’s health care system and provides protections for migrants and refugees.
Green dismissed any connection between the MOU and Ecuador’s action on Assange, but the expulsion cleared away an obvious obstacle to any bilateral discussions with the United States, according to Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.
Farnsworth said there is “a lot of underbrush that has to be worked out before they can seriously talk about a trade agreement,” but emphasized that Moreno has helped reorient his government’s perspective so that kind of discussion is even possible.
“Does this translate yet to concrete shifts, trade agreements, increased trade, investments in certain sectors? I don’t know that we can say the answer to that is yes,” Farnsworth said. “But the body language has clearly shifted.”
David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd., which has been working with Ecuadorian exporters in food and beverage, agriculture and other industry groups to take advantage of new relations with the United States, said Moreno has helped turn around 10 years of stagnation.
He cited Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Ecuador, Moreno’s visit to the United States and increased discussions between the two governments’ top officials on trade and investment. Assange, Lewis said, was just the final step.
“That was the coup de grâce,” Lewis said. “The move on Assange was the final dot the ‘I,’ cross the ‘Ts.’ But even before the culmination of the Assange debacle, they had already made the moves.”
Pence, who brought up Assange in meetings with the Ecuadorian government, cited the improved relations during a visit to Quito last year where he thanked Moreno for his leadership.
“Prior to your election, our nations had experienced 10 difficult years where our people always felt close but our governments drifted apart,” Pence said. “But over the past year, Mr. President, thanks to your leadership and the actions that you’ve taken have brought us closer together once again.”
Green also cited how Moreno joined the international community in breaking with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, a former ally of Correa, to support Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the United States and 50 nations as Venezuela’s true interim president.
The United States has provided more than $30 million to assist Venezuelans and other vulnerable populations that have fled to Ecuador since fiscal year 2018. Green thanked the government and people of Ecuador for hosting more than 300,000 people who have fled Venezuela, considering the hardship the influx has caused on some communities.
“We know this has not been easy,” Green
USAID is exploring different options to reestablish a presence in Ecuador. But U.S. officials said it would not be the USAID model that existed in Ecuador in the past. An official emphasized that any new programs will require congressional approval.
During remarks at Wednesday’s signing event in Quito, Green said USAID was disappointed to leave Ecuador in 2014, but the agency sought to continue support through civil society despite the lack of a physical presence. He said the MOU reflects a new start.
“Today is looking forward, not looking backwards,” Green said. “Today, we’re beginning a new chapter of a renewed partnership. Again, there is still much to do. “