Commentary: Ouster of U.S. envoy from Ecuador amounts to a sideshow

Ecuador’s populist President Rafael Correa has made big headlines with his decision to expel the U.S. ambassador from his country. But the U.S. diplomat’s expulsion may just be just a sideshow of something much worse that is cooking in Ecuador.

Correa, who’s following the script of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is continuously rewriting his country’s laws to amass absolute powers, is about to hold a new national referendum May 7. This time, his not-so-hidden goal is to further curtail freedom of the press in the country, and eliminate any form of government criticism.

The decision to expel the U.S. envoy and the May 7 referendum may not be unrelated. While several well-informed Ecuadorans tell me that Correa is an erratic leader who acts by impulse, others tell me that the much-publicized ouster of U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges is a political propaganda ploy by the president to cast himself as a champion of national sovereignty, and win the upcoming referendum.

Hodges was asked to leave the country Tuesday for signing a 2009 confidential cable leaked a day earlier by the Spanish newspaper El País, in which she wrote that corruption within the ranks of Ecuador’s police is “generalized” — a fact that few Ecuadoreans would dispute. Hodges further wrote that “some U.S. Embassy officials” believed that Correa knew about a former police chief’s corrupt activities when he had appointed him.

Correa’s brother Fabricio Correa, who parted ways with his brother after press reports that he had signed lucrative contracts with the current government, told me in a telephone interview that while the president is a “very temperamental” man, the decision to ask Hodges to leave the country “was most likely taken by (foreign minister Ricardo) Patiño, who is totally anti-American.”

He added, “The president is campaigning, and probably had to stage this whole thing in order not to project an image of weakness.”

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