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Ecuador on Edge

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US Relations with Ecuador Sour Upon Dismissal of American Ambassador

April 13th 2011

Obama Admin Topics - Amb Heather Hodges
U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges

Late on the afternoon of April 5, the Ecuadorian government of President Rafael Correa declared United States Ambassador Heather Hodges to be persona non grata. A WikiLeaks cable, published in the Spanish newspaper El País, supplied the principal motivation provoking Correa to take this grave action. This marks the second time in the past month that a U.S. ambassador has been forced to relinquish their a in a Latin American country because of a leaked diplomatic cable.

Drafted by Hodges, the cable condemned Correa’s appointment of Police Commander Jaime Hurtado. It cited investigations dating back to 2006 and 2007 that had found Hurtado guilty of embezzlement. The leaked document mentioned that President Correa knew about the investigations and its findings regarding Hurtado, but nevertheless selected him for the position because he could be more easily manipulated due to his compromised status. When given the opportunity to explain or defend this cable, Hodges declined to do so because the cable was obtained illegally. This situation arose at a time at when the relationship between both states was already tenuous.

Ecuador’s Foreign Relations Minister, Ricardo Patiño has declared that the government’s actions were aimed solely at Hodges, and not at the country she represents. For Ecuador, this was an important distinction to be made. Nonetheless, the dismissal could have important ramifications for one of Ecuador’s outstanding political interests; specifically, the renewal of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA).

Without a free trade agreement with the U.S. in place, and considering that Ecuador borders two countries that either have or are close to obtaining a free trade accord with the U.S. (Peru and Colombia respectively), Ecuadorian exports are at an economic disadvantage. Furthermore, no matter how much energy is put into distancing Ecuador’s action against Hodges from its overall relationship with the U.S., aid for Ecuadorian development and defense could still suffer.
The United States currently sees Ecuador’s Correa as one of its few remaining proto-allies among Latin America’s “New Left,” and both countries have been anxious to salvage the relationship before it further disintegrates. At one time or another, Correa has been close to Venezuela’s Chávez as well as Colombia’s Santos. Although Correa has retained close bonds with the ALBA nations, he episodically has held out his hand to the White House. Both the U.S. and Ecuadorian governments have been reluctant to jeopardize relations with one another, as the U.S. is one of Ecuador’s primary trading partners. Nevertheless, the United States has declared Ecuador’s recent actions to be unfounded and unjust.

Not only has this event marred the relationship between the United States and Ecuador, but it will be difficult to replace Hodges in a timely manner. Because a new ambassador must be vetted and approved by the Senate, it could be months before the position is filled. The WikiLeaks cable has created a lose-lose situation for all parties involved and it only highlights the need for the U.S. to improve its diplomatically opaque relations with Latin American governments.

Eduardo Pitarque writes for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, from where this article is adapted.

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