QUITO, Ecuador — Seen from Quito, Julian Assange’s fate seems to play out in two parallel realities.
In one, fueled by Twitter and international news reports, the 47-year-old hacker’s future is urgently being discussed behind closed doors by governments intent on making deals to silence him and extradite him to the United States, negotiated by figures who include onetime Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Vice President Mike Pence.
In the other, according to interviews with more than a dozen Ecuadorian and US officials, the WikiLeaks founder’s indefinite presence at Ecuador’s London embassy is a “nuisance,” but far from a priority, as the South American country balances its own political realignment after a decade of anti-US rule by former president Rafael Correa.
That contradiction means that in Ecuador, recent breathless news accounts about secret deals and US pressure for Assange’s extradition are useful mostly to score political points — but few believe them. The people who were actually in the meetings those international publications recounted say the stories ignored the political reality that, despite the new presidency of Lenín Moreno, who was elected last year, Assange’s fate is still seen largely as a stand-in for the sensitive issue of US influence in the country.
That means that US efforts to pressure Ecuador seem to have backfired. Even politicians like opposition lawmaker Paola Vintimilla, who has been leading the call to strip Assange of the Ecuadorian citizenship he was granted last year, meet the American and British news reports suggesting he is being forced out in some kind of a trade with eyerolls.
Moreno, who has made no secret of his desire to rid himself of what he publicly and privately calls his “inherited problem,” is clearly aware he has to tread carefully. His administration has called Assange’s indefinite embassy stay “unsustainable” and has continued to push for him to leave on his own through international mediation. But Vintimilla points out that, if he’d wanted, Moreno could have already turned Assange out when he repeatedly inserted himself in US, Ecuadorian, Spanish, and British politics — violating one of the main terms of his asylum in Ecuador’s London legation.
“In order to remove his diplomatic asylum, he only had to do this once, and the Ecuadorian government could have taken it away; it never did,” she told BuzzFeed News. “President Moreno never said he intends to force him out of the embassy. Never. The intent was to put clear rules in place for him to not interfere in our politics.”
Assange has been holed up in the small embassy since Correa granted him political asylum in 2012 on the grounds that his life could be in danger if he were extradited to the US, where he might face charges connected to the publication of thousands of diplomatic and military documents containing classified information. Six years later, Ecuadorians are increasingly fed up with a person they see not only as an expensive houseguest, but a rude one, who’s made his lack of gratitude clear by suing the very government that granted him asylum.
“He is not the Assange of 2012, when it was all about freedom of speech and human rights,” said Katalina Barreiro, a political analyst at the Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales in Quito. “After 2016, he is someone who has repeatedly meddled in other countries’ affairs and inserted himself in the middle of political tensions.”
But the more international media stories make it sound like Ecuador could be pushed around by the US or the United Kingdom, the less feasible it becomes for Moreno’s government to be seen as giving in, according to current and former politicians. This reality is compounded by each seemingly tone-deaf public overture from US officials.
In a letter to Moreno in October, House Foreign Affairs Committee members Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said they were “hopeful about developing warmer relations with your government, but feel that it will be very difficult for the United States to advance our bilateral relationship until Mr. Assange is handed over to the proper authorities.”
This was exactly the kind of veiled incentive — or rather, veiled threat — that Moreno’s critics and Assange’s supporters had warned that the US was employing to broker a deal for his expulsion from the embassy. But it went over very poorly in Ecuador, where it was seen as another example of typically heavy-handed US pressure in the region.
US officials with experience in the country are very aware of that. “We don’t want to push them too far, too fast,” a former senior State Department official who served during the Trump administration told BuzzFeed News, adding that US diplomats are focused on rebuilding relations with the country after a decade of Correa. “You have to understand the internal, political dynamics of Ecuador here.”
With each public statement from the US, it becomes less tenable for Ecuador’s government to claim that tossing Assange out of its embassy isn’t a capitulation to US pressure — something an opposition politician described to BuzzFeed News as “political suicide” for Moreno.
The problem has been fueled by the Trump administration’s own posturing. In April 2017, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions described Assange’s extradition as a “priority.” Then-CIA chief Mike Pompeo denounced WikiLeaks as a threat to US national security, and President Donald Trump said if the Justice Department wants to charge Assange, “it’s OK with me.”
Those statements did little to win Ecuador’s cooperation. Not only did they invalidate Ecuador’s arguments that Assange’s fears of extradition were unfounded, but they became a main part of its justification for continuing to give him asylum and pressing the UK to grant him safe passage, according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News.
In a letter to the UK Foreign Office in May 2017, reviewed by BuzzFeed News in both its Spanish and English versions, Ecuador’s embassy cited “insistent statements made in recent weeks by the United States Government authorities, which leaves no doubt about their intention to prosecute Mr. Assange with the aim of punishing him for alleged offenses which that country incriminates him of.”
The letter specifically noted that Trump, Sessions, and Pompeo had all said publicly that there could be legal proceedings against Assange, statements that “only confirm that the fears of Julian Assange when he applied for asylum in 2012 were fully founded, and Ecuador, in accepting those fears and granting the requested asylum, [was] right.”
Even so, until recently the lack of evidence of any charges against him in the US allowed Ecuador to keep exploring avenues that might convince Assange to leave on his own. This included a series of unsuccessful endeavors to give him an exit route, including granting him citizenship and designating him as an Ecuadorian diplomat to Moscow, which it had to rescind after the UK refused to give him diplomatic immunity.
“This would have been a good result. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as the Foreign Ministry planned, and so the problem still exists,” Moreno said when the attempt became public, a mild statement that belied just how strong it pushed for this resolution.
“They gave him citizenship and made him a diplomat without even waiting for the UK’s response, that’s how far ahead of themselves they were getting trying to move him to Moscow,” said Vintimilla. “It was illegal. They invented a specific law to give him nationality. He did not meet the requirements.”
An entry for “Julian Paul Assange” appeared in Ecuador’s civil registry with an identification number in January last year, just one day after officials had denied to the Ecuadorian press that he’d been made a citizen. Soon after, Assange tweeted an unsmiling photo of himself wearing an Ecuadorian soccer jersey.
“We Ecuadorians did not even know this had happened until he appeared in a civil registry,” Vintimilla told BuzzFeed News. “It never passed through the archives; everything was done under the table.”
In the year that has passed since, Ecuador tried to resolve the problem by insisting Assange’s fear of extradition to the US was unfounded. Ecuador’s attorney general, Íñigo Salvador Crespo, made that point in November when he told reporters that British authorities had assured him that the severest penalty Assange faced was six months in jail for jumping bail.
“Assange must consider if he prefers to stay the rest of his life in our embassy or surrender to justice and serve his sentence,” Salvador Crespo said.
But the accidental revelation in an unrelated US court filing in November that Assange may have been charged under seal dealt another blow to these efforts. Moreno changed course, asserting that the UK had provided guarantees that it would not extradite Assange — at least not to any country where he would face the death penalty.
“We’re willing to work towards a solution that guarantees his life,” Moreno said in a radio interview with local reporters.
A New York Times story alleging that Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, tried to float a deal to turn Assange over to the US in exchange for debt relief during a meeting with Moreno again fueled accusations both inside and outside Ecuador that the government was illegally plotting with the US.
But Moreno’s office pushed back hard, insisting that the report exaggerated an encounter he had had with Manafort as part of a 20-minute visit with a group of Chinese investors at his campaign office before he’d been sworn in as president.
“When he was bidding farewell to Mr. Manafort, the President-elect mentioned in general terms of the interest of the new Ecuadorian administration to strengthen bilateral relations with the US, without mentioning any particular issue — and least of all the diplomatic asylum of Mr. Julian Assange,” the president’s office said in a statement.
The idea that Manafort and Moreno had talked about any kind of serious deal involving Assange also made no sense to Ecuadorian officials or a former senior US official who spoke to BuzzFeed News. They pointed out that Manafort had no role in the Trump administration, and that when it came to debt relief, the newly elected president was razor-focused on China, Ecuador’s largest creditor, which owns $6.5 billion — about 80% — of the country’s debt.
Ecuadorian officials and analysts said the idea that such a story would seem plausible to the outside world says more about the ignorance about the region than about the likelihood that such talks had taken place.
“Ecuador has its own legal process to follow here — this is not the 1960s, you can’t just demand these things just because it’s a smaller South American country that Americans don’t know. This is not a Hollywood movie,” said Barreiro. “And US power is not what it was 20 years ago, nor is it the only player in this region — there is China, there is Russia. Its leverage is significantly smaller.”
After a decade of Correa, who made countering the US the foundation of his political platform, Moreno’s election led to a parade of high-profile visits from Washington. Even though he had served as Correa’s vice president, he was open to improving relations with the US. But according to both Ecuadorian and US officials who attended these meetings, discussing Assange’s fate was never a “priority,” despite the Trump administration’s public declarations.
After a broad discussion — about trade, border security, violence at the Ecuador–Colombia border, the escalating Venezuelan migrant crisis — one side or the other would raise the issue of the hacker’s status and they would agree only to continue to communicate on the matter.
“As far as we’re concerned, he’s in jail,” the former senior State Department official said, describing the US’s position.
In February, during a visit with Tom Shannon, then the number three State Department official, it was Moreno who brought up Assange after discussing other issues. The Ecuadorian president made it clear he considered Assange to be a distraction he was eager to be rid of, but said he had to be very careful not to expose Assange to “political persecution,” according to a person with knowledge of the discussion. An Ecuadorian official confirmed the account.
When Vice President Pence met with Moreno in June, he was the one who brought up the issue at the urging of Senate Democrats, according to the White House, which characterized it as a “constructive conversation” in which they agreed to “remain in close coordination.”
Three months later, California Republican Rep. Ed Royce led a congressional delegation to Ecuador as part of a regional tour that included Brazil and Argentina. In a meeting with Ecuadorian lawmakers, they discussed recently declassified documents that showed how Assange had been given citizenship, but the point did not seem to be stressed.
“They never said, ‘We want you to get him out of the embassy,’” said one politician who attended the meeting.
But each meeting raised new suspicions that the US was doing more behind closed doors to force the Ecuadorian government to hand over Assange. Was it a coincidence that Assange’s communications were cut a day after a visit by a high-profile US Southern Command official? Was it suspicious that Ecuador’s commerce minister announced that negotiations with the US on a long-postponed free trade deal would resume right after a visit from a State Department official? What about Foreign Minister Jose Valencia’s meeting with Pompeo right as the Manafort stories were coming out?
Those suspicions are often stoked by the Spanish-language versions of the news sites Russia Today and Sputnik, which speedily translate and republish the latest developments reported in the US and British press with provocative headlines that prod well-known pressure points in Ecuador.
“US lawmakers pressure the president of Ecuador to turn in Assange,” read one. “The FBI arrived in Ecuador: hopefully it will not be the beginning of an entreguista policy,” read another, using a word that is commonly understood to mean treasonous.
Correa’s 10-year crusade against journalists and news outlets, which he frequently sued and intimidated, has had a significant chilling effect on independent reporting, said Jaime Mantilla, the former publisher of the now-defunct Hoy newspaper, so such accounts are the bulk of news coverage of the Assange dispute there.
“What this has led to is that now so much of the news in Ecuador is driven by new, fringe online outlets publishing inaccurate stories just to fuel outrage on issues like [Assange] to score political points,” Mantilla told BuzzFeed News, adding that “fake news” could become real news with real impact without the proper context.
For example, a bombshell story by the Guardian in November alleged that Manafort had visited the WikiLeaks founder in the embassy in London in 2016, when US intelligence agencies say Russia used WikiLeaks to publish emails hacked from top Democrats to embarrass Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. Ecuadorian journalists, lawmakers, and analysts raised doubts about the story, partly because one of the bylines belonged to a controversial activist and reporter who’d been accused by Correa’s government of forging documents.
Even though no other news outlet corroborated the story, it led to renewed pressure on Ecuador. Senate Democrats have used it to push the State Department to do more on Assange and demand a briefing on Pompeo’s meeting with Valencia to clarify whether they discussed the alleged Manafort visits.
“While we understand that Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno inherited from his predecessor the challenges posed by Julian Assange’s presence at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, it is imperative that this situation be resolved swiftly,” said the letter, which was signed by Sens. Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, and Dianne Feinstein, among others.
Whether the reports are accurate or not, the strange feedback loops in which the Assange saga exists means that they will continue to have real-world consequences as Assange faces a seventh year in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Assange’s Ecuadorian lawyer, Carlos Poveda, says the new rules Ecuador has imposed on Assange violate his rights. Those rules require that he pay for his own food, laundry service, medical care, and phone calls, as well as clean up after his pet cat. He has filed a lawsuit in his adopted country against the foreign minister challenging the new terms, which, combined with the other factors, seemed to evaporate much of the remaining goodwill the country may have had for him.
But for now, it seems the internal political dynamics hamper Moreno’s ability to force Assange to leave the embassy or put him in a position where he could be extradited to the US.
In the meantime, while the rest of the world was focusing on the reported meetings between Manafort and Assange and Manafort and Moreno, these meetings were far from Ecuador’s own headlines.
The week those stories were published late last year, the country was consumed by the resignation of the vice president following an investigation into payments she had received — the second time in 18 months a Moreno vice president had been forced from office. Ecuador was also fixated on preparing for Moreno’s mid-December trip to China, where Moreno received another $900 million in loans at what he called “the lowest interest rate in history.”
“These are the things that Ecuador is focused on,” said Barreiro. ●