US Ambassador to Ecuador “Out” over Wikileaks

By Gonzalo Ortiz

Rafael Correa. Photo: Ecuadorian presidency.

HAVANA TIMES, April 5 (IPS) — The Ecuadorean government declared U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges “persona non grata” and expelled her from the country in response to a cable released by the Wikileaks whistleblower web site.

Former Ecuadorean foreign minister José Ayala Lasso told IPS “It’s a shame that this has happened. The legitimacy of the documents that gave rise to this situation could be questioned, because they were obtained through a procedure that violated international laws.”

President Rafael Correa was indignant over the July 2009 confidential cable signed by Hodges that was published Monday by Spanish newspaper El País, and by her refusal to refute what she said in the cable.

In the document addressed to the U.S. Department of State, Hodges said embassy officials believed Correa was aware of supposed corrupt practices by former national police chief Jaime Hurtado, but that the president named him to the post anyway because it would make him more easily manipulated.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said Tuesday that although he had communicated Correa’s surprise and annoyance to Hodges, she merely commented that the document had been “stolen” and that she thus had no comment to make.

Patiño said her response was “insufficient and unsatisfactory.”

“The ambassador is in a complicated position; she can’t say anything other than what she has said,” said Ayala Lasso, who criticized Patiño’s “shocking ingenuousness” in expecting the diplomat to take back what she had said.

“I would have done things differently: I would have ordered an immediate, exhaustive investigation, and once it was determined that there was no basis to her claims, then I would have taken a serious step like expelling the ambassador,” he said.

Fernando Carrión, a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), remarked to IPS that he believed the government’s decision was hasty.

“No country affected by Wikileaks cables, which in some cases have been even more far-reaching, has taken a decision like this,” said Carrión.

He said the measure adopted by the government “puts us in the same situation as Venezuela and Bolivia, which also declared the U.S. ambassadors there ‘persona non grata’ and since then no replacements have been named.”

Cut flower exporter Fernando Aulestia criticized the decision due to the negative impact it will have on the extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which grants duty-free access to the U.S. market by a broad range of exports from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

The U.S. Congress is currently considering its extension.

“We are already having problems with exports, and so are broccoli growers,” he told IPS. “Because of this, we might have to say good-bye to the ATPDEA, which would lead to the loss of thousands of jobs in Ecuador’s highlands region.”

Ayala Lasso mentioned two specific factors: that ambassadors have an obligation to inform their government of everything they see in the country to which they have been posted, which they must do in an objective, in-depth manner.

“That is an obligation recognized by international law, and their reports are written for private use by their governments, not for international publication,” he said.

The other factor is that the leaked cable “refers to an issue that is very serious in Ecuador: police corruption.”

The State Department described Hodges as “one of our most experienced and talented diplomats” and called her expulsion “unjustified.” Spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. officials would examine the options they had.

The question is whether the U.S. will expel Ecuadorean Ambassador Luis Gallegos, a career diplomat who has been in the post since October 2005 and was kept on by Correa when the left-leaning president took office four years ago.

Patiño clarified, however, that “this decision is not an action against the U.S. government, but is only targeted at a diplomat who made extremely serious assertions.”

In the cable obtained by Wikileaks, Hodges says corruption is widespread in the national police, and that “Hurtado’s corrupt activities were so well-known” in the upper ranks of the police that “some Embassy officials believe that President Correa must have been aware of them when he made the appointment.”

The cable says that internal investigations by the police found that Hurtado, police chief from April 2008 to May 2009, had been engaged in “corrupt activities within the (national police) since the early 1990s.”

According to Hodges, Hurtado used his position “to extort cash and property, misappropriate public funds, facilitate human trafficking, and obstruct the investigation and prosecution of corrupt colleagues.”

She said the corrupt activities described in the cable hurt U.S. investment in Ecuador, because investors might hesitate to risk their wealth if they knew they could be extorted by corrupt members of the security forces.

In the cable, she recommended that Hurtado be stripped of his U.S. visa, noting that as police chief, he had provided assistance to people traffickers, thus creating opportunities for criminals and terrorists to enter the U.S.