Can ALBA diplomacy make a Wiki-comeback?

Three years after ALBA bungled its diplomatic debut with a sloppy and emotional response to the Honduran coup, the leftist bloc could recover some broader international credibility and support if it handles the Julian Assange case with decorum and tact

Nicaragua Dispatch News Analysis

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—Once again perceiving a threat to one of its scandal-prone member nations, the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas (ALBA) is rounding the wagons to protect Ecuador and defend its latest cause célèbre, WikiLeaks founder and aspiring Quito resident Julian Assange.

Nicaragua and the other seven ALBA countries released an eight-point declaration on Saturday offering their full support for Ecuador and rejecting the “intimidatory threats” by the UK, which has warned of its intentions to arrest the Australian whistleblower and proceed with his extradition to Sweden to face questioning on multiple accusations of rape and sexual abuse.

Assange, who denies the allegations and claims they are part of a political witch hunt to punish him for his cable-leaking efforts, is currently holed up in Ecuador’s Embassy in London, where he has been granted diplomatic asylum. The case has quickly developed wide-reaching geopolitical implications for ALBA, presenting the leftist club with a unique opportunity to redeem itself on the international stage after its botched handling of the 2009 Honduran coup.

Yesterday’s declaration by ALBA, based on the group’s doctrine of solidarity, appears to be an attempt to flex its collective muscle as an emerging geopolitical force that’s not afraid to stand up to former colonial powers. Point six of the joint declaration warns the British government of “consequences” in the event that British police storm Ecuador’s embassy or otherwise violate the ALBA nation’s “territorial integrity.”

Ecuador’s government, which until last Thursday was not known for championing freedom of expression—and, in fact, has a reputation that is quite to the contrary—jumped at the chance to grant diplomatic asylum to the fair-haired WikiLeaker. President Rafael Correa, who has been widely denounced by international press groups for his hostile actions towards the media, said his decision to grant asylum to Assange is part of a pre-emptive effort to thwart alleged U.S. plans to extradite the whistleblower and charge him for espionage.

So by his own admission, Correa’s decision to support Assange would seem to be based more on ALBA’s contrarian inclinations and desire to be an international counterweight to the World North, rather than any humanitarian considerations or devotion to individual liberties. The rest of the ALBA nations, many of which also have dubious records on freedom of expression, quickly rose to the defense of Ecuador and Assange.

“Ecuador is our brother and when a brother in the family has difficulties, and in this case our brother is being threatened, the only option is to react immediately to protect ourselves jointly and put into practice the word solidarity,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, who read the joint declaration on behalf of ALBA during Saturday’s meeting of the regional political council in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Stage is set for OAS theatrics

ALBA’s strong push for international involvement to resolve the conflict and the United States’ reluctance to get involved in such sets the stage for another political showdown this week at the Organization of American States (OAS).

By a vote of 23-3, the countries of ALBA and most of Latin America voted to convoke a meeting of the OAS this Friday to discuss the diplomatic impasse between Ecuador and the UK. The United States, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago were the only countries to vote against Ecuador’s proposal to involve the OAS, arguing that the matter should be settled bilaterally.

The OAS meet will be the first big test of ALBA’s mettle and diplomatic savvy since the Honduran coup crisis, when the leftist bloc was exposed as mostly emotional, incoherent and ineffective at conducting foreign policy.

Following the forced ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, the ALBA nations first called for rebellion (“We will do everything to overthrow this [de facto] government—we have to support the rebellion in Honduras!” thundered Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the time ) and then demanded their comrade’s “unconditional return to power.”

In the end, ALBA got neither. Instead, Honduras, under new political management, withdrew its membership from the Venezuelan-led club of nations.

ALBA then made a brief fuss about how it would refuse to recognize the newly elected government of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, but then backed down on that, too. Two years later, Lobo is one of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s closest allies in the region—and one of only two Central American presidents who bothered to come to the Sandinista leader’s Central American presidential summit held last week in Managua.

The Assange case, however, touches on a topic that is near and dear to every Latin American nation: sovereignty.

If ALBA can intelligently and diplomatically defend its case for Latin American sovereignty before the OAS, without peddling hackneyed and hollow ideological blather that has kept the group relegated to the fringes of international relations for the past six years, the leftist bloc could go a long way in gaining some mainstream respectability this week.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) today also backed Ecuador’s right to grant asylum, so ALBA’s position is not too different from the rest of South America’s.

However, if ALBA fails to capitalize on this opportunity to go mainstream and instead falls back on its behavior of divisive ideological posturing and international showboating, the group will reaffirm its superlative role as class clown. For a political organization that hasn’t made much forward progress in the past four years, blowing this opportunity would be—as they might say in Boston—a Wiki-bad mistake.