Latin America will pop up on the U.S. foreign-policy radar screen this week as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a meeting of her regional counterparts in Peru and then visits Ecuador and Colombia.
The high-level visit to Quito is clearly part of a charm offensive to coax Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa out of the camp of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez. However, no rapprochement is worth asking Secretary Clinton to turn a blind eye to Correa's authoritarian style, his abuse of the courts to attack opponents and the media and his tolerance of drug trafficking and other corruption.
Because of Correa's leftist orientation, populist rhetoric and grievances against the United States (his father was convicted by a U.S. court of smuggling cocaine 40 years ago), it was expected that he would gravitate to the Chávez camp. Indeed, since becoming president in 2007, Correa has expelled a key U.S. anti-drug base and has been a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, the State Department believes we can improve relations--if we're not too fussy about what Correa says and does.
The Correa team's long-standing links with the narcoterrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and emerging ties to Mexican drug cartels are documented in a troubling report issued in January by former Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah. Farah cites reports that Correa's campaign received funds from the FARC, that members of the president's inner circle have supported FARC operations in Ecuadorean territory and that corrupt courts are abetting drug traffickers. Ecuador now is ``an important and growing center of operation of transnational organized criminal gangs,'' he contends.
Secretary Clinton's Ecuadorean counterpart, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, was forced to resign as finance minister after being caught on videotape conspiring with financier Carlos Abadi to ``scare'' investors into buying insurance offered by Abadi as a hedge against a default by Ecuador. Members of Correa's family and other cronies allegedly profited handsomely from this plan.
Any Ecuadorian journalist who reports on Correa's record is running a risk. The State Department's own 2009 human-rights assessment quotes Correa branding the media "a grave political enemy [that] needs to be defeated.'' In March, journalist Emilio Palacio of Guayaquil's El Universal, was sentenced to three years in jail for accusing a Correa crony of sending a mob to attack the newspaper after it published a series of critical articles. Palacio and fellow journalists say that the judge was doing Correa's bidding to muzzle the media.
Roberto and William Isaias know firsthand how Correa uses the powers of the state to confiscate private property, intimidate opponents and silence the media. Since their 200 properties (including two television stations) were seized in mid-2008, the Isaias brothers have been subjected to a politically charged investigation driven by Correa.
Finally, in January, Ecuador's Supreme Court had no choice but to dismiss a dubious ``embezzlement'' charge that was at the heart of the government's case. Correa immediately denounced the ruling and ordered all three of the judges sacked. In May, Correa's cronies installed an ad hoc tribunal that, after having only a few days to review thousands of pages of evidence, rubber-stamped a ruling that reinstated the bogus charges.
Correa's foreign ministry now says that it will renew its request for the extradition of the Isaias brothers from the United States. Secretary Clinton would be promoting the rule of law by assuring President Correa (privately, of course) that she will consider the record of brazen interference in the judicial process when deciding whether to extradite the Isaias brothers back to Ecuador's kangaroo courts.
A fresh start with Correa requires some straight talk about his government's troubling relationship with Colombian guerrilla groups and international drug cartels, his undemocratic track record and his use of the courts to shakedown his opponents. He will not like what he hears, but serious diplomacy is not about making friends--it's about defending our interests and advancing our values.
Roger F. Noriega, a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at AEI and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents foreign and domestic clients.