Ecuador has ordered the expulsion of 20 Department of Defense employees in the U.S. Embassy’s military group, giving them until the end of the month to leave the country, according to U.S. officials on Friday. The Associated Press reports that the group had been ordered to leave in a letter dated April 7 — only a few months after Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa complained that the U.S. embassy had a “scandalous” number of military personnel in the country.
The move to expel Pentagon staff shows that Correa, a vocal critic of Washington, has indeed followed through on his threat from January to order U.S. military officers out, claiming that they had “infiltrated in all sectors.” Correa is no stranger to kicking out U.S. officials, having previously expelled three American diplomats, including former Ambassador Heather Hodges in 2011 after Wikileaks released a document in which the diplomat alleged widespread corruption amongst the ranks of Ecuadorian police. So, while sudden, Correa’s move is not unprecedented.
However, the expulsion is a timely indicator of the extent of the strain in bilateral relations between the two governments in recent years. Though Correa has from the start of his tenure in 2007 tested the limits of his country’s U.S.-ties, his offer of asylum to Wikileaks’ Julian Assange marked a definitive turning point towards the current antagonistic state of affairs. His consideration of an asylum offer to fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden more recently has not helped the situation.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Ecuador’s elections
Going after Washington has been an effective domestic political strategy for Correa, who enjoys broad popularity at home. The campaign to curtail U.S. attempts at regional influence has also, conveniently, provided cover for the leader’s restrictions on press freedom and political dissent. Correa’s targeting of USAID, which is set to close up shop in Ecuador in September, goes along with a broader challenge to the operations of NGOs and communications outlets. The revelation earlier this month that USAID was involved in a covert operation in Cuba has only validated Correa’s crackdown and his charges about American espionage.
As far as relations have been strained, it’s still pretty clear that Washington is not overly concerned about repairing the widening rift. As provocative as Correa can be, he is hardly a Chavez and, though counter-narcotics cooperation may be taking a hit, it seems that the Obama administration is, at the moment, taking the path of least resistance where Quito is concerned.