by Eduardo Garcia
August 19, 2012
QUITO, Aug 18 (Reuters)
Ecuador cast its dispute with Britain over
WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange as a struggle against
colonialism on Saturday, drawing growing support from its neighbors in the
international diplomatic saga.
Incensed by London's threat to break into the Ecuadorean Embassy where the
former hacker is taking refuge, President Rafael Correa's government
has accused Britain of bullying and has formally granted Assange asylum.
Britain says it will not allow the anti-secrecy campaigner from Australia to
travel to South America because it is obliged to extradite him to Sweden,
where he is wanted for questioning over rape and sexual assault allegations.
"They're out of touch. Who do they think
they're dealing with? Can't they see that this is a dignified and
sovereign government which will not kneel down before anyone?" Correa
said in his weekly address on Saturday.
"What a mentality, eh? They have not realized that Latin America is free
and sovereign and that we'll not put up with meddling, colonialism of
any kind, at least in this country, small, but with a big heart."
Trying to present the affair as an
international David versus Goliath battle, Ecuador was hosting this
weekend foreign ministers from both the ALBA group of leftist-led Latin
American nations and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
On Saturday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for
- which also includes communist-ruled Cuba and Nicaragua, among others - to
stand behind Ecuador.
"Latin America must be respected, our people
must be respected, but only united can we earn that respect."
Support for Ecuador appears to be growing in the region.
"Britain... is wrong. The threat is not only
an aggression to Ecuador, it's against Bolivia, it's against South
America, against the whole of Latin America," Bolivian President Evo
Morales said on Friday.
Ecuadorean state media said other nations
including Colombia and Argentina were backing Correa's position. On Friday
representatives of the hemispheric Organization of American States
(OAS) called for a foreign ministers' meeting next week over the Assange
Canada and the United States voted against holding the meeting.
"The central issue is not the right of
asylum, it is the inviolability of embassies," OAS Secretary General
Jose Miguel Insulza said after the vote.
Ecuador, an oil-producing nation of 14.5 million
people that seldom finds itself in the global spotlight, is furious Britain
said it could make use of an obscure measure to break into its embassy where Assange has been for more than two months.
"Is the threat of a European government to
the sovereignty of a South American country not important because we're
a small nation?" Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiņo said, adding
that maybe the region should also discuss the U.S. Guantanamo base in
Cuba and Argentina's claim to the Falklands.
The Ecuadorean government shares Assange's fears
that he ultimately could be extradited to the United States, which is angry
that his WikiLeaks website has leaked hundreds of thousands of secret U.S.
diplomatic and military cables.
The leftist Correa, who has high popularity levels and is expected to
run for re-election in February 2013, had developed some rapport with
Assange during an online interview the WikiLeaks founder did with him this
Correa's stance has been largely cheered by Ecuadoreans, and there have been
scattered protests at the British Embassy.
"The whole world should back Ecuador for
giving Assange asylum and because this country is the first one to
promote freedom of expression," said Mary Valenzuela, a 39-year-old
After WikiLeaks released its deluge of
diplomatic cables that laid bare Washington's power-brokering across the
globe, Assange became revered as a freedom-of-speech champion in many parts
of Latin America, where there is strong tradition of criticizing the United
States for meddling.
Leftist nations, and others, have been increasingly turning to new partners
like China and Russia in recent years.
However, Europe and the United States are still important trade partners
with the region, so Ecuador could suffer should the conflict escalate along
Business leaders and analysts told Reuters this week that long-time U.S.
trade benefits for the Andean country are at risk due to the Assange saga.