Ecuador to oust US ambassador over WikiLeaks spat. Who's next?

Ecuador is expelling US Ambassador Heather Hodges over critical comments in a WikiLeaks cable. Her ouster follows the resignation last month of the US ambassador to Mexico over another controversial cable.

Kevin Granja/Reuters
US ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges speaks at a news conference, to respond to the Ecuadorean government's demand that she leave the country, in Quito, Ecuador, on April 5.

WikiLeaks has claimed its second diplomatic victim in Latin America, with Ecuador expelling its US ambassador over her comments in a leaked cable, straining bilateral relations and casting a shadow over US efforts in the region.

The ouster of Ambassador Heather Hodges follows the resignation last month of the US ambassador to Mexico after another WikiLeaks cable revealed him portraying Mexican security forces as deeply corrupt and uncoordinated.

Ambassadorial relations have also been severed in recent years in Venezuela and in Bolivia, where Drug Enforcement Agency officials were also expelled. But the chance for confrontation has only grown amid secret-spilling website WikiLeaks' dissemination of more than 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables.

While a falling domino affect on US ambassadors is unexpected, analysts say that rough patches in bilateral relations across the region could lie ahead.

“It will give a good excuse for any politician who aspires to make the US a punching bag to be able to do it,” says Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly, published by the Council of the Americas, in New York. “It gives them more fodder.”

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Persona non grata

The flare-up in Ecuador came after a July 2009 cable, published Monday by the Madrid newspaper El País but not yet unveiled on, discussed corruption at the highest ranks among the police.

"Corruption among Ecuadorian national police officers is widespread and well-known," Ambassador Hodges comments in the cable, saying that corruption becomes "more pronounced at higher levels of power." Perhaps most controversial, the cable revealed that some suspect President Rafael Correa was aware of the problems.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Tuesday that Hodges failed to adequately explain her allegations.

"Ecuador's government has decided to consider this woman as a persona non grata ... we have asked her to leave the country in the shortest time possible," he said.

Ecuador emphasized this decision is not a formal break in relations with the US, but it will prove an obstacle moving forward.

“This decision is clearly a setback for US-Ecuador relations,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “Declaring the ambassador persona non grata and expelling her is a serious matter and will likely have some costs for the bilateral relationship.”

Another mess in Mexico

WikiLeaks cables have complicated the efforts of American diplomacy around the globe. They could provide a key test in Latin America, where the role of the US has changed dramatically in the past decade.

The reactions to cables have thus far depended on the reality in each country. While Ecuador reacted strongly to the WikiLeaks cables, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for one, handled a cable questioning her mental health with restraint.

In Mexico, meanwhile, Carlos Pascual on March 19 announced his resignation as ambassador after he butted heads with Mexican President Felipe Calderón over his military-run strategy to counter drug crime, a strategy that has cost more than 35,500 lives since Mr. Calderón took office in late 2006.

Mr. Sabatini says the case shows how crucial the US considers its partnership with Mexico in fighting drug trafficking.

Washington's diplomatic gaps

To be sure, the US retains strong relations with many countries in the region. President Barack Obama reaffirmed ties with Chile and Brazil during a tour of South America in early March.

But Washington is now contending with several diplomatic holes. For some observers, this is the fault of left-leaning leaders provoking the US. For others, it is the fault Washington not knowing how to engage the region, particularly those countries led by leftists.

"It shows the problems and limits of the Obama administration's engagement strategy toward governments like Ecuador's that had not been too friendly to Washington,” says Mr. Shifter. “It will strengthen skeptics of that strategy in Washington."

It also underlines once again how the US role in Latin America has waned, says Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“It demonstrates that the US no longer occupies a hegemonic position in the region. Decades ago [countries] would be afraid to expel an ambassador,” he says. “There is heightened willingness of small governments to take a stand against the US without fearing reprisals.”

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