The news that the Ecuadorean government cut WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s internet access, hours after the hacker group released another trove of damaging emails about U.S. presidential contender Hillary Clinton, could spell a reversal in relations between Quito and Washington.
Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since June 2012 after being granted asylum there following a British court order to extradite him to Sweden to face questioning in a sexual molestation case, has been a major source of irritation for the U.S.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, a leftist leader, has maintained friendly relations with the anti-U.S. governments in Venezuela and Bolivia. He has been critical of Washington and President Barack Obama.
But lately, he has softened his tone. He voiced his support for Clinton’s presidential run and says he knows her personally from her time as secretary of state.
On Tuesday, his Ecuadoran government admitted it stepped in and cut off Assange’s internet access because the WikiLeaks dumps were interfering with the U.S. election.
But the statement said the government was not interfering in political process – in fact, it said, it was doing quite the opposite.
“The Government of Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries, it does not interfere in electoral processes in progress or support a candidate in particular,” the government said in statement. “In that sense, Ecuador, in exercise of its sovereign right, has temporarily restricted access to part of its communications system in its embassy in the UK.”
WikiLeaks said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the Ecuadoran government to stop publishing damaging emails and interfering with the election. The State Department has denied those reports.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration accused WikiLeaks and Russia of attempting to interfere with the U.S. presidential election process by releasing emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta along with those from a range of other institutions and prominent individuals.
While both WikiLeaks and Ecuadorean officials have only made sparse comments on the cutting of Assange’s internet access, there is speculation that Correa is looking to repair the icy relationship between his country and the U.S. and he is hedging his bets that Clinton will win the race for the White House.
"For the good of the United States and the world... I would like Hillary to win," Correa told Russia Today last month.
Experts say this is the reason that Correa stepped in and cut off Assange’s access.
“It may in part have to do with Correa thinking that to assist the campaign of Donald Trump would be unconscionable,” Eric Hershberg, the director of American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, told Fox News Latino in reference to the idea that the WikiLeaks’ releases are helping the GOP nominee’s run for the White House.
Correa’s fondness for Clinton is in stark contrast to the policy his government has taken toward the U.S. under Obama. And much of the animosity between Quito and Washington stems from another WikiLeaks dump.
In April 2011, Ecuador expelled the U.S. ambassador to the country after a leaked diplomatic cable was shown accusing Correa of knowingly ignoring police corruption. In response, Ecuadorian ambassador Luis Gallegos was expelled from the United States.
Two years later, relations continued their southward turn when Correa’s government unilaterally pulled out of a bilateral trade pact over claims that the U.S. used it as blackmail in regards to the asylum request of former NSA staffer Edward Snowden.
By cutting Assange’s internet, Correa may or may not be looking to curry favor with a potential Clinton administration, but it does not appear that at the moment they are looking to make any more moves against their embassy’s infamous house guest.
Despite the assertion that Assange’s asylum status is safe, there have been reports that he might be wearing out his welcome in the London embassy.
The WikiLeaks founder has not kept a low profile while residing in the embassy suite at No. 3 Hans Crescent. He eats daily of delivery food, has hosted numerous high profile guests and occasionally uses the embassy’s balcony to address the media.
Besides his high visibility, confidential Ecuadorean government documents revealed that Assange's "evident anger" and "feelings of superiority" could cause stress to those around him — "especially the personnel who work in the embassy, mainly women” – and also detailed a violent, after-hours confrontation between him and an Ecuadorean security guard in September 2012.
“I can’t see how Assange’s presence at the embassy has made the staff’s life at the embassy any easier,” Hershberg said.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.