After three years at the Ecuadorian Consulate in the UK, activist Fidel Narváez speaks of his experiences there, the recent elections in Ecuador and his relationship with Julian Assange.
When, on July 15th 2010, Narváez first set foot in the office where he was to begin his diplomatic career, there were many things running through his mind: he imagined himself serving his community, working from within officialdom with the same intensity as he had as an activist, becoming accustomed to the inevitable formality and bureaucracy of political life, and writing occasionally.
All this, and maybe more, ran through his mind. All, that is, apart from crossing paths with a man the USA has declared public enemy number one, and over whose head hangs a death sentence: Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and, as of several months ago, resident of the Ecuadorian Embassy until a just solution to his situation is found.
Nevertheless, almost two years later the inconceivable happened and since then, Narváez has become one of only a handful of Latin Americans to spend a significant amount of time with Assange. He even, in his role as Consul, spent two months living at the Embassy.
Whilst there, he had plenty of time to talk with Assange, to get to know him a little and shatter the myths surrounding a man who has been demonized by the media and certain governments.
Fidel Narváez tells The Prisma about that time, about his conversations with Assange and his impression of a man who has more than a few quaking in their boots since the Wikileaks revelations.
His words brimming with energy and candour, Narváez nevertheless remains reserved and discreet in talking about his experience.
However, he does take care to express his confidence in Assange’s innocence, as well as in his genuine concern for free speech and the public’s right to know what their governments are doing. Of course, before talk turned to Assange, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s third consecutive election victory had to be discussed.
Victory once again for President Rafael Correa and his Citizens’ Revolution. How has he achieved such good results?
It’s his eighth successive win in every election since 2006. Unlike most governments seeking re-election which suffer the effects of voters’ inevitable disillusionment, over the last six years the government of the Citizens’ Revolution has shown the people that it is capable of following through on the pledges it made from the start.
Not a chance. Most of the big media outlets which dominate the information market in Ecuador, and the press in particular, fiercely oppose the government. But this makes its achievements all the more impressive because the government has come up against the enormous power of the media which behaves almost like a political actor.
Why has he won again?
Because the people have regained their trust and hope in a government which has made good on its promises of change like no other before it and has implemented a new style of governance, one which is much more dynamic and closer to the people.
How has Correa served the people?
By reclaiming national sovereignty, which has meant larger and better revenues can be generated from our natural resources. This has allowed an unprecedented level of investment in health, education and housing. Now the people are able to see how we are building a nation, how this country is investing in infrastructure in order to sustain a new model for long-term growth.
What has the Citizens’ Revolution been about?
It’s been about citizens who have generally been at the margins political debate, decision-making and democratic participation now seizing that political debate. The people want to participate in political life again and defend the achievements and principles of the revolution.
We have managed to turn the tide of emigration in Ecuador. Nowadays there are more people re-entering the country than leaving it. They have renewed hope in a better future for our country and are proud of the image Ecuador is presenting of itself to the outside world.
What has caused the tide to turn?
It’s a combination of the current dynamic and healthy state of the Ecuadorian economy (one of the fastest growing in Latin America) and the major economic crisis which has hit the countries favoured by our immigrants, particularly in Europe.
Of course, economic growth on its own is not an indicator of development.
But Ecuador has achieved historic levels of poverty reduction, employment, purchasing power and inequality reduction, putting it out in front of the region’s other economies, if a comprehensive analysis is carried out.
You have been at the Consulate for almost three years. What has it been like to go from being an activist to working for the establishment?
I feel very comfortable being part of this political process, because most of the causes I fought for as a social activist are up for debate. Obviously, the task of putting together dreams and social and political projects, of trying to make them a reality, is probably a bit more complicated than protesting against injustice or demanding civil rights. Before, we were fighting to bring down a system, now we’re fighting to build something new and better.
Getting used to all the bureaucratic and administrative red tape which often makes things worse before it makes things better.
You were there during a very important moment: Julian Assange’s request for asylum. What has that meant for you?
It’s been a unique experience and an exciting challenge at the same time. This is the most important political asylum seeker in the world, and he turned to Ecuador for protection.
Some say that you are one of the reasons Assange is at the Embassy.
I wouldn’t say that. We did have some involvement with Julian Assange and Wikileaks prior to his asylum request. It has all been in the public eye, ever since 2011 when Ecuador asked Wikileaks to publish all the diplomatic cables concerning our country. Some time later, Assange requested an interview with President Correa for his television show. All this meant a series of meetings with him and his team, over the course of which it became apparent that they felt a sort of empathy for the fact that they saw me not just as a diplomat but as a social activist too. I imagine that this kindled an even greater interest in Ecuador.
When we asked for the cables to be published. In April 2011.
What was your impression of him?
Julian is a sort of celebrity; a lot of myths and enigmas have been cultivated around him. To get to know and be around him has been an interesting experience.
Where did this meeting take place?
In England, where he has been living against his will for more than two years now, under house arrest.
What opinion have you built up of Assange?
He’s a pleasant person to deal with, very knowledgeable, particularly when it comes to international affairs. I believe he’s always very much involved in Wikileaks’ work and the causes it champions.
If we assume that his main cause is advocating the need for maximum transparency, demanding that the political and economic powers that be take some responsibility, and seeking retribution for human rights abuses by putting unrestricted freedom of expression and information into practice, then of course I support that.
Why did Assange choose Ecuador?
That’s something you’ll have to ask Julian Assange. And I hear it’s a question many people are asking: why, with no less than 150 different embassies in London, did Assange choose Ecuador?
Maybe it’s because he has seen how this small country has given convincing demonstrations of its sovereignty, resolve and commitment to human rights. Ecuador has the best record for protecting asylum seekers in the region; it has enshrined the concept of universal citizenship, which recognises the right to migrate, in its constitution. In an unusual move, it terminated the contract which allowed a US military base on its soil.
This and other factors have made Ecuador more visible internationally. It is also practically the only country to have asked Wikileaks to publish all the cables, without exception, even at the risk of information getting out which could damage the government. I imagine Wikileaks and Julian Assange appreciated this demonstration of genuine transparency.
Sheltering someone considered public enemy number one is a bold move, not just diplomatically but also politically. The reaction from civil society’s progressive forces, particularly internationally, has been one of both overwhelming support for the Ecuadorian position, and solidarity.
Has Ecuador become more visible because of this?
Yes, as a sovereign country committed to the defence of human rights and the international civil rights movement’s demands for transparency and free speech.
What negative effects has his presence had?
I should think that those who want to see Julian Assange and Wikileaks destroyed are ratcheting up the pressure on the country that’s protecting him. The evidence of this is the fact that media powers are trying to tarnish Ecuador’s image in the international arena.
Where have the biggest attacks come from?
From a certain section of the press. This has really been the main consequence of him being here. I haven’t noticed any concrete impact on business or economic collaboration
When someone turns to diplomatic asylum as a last resort to save their life, it’s an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. Uncomfortable for him, confined to limited surroundings (living in an enclosed space without natural light, unable to exercise or get fresh air). Uncomfortable for Ecuador, which feels responsible for finding him a solution that will ensure his physical wellbeing and rights, and certainly uncomfortable for the rest of the countries involved.
Did the situation with Assange win or lose Correa votes during the elections?
The high number of votes registered for President Correa is a reflection on his effective leadership, and doubtless things would have been the same with or without Assange’s application for asylum. However, I would say that the image the international community has of Ecuador and its president has improved.
You were very close to Assange. I understand you slept at the Embassy.
For how long?
Because we couldn’t leave Assange alone at the Embassy as it was being besieged by police. Someone with diplomatic status had to be there “protecting” the place at all times. And that job was assigned to me.
I imagine you got to know Assange better, and personally.
It’s certainly true that we talked a lot over those months, especially at times when we were alone, at night.
What did you talk about?
Everything. With Julian Assange you can discuss all sorts of subjects.
I imagine Assange got to know more about Ecuador too.
Latin America was probably the part of the world Julian Assange knew least about. I expect he’s studying us with much greater interest now. He has a deep appreciation for Ecuador. Those words attributed to him describing Ecuador as insignificant were taken completely and maliciously out of context.
Significantly. With him around there’s much more movement in the building. He’s always got visitors, members of his team but also celebrities and people from all over the world who come to show their solidarity.
Who is Assange’s team made up of?
Very committed activists, totally dedicated to their work.
Since getting to know him, how much would you say of what people say about him is true?
A lot of what people say about him is pretty distorted.
Hmmm. I don’t know whether easy is the best description. I would imagine he’s very demanding of the people who work for him. In any case, he’s a good “tenant” as far as being respectful towards all the Embassy staff is concerned.
How would you describe him?
He’s slightly introverted, completely dedicated to his campaign, genuinely committed to his ideals and very grateful to those who support him.
What impact has knowing Assange had on your life?
It has certainly been a unique experience and an enormous responsibility to know that you are not only witness to, but in a way also part of, a historical and significant event in the struggle for civil liberties and free speech across the world.
Do you believe Assange is innocent?
If you’re referring to the allegations that they want to interrogate him over in Sweden, personally, of course I believe he’s innocent. But the justice system must have the final say in determining his innocence. Ecuador has been very clear on this point from the beginning. We are not protecting Julian Assange from the Swedish justice system. What’s more, it’s in our interest that this process moves forward, and we have suggested various alternatives which would allow Sweden to interrogate Assange. Ecuador is protecting Assange from the very real threat of being subsequently extradited to the United States where his basic rights would be at risk.
We believe a political and diplomatic solution will be possible sooner rather than later.
But if it turns out to be later, do you think Assange could hold out that long?
We hope he won’t have to. But if he does, I’m certain that both Julian Assange and Ecuador will be able to hold out as long as it takes.
(Translated by Fiona Marshall – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)