Ecuadoreans Close Ranks in Assange Standoff
By William Neuman, NY Times, September 10, 2012
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador—Juan José Illingworth has English bona fides that are hard to beat. He is the sixth-generation namesake of an Englishman who became one of Ecuador’s national heroes, fighting for independence from Spain, helping to lead the young nation, founding its naval academy and drafting the law that freed the country’s slaves.
But for all of Mr. Illingworth’s keen appreciation of his family’s ties to the old sod, when the British authorities threatened last month to enter Ecuador’s embassy in London to seize the asylum-seeking founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, his sentiments went decidedly against Mother England.
“I’ve always believed that an embassy is a bulwark of protection,” said Mr. Illingworth, a software executive and a former legislator. “England cannot violate that.”
Bear in mind, Mr. Illingworth is no fan of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, who made the decision to grant asylum to Mr. Assange. And like others here, he sees political motives behind the move. Mr. Correa certainly has a predilection for grand public stances that portray him as fearless and defiant, whether he is daring rebellious police officers to kill him if they are “brave enough,” kicking out the World Bank’s representative, expelling the American ambassador or refusing to let the American military use a prominent base on Ecuadorean soil.
But when the tussle over Mr. Assange turned into a fight pitting tiny Ecuador against a powerful and imperious Britain, many in this politically divided country rallied around him.
Miriam Vilela, 40, a seamstress, who sat on a recent afternoon in Navy Park here near a statue of Mr. Illingworth’s famous relative, had only a vague notion of who Mr. Assange was, recalling merely that he had “something to do with the Internet.”
But what she was clear about was that Britain had tried to bully Ecuador, and she was glad that Mr. Correa had stood his ground. It reminded her of a phrase used by a former president of Ecuador, Sixto Durán Ballén, to rally the country during its 1995 war with Peru.
“Not one step backward,” said Ms. Vilela, who supports Mr. Correa because of his policies that help the poor. “Never retreat. What’s ours is ours.”
Britain ultimately backed off its threat to invade the embassy, and Ecuador said this week that it would resume talks aimed at resolving the standoff. There seemed to be little hope for a quick fix, however. Mr. Assange, who has taken refuge in the embassy since June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on allegations that he sexually assaulted two women, told Telesur, a channel based in Venezuela, that he expected to remain in the building for 6 to 12 months.
Still, London is far away, and large numbers of Ecuadoreans are busy worrying about making ends meet. On the streets of Guayaquil, the country’s biggest city, and Quito, the capital, more than half of the people questioned said they had not heard of Mr. Assange or of the embassy standoff.
Mr. Correa has made many broadly popular changes, improving health care, education, roads and social services. But he is a lightning rod and delights in picking fights and taunting his opponents. He has been criticized by human rights groups for cracking down on popular protests and by dissident groups for seeking to intimidate and restrict the press.
In granting asylum to Mr. Assange and butting heads with Britain, Mr. Correa both stirred a sense of national pride and confirmed some skeptics’ views of him.
Carlos Soria, 45, the owner of a tiny hardware store near the Quito airport, said he cherished Ecuador’s tradition of offering refuge to those who need it and approved of giving asylum to Mr. Assange. “We had to do it for humanitarian reasons,” he said.
But Mr. Soria, who said he had never voted for Mr. Correa and did not plan to in the future, questioned the president’s motives. “I think he did it to get a political advantage, to increase his popularity,” he said. “This president is always trying to draw attention to himself.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Illingworth and his relatives have a privileged perspective on Ecuadorean-British relations.
Their famous ancestor, Juan Illingworth, born John in 1786 in Heaton Norris, near Manchester, was one of many Englishmen who came in the early 19th century to fight against the Spanish for South American independence, encouraged by a government back home that was in constant conflict with imperial Spain.
Illingworth fought in many battles on sea and land; befriended Simón Bolívar, the independence leader; and was named a general and an admiral. He settled in Guayaquil, married into a prominent family and had an illustrious political career.
His descendants have continued to play a major role in the country. An Illingworth has served as vice president, and there have been many cabinet ministers and legislators.
That includes Juan José, who served in the National Assembly from 1996 to 1998. During and after his term in the legislature, he championed greater autonomy for Guayaquil—a position that earned him his own WikiLeaks moment. Mr. Illingworth is mentioned in a 2005 State Department cable on the autonomy movement, which was among tens of thousands of diplomatic cables made public in 2010 by WikiLeaks.
The family has a strong sense of history and its place in it. Its members walk through a city that has an Illingworth Street and an Illingworth Passage.
There are at least two statues and a bust of the Admiral, as their famous forebear is usually called. (The base of the statue in Navy Park contains a coffer with the Admiral’s remains. Mr. Illingworth was present a few years ago at the exhumation and was happy to see that, more than 150 years later, “his skull was in perfect condition,” he said.)
And what would the Admiral have thought about the conflict over Mr. Assange?
“He would have felt uncomfortable,” Mr. Illingworth said. “Part of his heart was with England and part with Ecuador.”