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US improving ties with Ecuador after Assange expelled

Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Now that Ecuador has expelled Julian Assange from its embassy in London, the Trump administration is opening a "new chapter of cooperation" with the South American government.

USAID Administrator Mark Green will join Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Valencia in Ecuador on Wednesday in signing a memorandum of understanding to work together on a series of economic and democracy initiatives. They include emergency response to natural disasters, economic development, environmental coordination and strengthening democratic institutions.

"This MOU is the next step in this partnership," Tom Babington, a spokesman for USAID, told McClatchy. "It demonstrates USAID's commitment to helping Ecuador on its journey to self-reliance, capitalizing on Ecuador's commitment to its own democratic strengthening and development."

The agreement reflects a new level of coordination since the Ecuadorian government kicked the WikiLeaks founder out of its embassy to the delight of U.S. officials long frustrated with Ecuador for granting asylum to Assange.

Ecuador President Lenin Moreno, who took office two years ago, has sought to improve relations with the country's top trading partner after ties with the United States became strained during the decade when former president Rafael Correa was in power.

The left-wing leader, in 2007, wouldn't renew a U.S. lease of a military base in Ecuador. In 2011, he kicked out the U.S. ambassador, and a year later gave political asylum to Assange. Throughout his leadership, Correa sided with other leftist governments that painted the United States as an imperialist bully bent on punishing Latin American governments that didn't do its bidding.

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The signing of the MOU on Wednesday represents a big step toward cooperation from 2014 when USAID and Ecuador were unable to reach agreement on a revised bilateral assistance agreement, after which USAID closed its Mission in Ecuador. Since then, USAID said it's been focused on helping the people of Ecuador through programs that support civil society and independent media.

Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, said there is "a lot of underbrush that has to be worked out before they can seriously talk about a trade agreement," but emphasized that Moreno has helped reorient his government's perspective so that this kind of discussion is even possible.

"Does this translate yet to concrete shifts, trade agreements, increased trade, investments in certain sectors, I don't know that we can say the answer to that is yes," Farnsworth said. "But the body language has clearly shifted."

David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd., which has been working with Ecuadorian exporters in food and beverage, agriculture and other industry groups to take advantage of new relations with the United States, said Moreno has helped turn around 10 years of stagnation.

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