Rafael Correa, Ecuador's leftist president, has a flair for publicity, as he demonstrated again last week in claiming vindication for harboring the fugitive Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
But a separate high-profile case shows just how far he will go to manipulate international opinion.
American Media Institute reviewed hundreds of emails from President Correa and his close associates that show the leadership of the small South American republic in 2013 and 2014 orchestrated a $6.4-million propaganda campaign against Chevron Corp. that was aimed primarily at the United States.
The regime employed public relations firms, lobbyists and celebrities and worked closely with Rolling Stone magazine to advance a “Dirty Hand of Chevron” narrative accusing the oil giant of environmental crimes.
The campaign enlisted elder luminaries including Danny Glover and Mia Farrow and sought to recruit Cher and Bianca Jagger.
In the Wikileaks case last week, Correa seized on a United Nations panel's ruling that Assange had been "arbitrarily detained" in Ecuador's London embassy, faulting Sweden and Britain. Correa suggested both his country and Assange were due compensation and vowed to continue protecting the publisher of government secrets, who sought refuge at the embassy in 2012 as he faced extradition over rape allegations in Sweden.
But like all governments, the Correa regime has secrets of its own. And its orchestration of the campaign against Chevron, which the Correa emails disclose for the first time, rivals the intrigue of the Assange affair.
The collection of hundreds of emails related to a high-profile legal case show Correa, who has ruled Ecuador since 2007, scrambling with his inner circle to manipulate international opinion as a lawsuit against Chevron fell apart.
The regime drew on a budgetary line item dedicated to “Publicity and Propaganda in Mass Media” to hire a media company, set up in Brooklyn by a childhood friend, for the purpose of hiring celebrities to push the regime’s propaganda line in a lawsuit involving Chevron.
The emails go into entertaining detail about efforts to rustle a herd of show-business supporters including Jared Leto, Michelle Rodriguez, Benjamin Bratt, Daryl Hannah, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, and Sharon Stone.
They also shed light on how sophisticated political messaging toward Americans has become available even to a small, poor, notoriously corrupt regime. Ecuador’s per capita GDP is just $6,300 a year, according to the World Bank, and Freedom House rates its press as “not free.” Yet Correa was able to hire MCSquared, a Brooklyn PR firm set up by longtime friend Maria del Carmen Garay, paying the company $534,000 a month in deposits to a Citibank account on Park Avenue in New York City.
Garay’s MCSquared in turn subcontracted the celebrity recruitment to high-powered speakers’ agencies, including the Greater Talent Network of New York and the global American Program Bureau based near Boston.
Documents filed with the U.S. Justice Department show that MCSquared paid the Greater Talent Network $188,000 and paid the American Program Bureau $333,000 in late 2013 and early 2014 to find the celebrities as part of a larger media campaign.
The propaganda was in support of a decades-long lawsuit against Chevron by New York lawyer Stephen R. Donziger, which had collapsed amid revelations of corruption in Ecuadoran courts.
Since Correa’s election in 2007, Ecuador’s government had taken a strong interest in the suit. But as a U.S. federal court in Manhattan began looking into the judgment that Donziger won against Chevron in a provincial Ecuadoran court, Correa hoped to bring big names to the remote Lago Agrio oil fields to dramatize Chevron’s alleged environmental damage to the Amazon region of Ecuador.
The resulting campaign proved a disappointment to Correa, according to the emails.
Though the president felt energized by an October 2013 Huffington Post op-ed by activist Bianca Jagger, he pressed his aides constantly to find brighter star power than the 70-year-old ex-wife of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
“We should bring Bianca into the ‘Dirty Hand’ campaign,” Correa wrote to his then-Ambassador to the United States Nathalie Cely Suárez, but he remained frustrated that no big celebrities were coming to his country to join his efforts.
“We have been missing a lot of forcefulness, and we are losing momentum,” he complained. “Not a single relevant person has come.”
“Of course, Presidente,” Cely replied. “I’m traveling to Quito next week to present our plan and obtain approval and resources. The help with Cher came through Patton (Boggs), our ex-lawyers who defend the communities.”
Cely delicately cautioned the president that celebrities would cost money.
“About Bianca Jagger, if we are working with our PR agency, it has a very low budget (US $30,000 per month) for presenting all the themes of the Embassy,” Cely wrote.
“We should have an agency of the highest level contacting personalities,” Correa replied. “The idea was to bring one every week, and none have come at all.”
The court battle proved even more disappointing to Correa’s anti-Chevron faction. In May 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled that a multibillion-dollar judgment against Chevron in Ecuador could not be enforced because it had been obtained through fraud and a racketeering effort by Donziger. The prominent law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs sustained severe damage from its involvement with Donziger’s case, and in 2014 it was acquired by the firm Squire Sanders.
The documents also show how Correa's inner circle sought to tamp down controversy over Ecuador’s harboring of Julian Assange at its London embassy — and were eager to take advantage of political splits in Washington.
U.S. House members “disagree on Iran, Assange, etc.,” Cely wrote to a list including Correa and high-ranking officials in late 2013. She went on to describe a meeting with U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, a noted hawk toward Latin America’s socialist governments. Cely, who has since become the impoverished nation’s minister of production, reassured the presidential brain trust that “only the Tea Party” supported the views of Salmon, adding that the Arizona Republican himself expressed an “interest in visiting Ecuador and improving relations.”
In another email thread, a group including Cely, the president, the heads of various ministries and an activist then serving as Ecuador’s “general secretary of transparency” hashed out Assange-related talking points for the president’s 2014 visit to Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Be prepared to discuss “migration, ‘anti-American’ perceptions and the cases of Assange and Snowden,” the document advised the president.
Correa has had better luck with the Assange affair. Last week, a United Nations report criticized the governments of both the United Kingdom and Sweden, which issued an arrest warrant against the Wikileaks founder in 2010 on a sexual assault charge. Britain had been seeking to extradite Assange to Sweden in May 2012 when he took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy.
The UN report called for the two governments to compensate Assange and end his “deprivation of liberty.”
The Ecuadorian president was quick to capitalize on that report, claiming that his government endured “spying attempts and lots of other things” while sheltering the Australian-born fugitive.
“That shows we were right, after so many years,” Correa said in a Quito news conference Thursday. “But who is going to compensate the harm that has been done to Julian Assange and to Ecuador? Do you know how much it costs to maintain security at the embassy?”