Ecuador has long been overshadowed by its bigger neighbors, dwarfed on the international stage by the bombast of oil-rich Venezuela and the battle royal in Colombia between the government and leftist rebels. Not anymore. Colombia's raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador last month galvanized President Rafael Correa. Suddenly, Ecuador matters.
Having told both the Colombian government and the rebels to stay out of his country, Correa is now taking on the United States. He has ousted top commanders and members of his military who he says have ties to the Central Intelligence Agency and reaffirmed that Ecuador will not renew the lease for the U.S. air base in Manta after it expires in 2009.
Reactionaries in Washington see these moves, particularly regarding the base, as a sign that the left-leaning Correa has finally drifted into Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's orbit. But Correa's stand is not the result of anti-U.S. sentiment stoked by Chavez and exacerbated by the raid. The base is widely unpopular with the Ecuadorean people, and -- as did other candidates running for president last year -- Correa promised the departure of the U.S. military. These are reasonable steps for Ecuador. Correa is distancing his country from Colombia's internal struggles and, like other Latin American nations, redefining its relationship with the U.S.
"We're going to begin to be a sovereign and independent country," Correa said in a recent speech. "We've had enough of intelligence services that are financed by the United States Embassy, financed by the CIA. We will end all of this." This rhetoric does have an anti-U.S. ring, but it's also pro-Ecuador. Rather than go away mad, the U.S. would be better off responding with a patient appreciation of Correa's domestic political situation. If we don't support Ecuador's maturing position in the region, we could push the country into the anti-U.S. bloc threatening to take shape.
Unfortunately, we're already on the wrong path. Although it was important for the U.S. to support Colombia after the raid, it also was important to acknowledge Ecuador's justifiable anger at the violation of its sovereignty -- and to work for resolution. Predictably, President Bush missed the opportunity for a nuanced response and instead simply ignored Ecuador. But it's not too late. Although losing the air base will be an inconvenience -- we may have to ask Colombia or Peru for a site -- the evolving politics of South America call for respectful engagement, not Cold War bluster. In the end, a region of strong democracies offers natural allies and markets. That is what the U.S. should cultivate.