Boyd claimed that during his year-and-a-half working for Halvorssen, he successfully campaigned for the release of Guadelupe Llori, an Ecuadorian opposition politician jailed by Correa under charges of sabotage and terrorism for her role in leading a crippling oil workers' strike. (After her release, Llori was junketed to Halvorssen's Oslo Freedom Forum). During this time Boyd visited Llori in prison in Ecuador while meeting opposition activists "to coordinate future projects," as he told an interviewer. Whether this was how he made initial contact with the source that supplied him and Buzzfeed with the documents on Ecuador's deal with the Israeli surveillance firms is unknown.
Boyd may have never met Buzzfeed's Gray; however, each are well acquainted with Halvorssen. This May, Gray was among the select cadre of journalists flown to the Oslo Freedom Forum to provide positive PR for Halvorssen and his global operation. Gray returned with a fawning profile of Halvorssen, portraying him as an iconoclastic activist whose "job of opposing strongmen is arguably more media-friendly than that of anyone doing human rights work today."
In contrast to Buzzfeed's profile of Greenwald, Gray cast Halvorssen's eccentricities as charming quirks that bore little relevance to the larger story. And his intimate ties to the right-wing Venezuelan opposition and the oligarchic forces seeking to topple socialist-oriented governments in South America went unmentioned.
Right-wing corporate lobbyists target Correa
Ecuador's Correa is among the most popular of the Latin American leaders to embrace Hugo Chavez's socialist economic model. Having defiantly defaulted on $3.2 billion in foreign loans, he has been able to leverage his country's oil wealth to drastically expand social programs, improving access to education and doubling spending on healthcare while lowering poverty rates by a remarkable five percent since he took office in 2007. Naturally, Correa's rejection of neoliberal policies has earned him a fair share of enemies, especially among the elites who have traditionally governed Ecuador. In 2010, he resisted a coup attempt led by Lucio Gutierrez, a former president who earned the wrath of Ecuador's poor by implementing crushing IMF-imposed austerity measures.
Correa's opponents may have resorted to zero-sum politics, but his response has not always been judicious. He has, for example, advanced criminal libel laws as a means of punishing opposition media and has battled indigenous groups that protested his attempts to open their land up to wide-scale state mining operations. The Committee to Protect Journalists has accused Correa of leading Ecuador "into a new era of widespread repression."
Of all the enemies Correa has earned, some of his fiercest reside not in Quito, but in the conservative think tanks of Washington. They include George W. Bush's former Latin America handlers and a coterie of corporate-bankrolled right-wing radicals determined to unravel the South American socialist bloc.
Ezequiel Vazquez Ger, an Argentina-born economist, is among the most aggressive of Correa's antagonists. Vazquez Ger works for a DC-based lobbying firm run by Otto Reich, a Cuban exile who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under the second Bush administration. In 1987, Reich was singled out during the US Comptroller General's investigation of Iran-Contra for having "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities" on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras. He is also suspected of helping the anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch escape prosecution in Venezuela.
Reich contracted Vazquez Ger in 2011 to help him oversee a portfolio of corporate clients that included Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, and Bacardi International, the rum company whose lawyers drafted much of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act tightening the US embargo of Cuba. Before he partnered with Reich, Vazquez Ger served as a Latin American fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a corporate-funded think tank that promotes climate change denialism and sweeping deregulation policies.
To compliment their lobbying operation, Vazquez Ger and Reich have churned out a steady stream of op-eds for publications from Foreign Policy to Fox News to the Miami Herald, demonizing the socialist leaders of South America who have stifled the ambitions of multi-national corporations.
During the past year, they homed in on Correa, assailing him for sheltering Assange while he cracked down on opposition media. In a June 2012 op-ed for the right-wing Newsmax website, Reich and Vazquez Ger cited Assange as a key reason why the US should refuse to sign any further trade agreements with Ecuador. "Signing or renewing trade agreements with Ecuador will only allow Rafael Correa to continue undermining US foreign policy," they wrote, "trading with our enemies, and destroying his country's democracy." (Following threats from Congress over its alleged offer to shelter Snowden, Ecuador's government unilaterally rejected US trade preferences).
When Buzzfeed published its expose on Ecuador, Vazquez Ger was overjoyed. A heavily trafficked US news site had recycled he and Reich's attacks on Correa's support for Assange, this time framing Ecuador's president as a hypocrite for supposedly offering asylum to Snowden. At 7:28 PM on June 25 -- a full 27 minutes after the article appeared -- Vazquez Ger took to Twitter to promote the piece to his Spanish-language followers. Next, he personally thanked Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith "for unmasking [Correa's] hypocrisy."
The following day, at a press conference in Ecuador, Interior Minister Jose Serrano was asked to answer for the Buzzfeed report. Buzzfeed's Gray quickly picked up Serrano's defensive comments, quoting them in a follow-up story alongside a strident denunciation of Correa's sheltering of Assange by Clever Jimenez, a key opposition leader. Meanwhile, Alek Boyd projected the story of Ecuador's surveillance deal into South American media, publishing it as an "exclusive" in Semana, a leading Colombian daily.
Whoever planted the story with Buzzfeed appeared to have scored a major success, exploiting the Snowden drama to tarnish the image of Ecuador's government. Though the identity of the source that triggered the operation may never be known, their agenda does not seem to be much of a mystery anymore.