President Obama’s efforts to loosen restrictions on travel and commerce with Cuba is having reverberations all across Latin and South America; nowhere has America’s newfound soft power been apparent than in the last few days, when Ecuador cut off Internet access for Julian Assange in their U.K. embassy. Assange has been roiling U.S. politics through Wikileaks, his website dedicated to “radical transparency.”
Hackers associated with the Russian group Fancy Bear have been tied to the hacking of Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, injecting chaos into the presidential campaign, and those documents have been leaked to the media through Assange. In previous years, the U.S. may have found it more difficult to convince countries south of its border to play hardball with a popular figure in international leftist politics. President Obama, during his announcement that he would be normalizing relations with Cuba, noted how often the U.S. was roadblocked in diplomatic efforts because of the ongoing embargo on the island nation. "
Other countries, like Venezuela, used Cuba as a way to drive a wedge between the United States and Latin and South Americans, particularly among Catholic groups. It’s unclear how the Assange drama will play out. Wikileaks has announced, through their Twitter feed, that they are activating “contingency” plans to accelerate the release of emails from the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and the personal account of their chairman, John Podesta. Yet, despite their threats, most of the emails and documents released thus far have had little impact on the presidential campaign, especially as Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump, has been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault during an interview with former TODAY show anchor Billy Bush.
One might presume, though, that Wikileaks has saved its best for last. Assange has demonstrated a clear desire to harm Hillary Clinton; several commentators have speculated that it stems from Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, where she led efforts to curtail Wikileaks’ activities following the leak of diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department early in the Obama administration. Wikileaks claims to have over 30,000 emails and intends to leak small packages every morning until the election. On the other hand, a recent press conference held by Assange was met with disappointment among Republicans and other Clinton opponents, when it largely consisted of anti-American rants and advertisements for Wikileaks’ 20th anniversary book.
Perhaps that’s largely the way that Assange wants it. With conservative-leaning media ready to pounce on any new revelations, the secrecy allows Wikileaks to stay relevant. It also allows Assange to demonstrate usefulness to his Russian supporters, from whom he may need support of Ecuador takes more aggressive steps to rid themselves of the diplomatic nightmare brought on by his presence in their embassy. Regardless of how the story plays out, it’s clear that President Obama’s efforts to use Cuba as a way to improve relations with other countries in the Western hemisphere has borne some early fruit. There’s no more “American devil” in Venezuela, there’s no more “capitalist dog” in Cuba. There’s progress. Shutting off Assange’s ability to communicate with the world may not be permanent, but it’s a sign that American soft power in the region carries more weight than it has in the past. If the U.S. can help revive the peace process between Colombia and the FARC rebels, it will take yet another historic step forward.