Last week, the people of Ecuador elected a leftist named after the communist dictator Vladimir Lenin as their new president.
It's always a double-edged sword when Ecuador is in the news -- in the U.S., the little-known country at the equator usually flies far under the radar.
Not long ago someone asked me where I was from, and when I answered that my father's side of the family was from Ecuador, the person said, "Really? Like that guy from 'Mork & Mindy'?"
No, that would be "Exidor," and he was a fictional sidekick, not a country.
Unfortunately, when the world's top banana producer does make international headlines, they're rarely good.
For instance, in 2012 the Republic of Ecuador shocked the world when it vowed to eradicate some 80 gay conversion "clinics" where gay men and women were starved and tortured in an effort to make them become straight. That same year it closed down about 24 universities that had been operating out of garages and storefronts.
It was a big year for the tiny Andean country. That summer, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London seeking
protective asylum from the U.S. and Swedish governments, which were, respectively, seeking to detain him over his publication of military and diplomatic secrets and allegations of rape and sexual abuse of two women dating back to 2010.
And Assange is still there!
Whether he can keep his safe harbor remains to be seen.
Now, Lenin Moreno, Ecuador's president-elect, is being greeted with about as much enthusiasm as our own Donald Trump.
The polls had shown that Moreno's rival, Guillermo Lasso, was winning. As soon as the contest was called in Moreno's favor, it was alleged that there were about 592,350 fraudulent votes, along with "irregularities" at the voting booths, and a recount was demanded.
"Inside the country, every institution charged with ensuring a fair vote is controlled by [current President Rafael Correa]. Most of the rest of the world doesn't care. Those who do, back the strongman," wrote The Wall Street Journal's Americas columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady. "To steal an election, a government needs unchecked power at home and willing foreign dupes. Mr. Correa has both at his disposal."
However, Ecuador's media outlets are reporting that even though it was close, Moreno will succeed his close ally Correa -- who, I was always proud to say, earned his masters and Ph.D. in economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Correa's own legacy is a mix of decreased poverty and harsh crackdowns on his country's media.
Moreno -- who will be the world's only head of state who uses a wheelchair -- shares a lot of Correa's ideology, but not his affinity with Assange.
Already the two are colliding after Assange tweeted a snarky message to the conservative loser in the contest, who had previously promised to send Assange out on his ear if elected: "I cordially invite Lasso to leave Ecuador within 30 days (with or without his tax haven millions)."
Moreno has vowed to uphold Assange's asylum but set the tone quickly at one of his first news conferences, stating, "Mr. Julian Assange must respect the condition [of asylum] he is in and not meddle in Ecuadorean politics."
This is a stark contrast to the chummy relationship Assange had with Correa, who considered him a comrade in American persecution. Perhaps it's a refreshing turn of events for the small country of 16 million people.
Ecuador has a host of challenges: Its new president barely squeaked into power and faces a politically polarized country in which nearly a quarter of its citizens live in poverty. The economy is flagging. And corruption and graft are seen as major impediments to national stability -- in just one example, the U.S. Justice Department recently said that Ecuadorean officials had taken at least $33.5 million in bribes from a Brazilian oil conglomerate between 2007 and 2016.
The incoming president has promised reform. But first Moreno needs to get his troublesome houseguest off the country's couch so Assange can stop sucking all the air out of Ecuador's faint presence on the world stage.
It would be wonderful if the home of the Galapagos Islands, and the birthplace of the theory of evolution, could gain international attention for leadership on issues like government transparency, environmental protections and acceptance of people with disabilities -- instead of being a mere footnote in the saga of a political provocateur.