If you were to guess which Latin American president pays top dollar for public relations in the U.S., you may guess Dilma Rousseff from Brazil because of the world cup, or maybe Cristina Kirchner from Argentina given her struggle to pay debts, or perhaps even Nicolás Maduro, since he likes to publish editorials in American media.
The correct answer, however, is Rafael Correa from Ecuador.
Ecuador has the most active government in Latin America in terms of public relations within the United States, engaging in aggressive lobbying and outreach to penetrate the media and establish backchannel lanes of influence over the U.S. government. But back in the homeland Correa continues to bash the U.S. comparing "American exceptionalism" to "Nazi's rhetoric before and during World War II."
While Correa's rhetoric may be confrontational, Ecuador's cash continues to pour into a variety of PR and lobbying firms in the U.S., in some cases in a very irregular manner.
Recently, Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Paul Barret published a breaking story identifying a Brooklyn-based boutique public relations firm, MCSquared PR, Inc. as the architect of a staged protest against oil conglomerate Chevron, who is in a long-running litigation battle with the Ecuadorean government. According to Barret, MCSquared paid protestors to wave signs and shout slogans during one of Chevron's shareholders meetings in Midland, Texas this past May.
The digital news source Washington Free Beacon discovered that while MCSquared was busy finding ways to wreak havoc on Chevron, it forgot one minor detail -- it did not register with the Department of Justice as required by U.S. Law when acting as an agent of a foreign government on U.S. soil. After this news broke, MCSquared scrambled to remedy this error and revealed it had received approximately half a million a month, for a hefty sum of close to $6.5 million in less than one year from the Ecuadorean government.
MCSquared is certainly not the first firm Ecuador has hired to improve its image within the U.S. According to official records within the Department of Justice, Ecuador has spent an estimated $10.5 million in the last five years, through a total of 10 PR and lobbying firms with heavy clout inside the beltway. Top firms such as Patton Boggs LLP and Brown Lloyd James Worldwide, among others; have been helping rebrand the Republic of Ecuador, arranging over 685 exchanges with the U.S. government and other important actors from Washington to New York to Miami.
Unlike these other contracts, the MCSquared deal provokes more suspicion. Especially after the Ecuadorean Ambassador in Washington, Nathalie Cely Suárez, recently absolved herself and the embassy of any responsibility over the contract, even though her signature is on the dotted line. Cely instead quickly passed the buck to Ecuador's Secretariat of Communications, whose president Fernando Alvarado Espinel deflected any inquiry by saying "I don't respond to corrupt reporters."
This flippant reaction from the Ecuadorean government towards any questioning of the MCSquared contract only serves to further fan speculation that there may be more to this deal than we know about.
In examining the contract, we find that MCSquared is receiving approximately $150 thousand dollars a month to conduct various studies, $90 thousand a month on public opinion polls, and a whopping $100k a month to develop a website.
More interesting, however, is not only what is in the contract, but who signed them. On behalf of MCSquared, it is Ecuador-born María del Carmen Garay, who leads a team of Ecuadoreans in the U.S. with strong ties to the homeland. For instance, one MCSquared employee is Cynthia Zapata Solis who previously worked for Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment as recently as 2008.
This inordinate amount of money being spent on typical PR services, coupled by the fact that MCSquared is run by several Ecuadoreans in the U.S. with strong ties to Correa's regime -- is a cause for concern. Not only because Rafael Correa is just as anti-U.S. and authoritarian as the late Hugo Chávez, but also because Ecuador has become a haven for money-laundering and organized crime.
The recent rise of express kidnapping and drug trafficking in Ecuador has prompted some U.S. officials to name Ecuador as the "United Nations" of organized crime, and the Paris-based, intergovernmental organization -- the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has included Ecuador in its latest list of global money laundering.
This leads to the question -- where is all this money going? Is $100k a month really for just a website? If so, that may be one of the most expensive sites since healthcare.gov. But if not, than whom else is getting a slice of the pie?
If attention is what Ecuador seeks, perhaps U.S. authorities should grant them their wish and look further into what kind of favors Correa's cash can curry in the United States and to what end?
Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger is a political analyst and director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in the Americas (CIJA) based in Washington, DC. Twitter: @Ezequielvazquez