An Interview with Adam E. Namm, U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador

Ecuador Adam E. NammAmbassador Adam Namm received an A.B. in International Relations from Brown University and an M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College. Namm began his career in the Foreign Service in 1987, eventually serving in Pakistan, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Santo Domingo. He has also served in several domestic management level posts. Namm was appointed to his current position as Ambassador to Ecuador and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2012.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined the Foreign Service because I had had a couple of overseas experiences in high school and college. I did an exchange program as a sophomore in college in France and then I did my junior year of college in Paris. I really liked living and traveling overseas. In my senior year of college just about everyone was majoring in International Relations (as I was) and we had to take this thing called the Foreign Service exam. I knew what the State Department did but I didn’t realize there was a foreign service. A retired Foreign Service officer came to speak at a career night and I thought, “What the heck — I’ll take this free exam.” So, I took the exam and got into the Service a couple years. When I came in at first I was curious enough that I thought I’d spend four or five years living in a couple of interesting places and then get out and get a “real job.”

The Politic: Any reason why you were assigned to Ecuador?

I am honored to have been chosen for Ecuador by the President and recommended by the State Department. I had done a couple of Latin American tours, my first of which was in the Dominican Republic. Then, about 15 years ago, I was in Bogotá, Colombia for two years. So I knew Spanish, had interest in Latin America, and knew something about the region from my two previous tours. Ecuador is a fascinating place and a beautiful place to be and so I am very happy to be here.

The Politic: What is your day-to-day job like?

A little bit of everything. It means, of course, being out front in terms of U.S. foreign policy in Ecuador and being the face of that policy. For instance, just two nights ago I made a 75-minute-long speech at one of the universities here about U.S. foreign policy. There is a heavy element of my job that is contact with the public through speeches at academic institutions or, of course, press stuff. Last year, I went to the inauguration of a new American center in Cuenca. So, a lot deals with the public face of the U.S. Then, the other side of things is managing the embassy. We have got about 150 Americans working at the embassy in Quito and our consulate general at Guayaquil along the coast, plus another 300 or so foreign nationals that work for the mission. Obviously, there are a lot of emails and phone calls, a lot of reading to keep up like the papers and government cable traffic. What is great about the job is that it is very different every day.

The Politic: How does an everyday citizen perceive the U.S.? In your role as a public figure have you found that there are a lot of misconceptions among the Ecuadorian people?

The perception is positive towards the U.S. Ecuadorians tend to have family living in the United States or have traveled to the U.S. for either study or for pleasure, so the perception is very good. Oftentimes, however, there are misperceptions among Ecuadorians that it is hard or impossible to get a U.S. visa so we do a lot of outreach — we answer questions to clear this up. For example, there is a weekly webchat that our consular section here in Quito does since people can be a little bit shy or a little daunted by the process of coming in to apply for a visa.

The Politic: In your time is there a single experience, person or event that has really influenced your policies? How so?

A quick policy based on a variety of influences. About a month and half ago I attended a world press freedom day event hosted by a national union of journalists. It was an Ecuadorian group and their oldest journalist organization. I expressed my support for freedom of expression by writing a quote from Thomas Jefferson on a public mural that they had. Now you may know that there has been a lot of conflict between President [Rafael] Correa and the private press here. President Correa has publicly criticized the private media. He calls them liars and scoundrels and that sort of thing a lot. He has even sued. There is a famous lawsuit against the largest newspaper in Guayaquil where he won judgment ultimately. The editorial page editor and the owner of the newspaper were sentenced to jail. He ultimately pardoned them but that has had a real chilling effect on the press here and we get reports of a lot of self-censorship from the private press.

In any case, I attended this World Press Freedom Day and wrote this quote from Thomas Jefferson having to do with freedom of expression. The following Saturday, during President Correa’s weekly speech, I was called names. You know, “meddling” and “badly behaved” and “graffiti ambassador.” The foreign minister called me to his office and expressed that the Ecuadorian governments was upset about what I had done. That was very formative because I didn’t think I had done anything bad. All I had done was gone to an event in support of the free press to quote Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson said, “The only security for all is the freedom of the press.” I thought that really came under attack by the government. I guess what I learned from that is that it is important to stand up for U.S. values and ideals. Sometimes, you get beaten up a little bit but ultimately it is worth doing because that is my job as ambassador, to stand up for U.S. values and to represent the position of my government.

The Politic: In Ecuador and other developing countries is there any place for censorship or is there a responsibility to immediately leap into the free order of things that we take for granted in the U.S.?

Obviously you cannot say anything you would like in the U.S.; you cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie house and we do have slander and libel laws. But I quote former Secretary Clinton, who said something like, “The best way to counter false speech is with more speech.” In other words, from time to time the free press gets it wrong. Maybe sometimes they get it wrong maliciously but to start to restrict the press is something that we’d be worried about and we are. In fact, last week the Ecuadorian assembly passed a communications law that we believe would further restrict press. It sets up a contingency to review and possibly penalize free press if they write something that the government feels is false. We’re concerned about this new law and the state department issued a statement to express that.

The Politic: Is there anything else that a U.S. ambassador can do other than expressing his or her disdain for these things?

A mestizo woman participating in the 2010 Carnaval del Pueblo
A mestizo woman participating in the 2010 Carnaval del Pueblo

Ultimately, Ecuador is a sovereign country that had an election. They democratically elected a president and national assembly, and the national assembly approved this law and the president said he’s going to sign the bill into law. So no. Ecuador must make its own laws. But I do believe the U.S. has a right to express concern just as Ecuador and other countries express concern over whether or not it’s gun control in the U.S., or Guantanamo, or whatever it is. And what I would say as a U.S. ambassador is that they have every right to express concern just as we have every right to express concern about this new communications law that has been passed in Ecuador.

The Politic: Corruption is a huge problem for many Latin American countries. At the moment what kind of steps are being taken, in general, to order counter corruption in Ecuador?

I really can’t comment as to the level of corruption. If you take any organization in the U.S. or anywhere else there’s going to be some level of corruption. What I can say is that we work fairly closely with different Ecuadorian government institutions, including the police and the military. I am talking about training and exchange of information when it comes to fighting drug trafficking and human trafficking. We feel that by staying connected to those institutions — whether it is through training, donation of equipment, which we do, exchange of information — those are good ways to be as sure as we can that those forces do the best that they can and obviously that is in the Ecuadorian government’s best interest as much as it is in U.S. interest.

Ecuador really has on many fronts — I am talking about security, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and money laundering — been a pretty good partner. For example, the State Department issued its Trafficking in Persons Report, a report about countries involved in human trafficking, and Ecuador was the only country in the hemisphere that actually moved up a category when there were six or seven countries that moved down. Ecuador is the only country that has moved up because Ecuador has taken significant steps to fight human trafficking. The number of arrests was very positive over the past year and they were recognized for that. And drugs: in terms of cocaine, Ecuador is not a huge producer country, but it is a big shipment country right in between Colombia and Peru, the two largest cocaine producers. But the seizures of shipments are also positive. Ultimately, we feel that staying engaged on the security side and the economic side is the best way to promote the interests of both countries.

The Politic: On the drug war, how has it impacted Ecuador and is there anything the United States could do to help them further?

Let me start out by saying the cooperation we have with the national police and with the military is pretty good. That said, in Ecuador we had something called the “forward operating location,” which was essentially a base for U.S. aircrafts that flew out over the pacific to help identify drug trafficking. This forward operating location existed for ten years in Manta, a city on the cost of Ecuador at the Pacific, and we had a lease from 1999 to 2009. When President Correa ran in 2006, he said, “If elected, I am going to close that forward operating location,” or at least not renew the lease in 2009. He was elected and, sure enough, in 2009, he did not renew the lease so we had to close it down. That was disappointing to us. It was disappointing because we felt that by basing our planes and some of our military in Manta we could work with the Ecuadorians to fight drug trafficking and human trafficking. Since that time it seems like drug trafficking has become more of a significant problem in Ecuador and there is more evidence that Mexican cartels are now involved in drug trafficking in the country.About a year ago there was a plane that crashed about in the mountains of Ecuador that was carrying a lot of cash. It was discovered to have been coming back from Mexico and that was evidence of the problem. There have been a few other things that are evidence of Mexican smuggling cartels going through Ecuador, and we feel that the forward operating location that we had in Monte helped in the fight against drug trafficking and related crimes. So, when you ask what more can we do, we were doing more until 2009 when the Ecuadorian government, totally within their right, did not renew the lease. We couldn’t force them to renew the lease, but we were disappointed that that very effective tool in fighting against drug trafficking and other related crimes was taken away.

The Politic: How has WikiLeaks changed the relationship between our two countries aside from the change in Ambassador to Ecuador? 

Well, some interesting trivia is that Ambassador Heather Hodges, my predecessor, is the only U.S. ambassador expelled over a WikiLeaks cable. You know I obviously can’t comment on any of the particular cables allegedly leaked by WikiLeaks but what I can say is that the position of the U.S. government is that WikiLeaks was very damaging to national security. Private [Bradley] Manning is on trial; there is a judicial process against him and it is a very unfortunate incident. We have now re-exchanged ambassadors, did so over a year ago now, and there is an Ecuadorian ambassador in Washington and I am here and the objective now is to put that incident, the expulsion, behind us.

To that end, hopefully we will have a restart of what is called ‘bilateral dialogue,’ which is a formal way to sit down at a table and talk through the whole range of issues, whether it is immigration or trade or environment or security, all that kind of stuff. People come down from Washington and we sit around a table. The first bilateral dialogue was held in 2008 in Quito. There was another round in Washington in 2009 and the next round was supposed to be in 2011, but was suspended over the expulsion of our ambassador. I am hoping that by the end of the year (we’ve been going back and forth with the Ecuadorians over the agenda) we’ll have another round of bilateral dialogue, which will be in Quito. The Ecuadorians will host. There are many issues of mutual interest — it is the security stuff and it is trade. The U.S. is Ecuador’s largest trading partner. We have a two way trade of about 17 billion dollars, so we are very closely connected as countries. It is very important for me, as ambassador, that we talk through these areas and, where we can cooperate more, we will, and where we may disagree and continue to disagree, you know, we will have those disagreements.

The Politic: Ecuador has an incredible history and recently has developed further with free elections. But it also recently defaulted on its debt and despite huge natural resources sold off a lot of the Amazon to Chinese firms. So, when do you think the country will really come into its own as a democracy and what do you think the route to that is?

Well, there is a lot of stuff in that question. In terms of coming into its own we say, and I believe, that Ecuador is a democracy. I mean President Correa was elected freely. The elections were well run, he was elected, and he is popular here and understandably so. He won by about 35 percent. He is very popular because he’s really delivered to the Ecuadorian people in terms of infrastructure, roads, building schools, building medical clinics. He is done many, many positive things for these people. We have said we have concerns with his communications law, and Ecuador also tried to gut the Inter-American human rights condition at the last OAS general assembly a few weeks ago in Guatemala, so we disagree in those areas. In terms of Ecuador coming into its own, you are right: economically, it has resources. Oil accounts for 55 percent or 60 percent of Ecuador’s exports. It is the largest exporter of bananas; it is the largest exporter of roses and other cut flowers, shrimp, tuna. Ecuador’s economy has grown; it has grown by 5 percent last year and 8 percent the year before, so they’re doing very well economically.

Ecuadoran soldiers protecting the border
Ecuadoran soldiers protecting the border

There are some concerns here that the majority of their eggs are in the oil basket, so to speak, and they’re now looking to diversify into mining. There is gold, copper and silver in Ecuador, and it’s a beautiful country. It is one of the 15 most diverse countries in the world with a large swath of Amazon rainforest. There is one national park called Yasuni with a lot of oil under it. President Correa has a program to try to collect money from other governments and private organizations to refrain from drilling for oil in that national park. I wish Ecuador good luck with that. They have opened up, it is true, more blocks of land for oil drilling in southern Ecuador and in Amazon areas. You know, oil is important. President Correa says he isn’t going to avoid exploiting Ecuador’s resources while his people are poor, so he is trying to respond in another way. He is exploiting the resources while protecting the environment, but also bettering the life of the Ecuadorian people and it is tough for me to disagree with that strategy.

The Politic: How do you feel America is represented abroad in general and are there any broad elements of American foreign policy that you, personally, would like to change?

In the first case, I am very proud to be a member of what I think is the best and most professional diplomatic corps in the world, the U.S. Foreign Service. I can tell you that we have got lots of good people here who do a great job representing America, whether that’s on the development side in USAID, or our economic and political officers who do reporting and talk to people every day on big issues in Ecuador, or on the consular side to help American citizens. The number one goal of any diplomatic mission is to be there when its citizens are in trouble with passports and such. In terms of any elements of foreign policy that I would want to change, being a professional Foreign Service officer means we represent the policies of our democratically elected government. Foreign Service officers do have the altitude to [publicly] question foreign policy; we do that through internal channels. I think that is one of the things that makes our system so strong, actually. There is a will to dissent against the system and sometimes that dissent can lead to changes in policy.


Embassy of the United States to Ecuador:

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