Emilio Palacio stares out a shattered window onto a weed-filled, tree-shrouded yard in west Coconut Grove while trashing his nemesis, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. "He is a monster without ethics, a dictator," Palacio says. "He follows the script of Hugo Chávez or Fidel, who is brilliant — brilliant like Machiavelli."
Palacio is hiding out. Had the 57-year-old not left behind his wife, two teenage sons, and homeland August 24, the president's minions would have slapped on the cuffs and tossed him in the slammer.
Until recently, this gnomish graybeard was one of the most powerful men in South America: brother of a former president and an editorial page editor of one of the continent's best-known newspapers, El Universo. The extremely personal feud with President Correa — which culminated in a sentence of three years behind bars and a $40 million fine, just as a result of criticism — marks the most egregious whack at media in the Western Hemisphere in years.
"A systematic and hostile campaign to do away with the independent press," says Gonzalo Marroquín of the Inter American Press Association.
"A major setback for free speech," adds José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.
"Opinion could become a criminal act," concludes Ricardo Uceda of the nonprofit Press and Society Institute.
Born in Guayaquil to a middle-class family, Palacio has always been a contrarian. You can see it in his eyes. When he was 15 years old during the late '60s, he penned his first story for the school paper, Nosotros. Titled "Total Change," it argued the Russian and American wars were really just the same. Both stank. "The way I thought then is the way I think now," he told me last week during his first interview since arriving in the United States. "Nothing's changed."
Ecuador, now the continent's second leading oil producer, was a much poorer country back then, he says. Journalism didn't mean much, so he studied economics and traveled for a decade, working menial jobs in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain before returning home. "I missed it," he says. "We Ecuadorians are a provincial lot."
Ecuador — in case you are geography-phobic — is located between Colombia and Peru and is home to 15 million residents, Pacific beaches, ungodly high mountains, and Amazon rain forest. Sophisticated Indians lived there long before the Incas; then Spaniards invaded half a millennium ago. Charles Darwin discovered evolution in her Galápagos Islands. The first cry for independence from Spain sounded there too. (Did I forget to mention my wife was born there, I was married on an Ecuadorian mountaintop, and my family has made a dozen visits.)
There was intense poverty leading to 1969, when oil was discovered, followed by decades of political instability. Between 1997 and 2007, when Correa took power, the country had six presidents. The first, Abdalá Bucaram, was nicknamed "El Loco." He grew a Hitler mustache; released a rock 'n' roll CD, Madman in Love, while in office; and lunched with peter-butcher and fellow Ecuadorian Lorena Bobbit in the palace. The final president was Alfredo Palacio, Emilio's half-brother. "In the last 30 years, Ecuador has had no good president," Palacio says, including his sibling in the slam. "The guy in the street has no faith in politics. If someone has a position of power, you know they will rob you."
Then came Correa, a caudillo in the mold of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. He's handsome and charismatic, with a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois and a history of working with the poor. The guy is a self-described socialist who has gained the admiration of the poor and the disdain of middle and upper classes because of his strong anti-yanqui message — booting the American ambassador, closing an American air base, and announcing plans to nationalize oil fields.
He has hated reporters since his days as a student leader at Ecuador's Catholic University, says Palacio, whose feud with the Ecuadorian leader began in 2005. The then-editorial page editor at Guayaquil's El Universo chided Correa, then finance minister, for terming a successful currency plan a porquería — crap. "I said he should shut up," Palacio recalls. "His bombast scared people."
The president responded by calling Palacio a traitor. It was a pattern that would repeat.
In 2007, after his election to president, Correa invited Palacio to the presidential palace for a debate on free speech. Like Chávez, the Ecuadorian president gathers crowds of supporters for such events. He lambasted Palacio and his colleagues in the press for not criticizing banks that had ripped off the nation. When the editor responded that such criticism might indeed be the job of the finance minister, Correa made a crude joke and then led the crowd in chanting, "Verga," a double-entendre for prick. The taunt was so long and loud that Palacio walked out.
Three years later, in September 2010, came what Correa termed a coup and Palacio (along with 51 percent of Ecuadorians) calls a "fraud." After cutting police salaries and causing a protest, the president wandered into the fray in Quito. The cops weren't happy. Tear gas was released. Correa shouted out the open window of an army hospital to cops: "Kill me if you have the guts," and then was rescued by army troops. Three people died in the fray.
This past February 6, Palacio penned an editorial in El Universo, "No to Lies," that would lead to his exile. It's no fluff piece — it calls Correa "the Dictator" eight times and ends, "A new president, maybe your enemy, could drag you to court for having ordered [your soldiers] to open fire whenever they want and without notice on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people."
Which, by the way, is what transpired, according to some firsthand testimony.
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But in March, Correa — personally, not as president — accused Palacio and three El Universo board members of defamation. He demanded they pay $80 million and spend three years in jail. Correa, before the lawsuit, had packed the courts with judges loyal to him.
In June, he pushed through a national referendum, barely approved, that limits media ownership and stifles press coverage. He also started his own TV station. The next month, a judge awarded Correa half the total, $40 million, and sentenced the four to the full three years in jail.
Palacio and the others appealed, but the case came to a head last month when prosecutors demanded to know the source of a videotape that Palacio had obtained showing the president calling the police traitors. "I knew if they called me in, I would have to give up my sources or go to jail," he says. "So I jumped on a plane and came to Miami as a tourist."
Palacio has no idea when he will return home. "Correa calls everyone who's not on his side a traitor," Palacio says. "That's what he does to enemies."