A Twenty-First Century Prisoner Exchange: The Case of the Isaías Brothers

BY: CHRISTOPHER A. NOEL—Two brothers from Latin America are pitting the United States and Ecuador against each other in a battle over the freedom of the press, Edward Snowden, and campaign finance rules. During the most recent Latin American economic crisis, Ecuador’s largest bank, Filanbanco, collapsed leaving Ecuador’s domestic currency worthless and forcing the country to revert to the dollar standard.[1] In response, Ecuadorean prosecutors, at the request of President Rafael Correa, accused bank heads Roberto and William Isaías of fraud and owing the Republic of Ecuador more than $660 million to repay the Deposit Guarantee Agency, the Ecuadorean version of the American Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.[2]

After the Isaías brothers fled to the United States in 2003, President Correa ordered, in 2008, the seizure of more than two hundred companies—some worth $1 billion.[3] These companies were owned by the Isaías family and include television stations and newspapers critical of the Correa presidency.[4] This takeover places the Ecuadorean government in control of two of the most popularly watched news stations in Ecuador.

In 2011, during an attempt to block Ecuador’s claims against their family, the Isaías brothers failed to gain an American court’s approval. In deciding their counterclaim in the action, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gill Freeman stated that, “[t]he claims of the Isaías brothers . . . would require [the] court to go far beyond a mere declaration that nothing is owed as a matter of accounting and contract principles” and that the interpretation of Ecuador’s “executive, legislative, and judicial powers “. . . is not for this court to determine.’”[5] However, on May 31, 2013, the lawsuit was decided in the Isaías’ favor with the Miami-Dade Circuit Court holding that is was under “no obligation to enforce Ecuadorean laws . . . [and the move to confiscate property in the U.S.] would ‘signify a substantial deviation from U.S. law and policy.’”[6] Further, the Miami-Dade court held that “the manner in which Ecuador has attempted to right the Defendant’s alleged wrongs is inconsistent with U.S. law and policy.”[7]

More recently, the Ecuadorean government has used the Isaías brothers’ presence in Miami as a bargaining chip in the diplomatic détente over Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who illegally leaked thousands of pages of classified material over the Internet.[8] Beyond the United States’ interest in recovering Snowden, however, there is a domestic challenge to the campaign finance contributions of the Isaías family. While the Isaías brothers cannot directly contribute because of their citizenship status, their respective families have donated some $340,000 to American political campaigns since 2010, including to many South Florida politicians, and more than a dozen members of Congress.[9]

Altogether though, the Isaías campaign donations do not look greatly different than those of any other broadly donative individual, where “[t]hey are wealthy and have problems that are solved by the discretionary judgment of someone in the [Obama] administration.”[10] Until Ecuador prevails in its apparently losing fight for extradition, the Isaías brothers remain comfortably situated in Miami, where as one brother stated, “[it] is the only place [we] will get a fair trial.”[11]

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