Edward Snowden

Snowden asylum a temptation for Ecuador

President Correa's policy of baiting key trading partner Washington set to escalate, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 3:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 10:43am

Ecuador's president and foreign minister say that national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights will govern their decision on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, powerful hints that the former US National Security Agency contractor is welcome despite potential repercussions from Washington.

Snowden's application for Ecuadoran asylum is formally under consideration.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, nonetheless, made little effort to disguise his government's position. He told reporters in Hanoi that the choice Ecuador faced in hosting Snowden was "betraying the citizens of the world, or betraying certain powerful elites in a specific country".

President Rafael Correa said on Twitter that "we will take the decision that we feel most suitable, with absolute sovereignty".

Analysts said welcoming Snowden would sharply escalate Correa's policy of tweaking the United States' nose while maintaining strong economic ties that have maintained healthy growth rates and fuelled the president's wide popularity, over 60 per cent in recent polls. It would be a tempting but potentially dangerous play, they said, for a leader who appears to delight in slamming US foreign policy but depends on Washington for nearly half of Ecuador's foreign trade.

Correa has given WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refuge from Swedish sexual assault charges in Ecuador's embassy in London for a year, garnering international headlines and suffering few consequences.

Video: US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden seemingly vanished into thin air in Moscow after arriving from Hong Kong at the weekend. Ecuador's foreign minister says Quito is weighing an asylum bid made by the fugitive.

Welcoming Snowden, a man who has acknowledged leaking secret US information, may be a different matter. Analysts said it could jeopardise tariff-free access to US markets for Ecuadoran fruit, seafood and flowers. US trade, which also includes oil, accounts for half of Ecuador's exports and about 400,000 jobs in the nation of 14.6 million.

The US Andean Trade Preference Act requires imminent congressional renewal and hosting Snowden "doesn't help Ecuador's efforts to extend it", said Ramiro Crespo, director of the Quito-based financial analysis firm Analytica Securities. "The United States is an important market for us, and treating a big client this way isn't appropriate from a commercial … view."

At the same time, high oil prices, a growing mining industry and rising ties with China may give Correa a sense of protection from US repercussions. And at home, many of the Ecuadorans who re-elected Correa in February with 57 per cent of the vote see flouting the US as a welcome expression of independence, particularly when it comes in the form of granting asylum.

"This person who's being pursued by the CIA, our policy is loving people like that, protecting them, perhaps giving them the rights that their own countries don't give them. I think this is a worthy effort by us," office worker Juan Francisco Sambrano said.

Others saw hypocrisy in a possible offer of asylum by a government that has aggressively pursued critics in the press for perceived slights and recently passed a media law that some call an assault on freedom of speech.