As we wait to hear Ecuador’s decision on whether to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old contractor who leaked the details of the U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program, two questions loom large: Why would Ecuador do it? And will it?
First the why. Snowden’s request was based on Ecuador’s offering of asylum to the founder and director of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who had been accused of rape in Sweden and is now holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Leaving aside the question of why Ecuador would offer asylum to an accused rapist just because he had posted secret U.S. documents and cables leaked to the web based NGO dedicated to transparency, the thinking among the Snowden supporters was that Ecuador loved to stick it to the United States, and would welcome the opportunity to do it again for Snowden.
Clearly, Ecuador’s voluble, erratic, populist president, Rafael Correa, delights in standing up to the ‘gringos.’ Shortly after he was elected in 2006, he terminated a U.S. airbase in Ecuador that monitored and interdicted drug traffickers, kicked out the then-U.S. ambassador for information revealed in the Wikileaks, and claimed that the U.S.’s development program is seeking to undermine him politically.
In reality there’s little domestic political benefit to these anti-U.S. actions. According to public opinion surveys, close to 80 percent of Ecuadoreans have positive views of the United States. Where it does play well is internationally. Like his now-deceased mentor, former President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez, President Correa has ambitions that extend far beyond his country’s borders to become a world leader of the progressive, anti-imperialist left. When it offered Assange asylum, Correa presented the offer as motivated by his defense of freedom of expression.
The irony couldn’t be richer. In Ecuador, Assange and Snowden would have been quickly arrested and packed off to jail for their activities. Just two weeks before Snowden asked for asylum the Ecuadoran National Assembly approved a law—proposed by the president—that will chill freedom of expression and limit what journalists can say and write. According to Correa, the law will “guarantee for the people that information which is published by the media is true.” What is truth, though, is left up to the state. The law grants Correa’s government the power to punish journalists for media “lynching” public officials and the authority to levy heavy fines for anyone who releases or publishes “protected information.”
International rights and freedom of expression groups like Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have regularly cited concerns about freedom of expression in Ecuador and denounced the new law. Whatever you may think about the right of U.S. citizens and the world to know about the N.S.A. program, clearly Ecuador isn’t the logical, legitimate champion of freedom of expression globally.
There also very little practical reason for the Ecuadoran government to grant asylum to the man the U.S. wants to charge with espionage and theft of government records. The U.S. is one of the main export markets for Ecuador, buying up 45 percent of the country’s exports. What’s more, under an arrangement with the United States, in shorthand called ATPDEA, 23 percent of those goods enter tariff free. That agreement comes up to the U.S. Congress for renewal at the end of July. This week, several congressmen said that they would refuse to renew it if Ecuador welcomes Snowden, to which the Ecuadoran government shot back that it didn’t want ATPDEA anyway. But an estimated 300,000 jobs inside Ecuador depend on the arrangement in sectors ranging from cut flowers to tuna. Businessmen and workers alike would feel the pinch for ideological and symbolic decision.
There would also likely be diplomatic repercussions. The U.S. recently reinstated its ambassador (after the whole Wikileaks kerfluffle), and Ecuador has a very capable ambassador in Washington, Natalie Cely. Those relations would quickly be cut by the Obama administration.
So if there are no practical, economic or political reasons for granting Snowden refuge, will President Correa do it? Much will depend on his personal mood, which as any Ecuador watcher will tell you can swing wildly.
There are, though, a number of factors that weigh against Correa’s deciding against giving Snowden free passage to Ecuador. The first is Ecuador’s allies. Cuba is engaged in its own process of quiet, narrow negotiation with the U.S. over direct mail service and migration, and would likely not want to rock the boat by being seen as endorsing or assisting Ecuador’s decision. The same is true for Venezuela whose foreign minister Elías Jaua, recently met with Secretary of State John Kerry in a sign of a tentative effort to improve relations with the hegemon to the north—despite the persistent drumbeat of belligerent rhetoric against the United States by the new president, Nicolás Maduro.
There is also the fact that in contrast to President Correa’s volatile personality and crude populism, there are a number of serious, qualified technocrats in his cabinet. This week they have likely been counseling him to seek a more pragmatic course on this matter. That may have been what was behind Ecuadoran Foreign Minister’s Ricardo Patiño’s statement this week that Ecuador’s decision may take up to several months.
For Edward Snowden’s sake I hope the vending machines in the Moscow transit lounge have tasty, nutritious options.