Edward Snowden says that he leaked classified information about National Security Agency surveillance programs because he believes those programs represent a major threat to civil liberties. Ironically, Snowden has now requested asylum in a country Ecuador where civil liberties are routinely trampled by an elected autocracy.
As of this writing, he is apparently still in Moscow, awaiting a formal response from the Ecuadorean government. If Quito approves his asylum request and Snowden successfully makes it to Ecuadorean territory, he will be the second high-profile leaker to take refuge there over the past year. The first, of course, was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who entered Ecuador’s London embassy last June and officially received asylum in August.
Why did Snowden pick Ecuador? Like Assange, he recognizes that President Rafael Correa is an anti-American leftist who has repeatedly clashed with Washington and has eagerly embraced U.S. adversaries. Indeed, Correa is a Hugo Chávez acolyte who reportedly received money from Colombian FARC terrorists during his 2006 presidential campaign; who in 2009 expelled a U.S. embassy official named Armando Astorga and forced the U.S. military to leave Manta air base (which had been used for anti-drug operations); who in 2011 expelled U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges; who in 2012 withdrew Ecuadorean troops from the U.S.-based Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and also threatened to expel USAID from Ecuador; and who boycotted the 2012 Summit of the Americas to protest the exclusion of Cuba. His government has also strengthened ties with Iran, and there is compelling evidence that the Iranians have used their close relationship with Ecuador to evade international sanctions and access the global financial system. Ecuadorean foreign minister Ricardo Patiño has called Iran a “strategic partner,” and Correa has defended the Iranian nuclear program.
As Ramiro Crespo of Quito-based Analytica Investments tells the Washington Post, “Ecuador is looking to be an antagonist of the United States and looking for causes that will permit it to do that.” That’s why it granted asylum to Julian Assange, and that’s why it may soon grant asylum to Edward Snowden. Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Patiño condemned U.S. officials for their efforts to apprehend the NSA leaker. “The one who is denounced pursues the denouncer,” he said, according to the New York Times. “The man who tries to provide light and transparency to issues that affect everyone is pursued by those who should be giving explanations about the denunciations that have been presented.” For his part, President Correa tweeted that “we will analyze the Snowden case very responsibly and we will make with absolute sovereignty the decision that we believe is most appropriate.”
Given his anti-U.S. record and his desire to succeed the late Hugo Chávez as the leader of Latin America’s populist-left coalition, there is good reason to expect that Correa will approve Snowden’s request. However, while Correa is known for his “anti-imperialist” rants and frequent denunciations of U.S. foreign policy, Ecuador still has a dollarized economy, and it still sends 45 percent of its exports to the United States (mostly oil, food products, and flowers), making America its largest trade partner. Since the early 1990s, Ecuador has benefited from U.S. trade preferences that are scheduled to expire on July 31. Thanks to these preferences, 23 percent of Ecuador’s U.S.-bound exports are exempt from tariffs. If Correa shelters Snowden, he will obviously jeopardize his country’s trade status.
Either way, the idea of Correa as a champion of civil liberties is laughable. Outside of the Communist regime in Cuba and the Chávez regime in Venezuela, no other Latin American government has conducted such an aggressive and sustained campaign against opposition media outlets. Freedom House now classifies the Ecuadorean press environment as “not free,” and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said that Correa’s record on press freedom is “among the very worst in the Americas.” Back in April, three Correa opponents (one National Assembly member and two activists) were sentenced to prison for allegedly “slandering” the Ecuadorean president. Freedom House criticized the sentencing as “a grave violation of free speech rights.” More recently, the Correa-allied National Assembly enacted a controversial media law that will further reduce press freedom. The CPJ called it “a severe blow to freedom of expression,” and the Inter-American Press Association described it as a “grave setback for freedom of the press and expression.”
When the Obama administration took office, it seemed to believe that U.S.-Ecuador relations had soured because of the Bush administration’s incompetence and/or ideology. In reality, the deterioration of bilateral ties was a result of Correa’s hostility toward the United States. That hostility is what prompted Edward Snowden to ask the Ecuadorean government for asylum. With Ecuador’s U.S. trade preferences set to expire, will Correa show his pragmatic side? Or will he once again place anti-Americanism ahead of his country’s best interests?