Edward Snowden is tempting risk for Ecuadoran leader



Caracas (Venezuela): Ecuador's president and foreign minister on Tuesday declared that national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights would govern their decision on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, powerful hints that the former National Security Agency contractor is welcome here despite potential repercussions from Washington.

Snowden's whereabouts remained a mystery and his application for Ecuadoran asylum was formally just 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 while maintaining strong economic ties that have maintained healthy growth rates and fueled the president's wide popularity, over 60 percent 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 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 few consequences.

Welcoming Snowden, a man who has acknowledged leaking secret US information, may be a different matter. Analysts said it could jeopardize 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 point of 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 percent of the vote see flouting the US as a welcome expression of independence, particularly when it comes in the form of granting asylum.

PTI