Ecuador's hints that it might grant asylum to Edward Snowden, as it did with WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, have been widely perceived (including by me) as more about Ecuador's confrontational foreign policy than its sympathy for Snowden.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has used his sponsorship of Assange to portray himself as standing up to the United States and United Kingdom, bolstering his self-made image as an anti-American nationalist. The Washington Post's Juan Forero recently described him as "a brash populist leader who savors tussling with the United States." Meanwhile, Correa's government has tightened laws allowing it to target media critics and political dissenters, practices would seem antithetical to the causes that Assange and Snowden stand for.
It's worth noting, then, a datapoint that contradicts my earlier thesis that Ecuador would foster Snowden mostly to tweak the United States. Time magazine's Girish Gupta reports, from Ecuador, the story of a man from Belarus who won asylum in the far-away Latin American country. Ecuador's decision to grant the man asylum would not seem to serve Correa's foreign policy or his domestic image. The case suggests that Ecuador sometimes does grant political asylum for reasons other than the ones I suggested for the Snowden case. But it's complicated.
Belarus is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. Alexander Barankov was a policeman in the capital city of Minsk, in the financial crimes unit. He uncovered what he believed to be systemic government corruption. Barankov saw evidence that top Belarus officials, including the president, were illegally smuggling energy resources to fund their personal bank accounts. When state security caught on to him, he fled, first to Russia (sound familiar?) then to Egypt and, finally, Ecuador. Like Snowden, he started spilling his country's secrets online and, eventually, won asylum.
Here's the hitch: unlike Assange, who was sheltered by Ecuador's London embassy as soon as he fled there from house arrest, Barankov had to push for three years before he won asylum. That's actually not unusual for non-famous asylum-seekers, including those who land in the United States. What's unusual is that in June 2012, Ecuador's government arrested Barankov and held him for 84 days as it considered Belarus's long-standing extradition request. The timing was strange; Barankov had been in the country for years at that point. But Time's profile points out that he was arrested just three weeks before Correa met with Belarus's president, the same man whom Barankov had publicly accused of corruption. The Time story suggests that Correa's government may have used Barankov "as a pawn" to ease tension with Belarus.
Nothing about this one case definitively proves or disproves any benevolence or self-interest guiding Ecuador in potentially sheltering Snowden. And, given Snowden's high profile and his status as a sort of symbol, it seems unlikely that Correa's government would throw him jail as they did Barankov. Still, it's an interesting datapoint in understanding this Latin American country's emerging penchant for sheltering Westerners wanted by their governments.