Ecuador’s strange journey from embracing Snowden to turning him away

July 2, 2013

Ecuadoran President Rafael Corrrea getures during an interview with AFP. (RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)

For tiny Ecuador and its leftist populist president, Rafael Correa, it must have seemed like a delicious opportunity to shine on the world stage.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, was apparently headed to Quito, the chilly Ecuadoran capital, to find sanctuary from American extradition requests. So, just a week ago, the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, cast the Snowden affair as a struggle between good and evil, in a dramatic news conference monitored worldwide. He left little doubt where Ecuador stood.

“The man who is trying to shine a light and show transparency over acts that have affected the fundamental liberty of all people is now being pursued by those who should be giving explanations to governments and the citizens of the world," Patiño said, sounding professorial. "It’s a paradox of life that now the whistleblower is being chased by the one who is accused."

On Thursday, Ecuador defiantly backed out of a preferential trade accord with the United States, saying Obama administration officials were using the trade deal like a weapon to blackmail Ecuador.

“Ecuador doesn’t accept pressure nor threats from anybody, and it doesn’t trade its principles or give them up for commercial interests, no matter how important they are,” Fernando Alvarado, the communications minister, said.

And then, quite suddenly, and at first almost imperceptibly, came a shift in policy from President Correa.

He can be impulsive and hot-headed. And he is considered a symbol of the left in Latin America, one eager to take on Washington. But the 50-year-old leader, an American-educated economist who revels in game theory, is also known for careful calculation in delicate situations -- like this one.

On Friday, Correa received a call from Vice President Biden, and the two men had what Correa later called “a very cordial” conversation.

"He said, 'Look, for us this is a very grave issue. We ask that you return Snowden immediately if he arrives on Ecuadoran territory,'" Correa said Monday in lengthy comments on state radio. "Vice President Biden never called to pressure. I would never have accepted that."

Correa said he brought up an issue dear to Ecuador -- the case of two Ecuadoran bankers convicted in Ecuador but who are at large in the United States. That was left unresolved. But Correa said that Biden did tell him that relations would "strongly deteriorate" should Snowden receive sanctuary in Ecuador. Correa said it was "a factor" worth consideration.

Correa’s comments came as his country was working hard to contain revelations, first made by the Univision television network in the United States, of internal divisions in Ecuador’s government over what to do about Snowden and Julian Assange’s apparently outsized role at Ecuador’s London embassy. The WikiLeaks founder, who had been granted asylum by Ecuador and has been living in the embassy for a year, has been pivotal in helping Snowden.

"The conduct of Assange has bothered me a little, and this morning I spoke with the foreign minister to tell him not to speak about our country's situations," Correa told Agence France-Presse on Monday in surprising comments that marked what by then had become a sharp shift in policy toward Snowden.

Correa then told a British newspaper, the Guardian, that it was “a mistake on our part” to help Snowden travel from Hong Kong to Moscow.

There had been some question all week as to how Snowden got out of Hong Kong, but Correa’s comments to the Guardian and a thank-you letter written by Snowden to Ecuador and released Monday showed that Ecuadoran officials may have played a decisive role in his escape from the Chinese special administrative region.

“The decisive action of your consul in London, Fidel Narvaez, guaranteed my rights would be protected upon departing Hong Kong,” Snowden wrote. “I could never have risked travel without that. Now, as a result, and through the continued support of your government, I remain free and able to publish information that serves the public interest.”

Correa, in fact, said that he would punish Narvaez, saying that the official never had authorization to issue a safe-conduct pass. “Look, this crisis hit us in a very vulnerable moment,” Correa told the Guardian. “Our foreign minister was touring Asia. Our deputy foreign minister was in the Czech Republic. Our U.S. ambassador was in Italy.”

Correa said earlier this week that Snowden is "under the care of the Russian authorities." While he maintains that they'd make a determination on asylum only if Snowden got to Ecuador or an Ecuadoran embassy, he also said Snowden could not leave Moscow for asylum in Ecuador without a U.S. passport, apparently ruling out the possibility that Ecuador would provide him safe passage.

The Ecuadoran president still took the high moral ground in praising Snowden for his revelations in another interview Monday, this one with Ecuadoran state radio. There was still a streak of defiance as he stressed that the U.S. trade preferences that his government had renounced days before meant little to his economy.

But what was left unsaid -- by Correa and by the U.S. government, too -- was another set of trade preferences Ecuador is still angling to secure from the Obama administration. Those fall under the Generalized System of Preferences, and Ecuador’s embassy in Washington has been lobbying hard for duty-free waivers for Ecuadoran roses, broccoli and artichokes. All those sectors generate tens of thousands of jobs.

In testimony in February before the U.S. International Trade Commission, Ecuadoran Ambassador Nathalie Cely said the GSP program has “a tremendous impact in job creation and economic growth in Ecuador.”

Two-way trade between the two countries totaled $17 billion in 2012, Cely said, noting that trade preferences have “contributed to Ecuador’s economic growth and development.”

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