But it was clear that Ecuador’s government sympathizes with Snowden and considers the top-secret U.S. surveillance program he revealed “a danger to us all,” as Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño put it. In a news conference, Patiño praised Snowden’s whistleblowing and read aloud the document leaker’s letter to Correa requesting asylum.
Patiño’s explanation of how Ecuador views the Snowden affair was characteristic of the Correa administration’s relationship with Washington: eager to pounce on a delicate issue and tweak “the Empire,” as the United States is known to many of Correa’s followers. And if Ecuador provides asylum to Snowden, it will propel Correa and his country of 14.6 million onto the world stage, to be scolded by Washington and venerated by the international left for standing up to the world’s superpower.
Correa, 50, is among a group of leftist Latin American populists who have sought to steer their countries away from U.S. influence. Led for years by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who died in March, the bloc includes Evo Morales, the Aymara Indian leader-turned-president of Bolivia; Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose army fought U.S.-trained contra guerrillas at the height of the Cold War; and the Castro brothers in Cuba.
Although overshadowed by Chavez, Correa has rarely shied away from confrontation with Washington. He called former U.S. president George W. Bush “tremendously dimwitted,” closed an American base that was vital for anti-narcotics programs, tossed out the World Bank’s representative and defaulted on $3.2 billion in sovereign debt. He also closely aligned Ecuador with Iran.
“Ecuador is looking to be an antagonist of the United States and looking for causes that will permit it to do that,” Ramiro Crespo, an economist and political analyst in Quito, the capital, said of Ecuador’s response to the Snowden saga.
Correa has a pragmatic, pro-business side rarely evident in Chavez or other strident nationalist leaders in the region. He has been accommodating to big companies in Ecuador, including oil conglomerates, drawing the ire of Indians and other groups usually close to the left.
“He knows his political power would be undermined if he doesn’t have a strong economy, and he wouldn’t have a strong economy without foreign investment coming in,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
But Shifter also described Correa as an impulsive leader who can react recklessly in tense situations, as when he waded into a police uprising in 2010, threw open his shirt and dared the officers to shoot him.