BOGOTA, Colombia — If Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor on the run from American officials, receives sanctuary in tiny Ecuador, he will be welcomed by a brash populist leader who savors tussling with the United States.
“Hello country and world,” President Rafael Correa said in a Twitter message Monday. “Be assured that we will very responsibly analyze the Snowden case, and with absolute sovereignty take the decision we believe is most adequate.”
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.
Now, with the Snowden affair, Correa is risking the jobs of tens of thousands of working-class Ecuadorans who benefit from a preferential trade agreement under which the United States imports flowers, asparagus, broccoli, tuna and other products tariff-free from the country. A peeved U.S. Congress might not renew the accord — which no other South American nation has with Washington and which is set to expire July 31 — if Snowden ends up on Ecuadoran soil, said analysts in Quito and in Washington.
“You can forget about trade preferences,” Shifter said. “You can forget about cooperation.”
Still, Snowden’s flight might provide an opportunity for Correa as his government comes under sharp criticism from press freedom advocates over a new media law they say is designed to muzzle critics. Since first winning office in 2007, Correa has focused much of his energy on the media — pillorying reporters by name on his Saturday television show, filing libel suits and pursuing policies to weaken critical media outlets.
Offering sanctuary last year at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who is wanted for questioning in Sweden in connection with sexual assault allegations, and now aiding Snowden, could help Correa deflect that criticism, said Cesar Perez, the managing editor of El Universo, a newspaper in the city of Guayaquil.
“This is a way for President Correa to compensate for the bad reputation that he has, of being intolerant with free expression,” said Perez, whose newspaper Correa has tried to weaken, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Observers in Ecuador say Correa may calculate that the benefits of receiving Snowden outweigh the risks. In the Assange case, many Ecuadorans, even those opposed to Correa, supported his government in its scrape with the United Kingdom.
And the United States is a bigger, more powerful adversary.
“I don’t know what people will think about Snowden, but I do know that Correa will be able to go on TV and say, ‘Look, we defeated the United States,’ ” said Joyce Higgins de Ginatta, a businesswoman in Guayaquil.
Patiño, speaking to reporters during a trade mission to Vietnam on Monday, said he could not say where Snowden was or how he would get to Ecuador, calling that “information we don’t have.” But the tenor of his comments pointed to Ecuador receiving Snowden with open arms — if Snowden, who was in Moscow on Monday, can make it to the South American country.
“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 about the denunciations presented by Mr. Snowden,” Patiño said.
The foreign minister cast doubt on U.S. claims that Snowden betrayed his country.
“We have to ask who is betraying whom” Patiño said. “Aren’t some citizens especially loyal to their fellow citizens and the rest of humanity for revealing risks and dangers that affect us all?”