Ecuador's embrace of Snowden cements leader as U.S. foe

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A decision by Ecuador to embrace fugitive Edward Snowden would advance President Rafael Correa's efforts to step out from the shadow of the late Hugo Chavez and establish himself as the U.S.'s leading critic in Latin America, regional analysts said.

Correa, 50, has long cast himself as a U.S. adversary, and last year put his anti-American rhetoric to the test by allowing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to take refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London

Ecuador's consideration of an asylum request by the former National Security Agency contractor Snowden comes after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at China and Russia for granting the self-described whistleblower safe passage. Whereas Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden in rape and sexual molestation cases, Snowden is evading charges under the U.S. Espionage Act.

"For Correa this is a chance for him to pick a fight, which he relishes," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He's no Chavez, but rhetorically he sees himself as a spokesman for the anti-American left in Latin America."

Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said today that Ecuador is considering an asylum request by Snowden, whose actions he praised. Snowden traveled to Moscow from Hong Kong yesterday and was booked onto a flight to Havana today, though he never boarded the plane.

"˜Shining light'

"The man who is shining light and seeking transparency over acts that affect the fundamental liberties of everyone is now being pursued by those that should give explanations to the government and citizens of the world," Patino told a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam today.

Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH) employee, said his life would be in danger if he were sent to the U.S., according to a letter that Patino said was written by Snowden and which the foreign minister read at the news conference.

Patino declined to provide a timetable for acting on Snowden's request, adding that any decision would be made in accordance with Ecuador's constitution. Ecuador deliberated two months before granting Assange asylum.

Snowden fled to Hong Kong in May and identified himself as the source for revelations about programs to collect telephone and Internet data. He later said the U.S. had hacked Chinese and Hong Kong targets since 2009 and had tapped Chinese mobile phone companies to steal millions of text messages, according to the South China Morning Post.

Correa's moment

"Be absolutely certain that we will analyze the Snowden case very responsibly," Correa said today in a statement posted on Twitter. "We will make our decision with absolute sovereignty as we believe most fit."

Correa, a U.S.-educated economics professor whose father spent time in an American jail for smuggling cocaine, has long butted heads with the U.S. though he rarely garnered as much attention as his ally Chavez, who died in March from cancer.

Shortly after taking office in 2007, Correa refused to renew a U.S. lease on the Manta military base, shutting down a facility that had been a linchpin of the U.S.-led drug war in South America. Then in 2011, he expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges after WikiLeaks published a secret State Department cable from her saying Correa was aware of corruption in the police.

The two countries exchanged new ambassadors last year amid a push by Correa to maintain duty-free access for Ecuador's exports, though negotiations fell apart and relations plunged to a new low after Correa granted Assange asylum last year.

"˜Witch hunt'

Assange has been holed up at Ecuador's Embassy for more than a year trying to avert extradition to Sweden. Correa has repeatedly accused President Barack Obama of carrying out a "witch hunt" against the WikiLeaks founder.

"There's no chance Correa will hand Snowden over to the U.S.," Shifter said in a phone interview from Washington. "It would completely contradict everything he's done since taking power."

While the U.S. remains Ecuador's biggest trading partner, with the dollar circulating as the official currency since 2000, the nation's economy, which is about the size of Nebraska's, is increasingly dependent on China.

Since a default on sovereign bonds in 2008, Ecuador has borrowed about $9.3 billion from China, about a third of annual spending, in direct loans and deals tied to the sale of future oil exports.

Spending boom

The loans and an increase in the price of oil, which accounts for 56 percent of exports, have helped Correa more than double spending in the past six years, fueling growth that has averaged an annual 4.1 percent since he became president.

Now, with oil prices forecast to decline to an average $84.70 per barrel this year, growth is slowing for a second straight year, to 3.9 percent, according to the median estimate of five economists surveyed by Bloomberg March 21-26. Last year gross domestic product expanded 5 percent.

In seeking Ecuador's aid, Snowden also runs the risk of undermining his own campaign to shed a light on threats to freedom of expression in the U.S., said Adam Isacson, an expert on the Andean region at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The United Nations is among international organizations that have criticized Correa's government for cracking down on press freedom. A media law approved this month boosts state control over what the press is allowed to report and bans the dissemination of restricted documents, similar to those leaked by Assange and Snowden.

Snowden's seeking a lifeline from a "government that criticizes U.S. foreign policy but whose domestic policy shows some of the same characteristics -- a heavy-handed state that is limiting freedom of expression -- is disappointing," Isacson said in an e-mail interview. "Maybe at least going to Quito will help shine a light on Ecuador's recently approved law clamping down on the media."

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