Talk about irony: it has just been reported that Edward Snowden, the young whistleblower who turned the mighty NSA inside out, has sought diplomatic asylum with none other than tiny Ecuador. It seems, then, that Snowden will tread the same path as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London for some time. Perhaps, it was Assange himself who sought to steer Snowden in Quito's direction: according to the Guardian newspaper, a WikiLeaks associate, Sarah Harrison, accompanied Snowden on his flight from Hong Kong to Russia. Moscow, however, was simply a way station for Snowden, who now intends to travel on to the Andes.
Flying to Ecuador certainly makes more political sense than staying in the Far East. I have never quite understood Snowden's decision to seek protection in Hong Kong. To be sure, the territory has a better track record on free speech than China, though that isn't saying much. Perhaps, Snowden figured that China was likely to stand up for him, since his sensational disclosures hurt the NSA, an entity which allegedly engages in cyber warfare on Beijing. Whatever the case, Hong Kong seemed like an odd place to choose for a whistleblower standing up against political repression and freedom of expression. Though Ecuador has its own problems with the media, at least the Andean nation is still an electoral democracy.
Snowden's choice seems to make some logical sense. Ecuador's combative populist president, Rafael Correa, has been a leading critic of Washington in the wider region, and for that he deserves a lot of credit. On the campaign trail in 2006, the maverick politician said he might not renew a lease on the strategic U.S. airbase located at Manta. Evidently enjoying himself, Correa remarked "if they want, we won't close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return." True to his word, Correa later booted the Americans out of Manta once he was elected. The move discombobulated Washington, which was obliged to recalibrate its security strategy and look for alternative locations for its bases in neighboring Colombia.
On the economic front meanwhile, Correa has prioritized social spending over repaying debt, and has taken advantage of high oil prices to boost spending on government programs. He broke with the "Washington consensus" pushed by the International Monetary Fund and others and even declared that a portion of Ecuador's debt was illegitimate. Thumbing his nose at conventional wisdom, the President simply reduced payments to creditors while repurchasing defaulted foreign bonds. Then, for good measure, the pugnacious Ecuadoran imposed tough new contractual conditions on the oil companies, some of which promptly exited the country.
Meanwhile, Correa has signaled that he is in no mood to enter into disadvantageous free trade agreements with the U.S., though he has stated that he would negotiate what he terms a "trade agreement for development." Alarming foreign investors, Correa has instead signed on to Venezuela's own Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas or ALBA, which predicates trade and barter outside of usual corporate strictures. Needless to say, the U.S. business community has not been amused by such moves and it has complained to the American Embassy in Quito. According to one WikiLeaks cable dating from 2008, businessmen highlighted the "difficult investment climate" in Ecuador, complaining about "rigid labor rules" and "a large increase in the minimum wage."
Retaliation from Washington?
It takes a lot of political courage to stand up to the U.S., which guards its influence carefully in the Andean region. For anyone who doubts such pressure, consider the history contained here ]. Moreover, though Washington has meddled in Ecuador for decades, such involvement is still very much a current day concern for such politicians as Correa. Indeed, as WikiLeaks cables demonstrate, both the Bush and Obama administrations regard Ecuador as their own private fiefdom [see the Quito Cables, Part I and II]. Furthermore, Ecuador's political right is relentless and as recently as last year's presidential election a banker and pro-U.S. candidate sought to unseat Correa from power. According to WikiLeaks documents, the opposition politician had previously held private discussions with the U.S. Embassy about the best means to get rid of Correa.
Perhaps, by giving shelter to Assange and possibly even diplomatic asylum to Snowden, Correa can inherit the leftist mantle from deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Nevertheless, such unusual diplomatic maneuvers put impoverished Ecuador at significant diplomatic risk and could result in economic and political retaliation from the U.S. Currently, Washington grants the Andean nation special trade preferences which allow the Correa government to export many goods duty free. Under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, the South American nation exports billions of dollars worth of petroleum products to the U.S. every year. Other important exports associated with the act include cut flowers and tropical fruits such as mangoes and pineapple. However, incensed by Correa's economic nationalism, as well as Quito's handling of a controversial case relating to American oil company Chevron, a number of U.S. business groups have lobbied Washington to end special privileges for Ecuador. According to a recent article in Crain's Chicago Business, Ecuador's status under the Andean Trade Preferences Act expires next month, and there's little sign that either Obama or Congress will push for renewal.
Correa's Questionable Leanings
Despite Correa's challenge to the U.S., the Ecuadoran President is a rather dubious political figure with his own backward tendencies, and for this reason Snowden's choice is a little ironic. Take, for example, Correa's relationship to Ecuador's indigenous peoples. In 2009, the government alarmed local Indians by pushing for a new law regulating water. Concerned that the proposed law would lead to an eventual privatization of water resources, and apprehensive about oil and mining development proceeding on their lands, Indians protested the Correa regime by blocking Amazonian roads. Condescendingly, Correa called Indians "infantile" for objecting to legislation which would deny them consultation on mining and oil drilling projects. Tragically, protests along the blocked roads led to violence. The Indians claimed that 500 police attacked them which resulted in two deaths and nine wounded.
Moreover, Correa has pursued a rather perverse foreign policy by cultivating links with Iran and other retrograde nations. Though Correa extends diplomatic protections to Washington's foes, he is somewhat more circumspect when it comes to asylum for those fleeing repression from, say, political throwback Belarus. Last year, Correa hosted Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Quito where the two signed a series of cooperation initiatives in such areas as trade, health, science and housing. More ominously, Correa and Lukashenko inked a military cooperation agreement. The Ecuadorans were particularly enthusiastic about getting their hands on new security technology which would help to improve the work of the armed forces. As part of the agreement, the Belarus "Military and Industrial State Committee" pledged to provide valuable intelligence and carry out joint military exchanges with Ecuador.
Enter Alexander Barankov, a Belarus dissident and former army captain who had blogged about corruption and oil smuggling in his native land. In 2010, a fearful Barankov traveled to Ecuador where he was granted fortuitous political protection. However, following Lukashenko's trip to Quito, the Correa government arrested Barankov and said it would not review the dissident's ID card. Later, Barankov was assaulted in jail and had to be hospitalized. In the midst of an international furor, however, and a witheringly critical article in Time magazine, Quito rejected Belarus' extradition request and freed the dissident.
On press freedoms, too, Correa leaves something to be desired. Shortly after winning reelection this year Correa passed a so called Communication Law regulating the news media. The legislation is designed to compel news organizations to act fairly, and creates a new "Superintendency of Information and Communication" with the power to regulate the news media, investigate possible infractions and impose potentially stiff penalties. The law also creates a five-member Council for the Regulation and Development of Information and Communication. The agency will be overseen by a representative of Correa himself, who will regulate the media. The vaguely worded law prohibits "media lynching" and could open the door to censorship.
Returning for a moment to the issue at hand, one wonders whether Snowden is aware of Correa's record or the fitting ironies of the situation. Though Ecuador is a more logical choice than Hong Kong, the Andean nation leaves much to be desired in terms of individual liberties and press freedom. Nevertheless, given Snowden's dire straits and Washington's determination to apprehend the fugitive NSA leaker, Ecuador is probably one of the best choices under the circumstances.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.