By PETER ORSI, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Rafael Correa of Ecuador embraces his role as a thorn in Washington's side, railing against U.S. imperialism in speeches and giving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refuge in his nation's embassy in London.
But nothing Correa has done to rankle the United States is likely to infuriate as much as granting the asylum being sought by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who faces espionage charges back home after revealing details of two highly secret surveillance programs.
WikiLeaks, which has been assisting Snowden, said Sunday that he formally requested asylum from Ecuador. Ecuador's foreign minister confirmed receiving the request, and analysts said the precedent set by Assange's case suggested Correa would honor it.
Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, and Aeroflot confirmed that he was booked to fly to Cuba on Monday. The reports said he was then booked on a flight to Venezuela, another South American country whose government has touchy relations with Washington.
Both Cuba and Venezuela previously had been rumored as possible destinations for Snowden, although they now appeared more likely to be only transit points on the way to Ecuador.
"Correa may find it hard to resist the temptation to get increased attention and seize this opportunity to provoke and defy the U.S.," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. "Correa is confrontational and relishes fights. Should he ultimately grant Snowden asylum, one hopes that Correa has thought through the likely consequences of such a decision."
Taking in Snowden certainly would increase Correa's popularity among those who see him as a champion of open information, help him counter criticism of a new media law that some call an assault on freedom of speech in Ecuador and cement his name as a leading voice of opposition to U.S. foreign policy.
But it could threaten preferential access to U.S. markets for Ecuadorean goods under the U.S. Andean Trade Preference Act, and strain already shaky ties between two nations that only last year re-established full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.
Some 45 percent of Ecuadorean exports went to the United States last year, accounting for about 400,000 jobs in the small nation.
Giving Snowden asylum for leaking secret information would be "irresponsible," former Ecuadorean diplomat Mauricio Gandara said.
"It would be an illegal act, because what he has done is a crime in both the United States and Ecuador," said Gandara, who was Ecuador's ambassador in London. "It is a confrontation with the people and government of the United States and both (political) parties. It is an unnecessary conflict."
Ecuadorean analyst Grace Jaramillo said Washington takes the Snowden case more seriously than Assange's because it involves an internal leak of intelligence activities that otherwise operate in total secrecy.
"The United States will keep pushing until the end for Snowden to be handed over, and could even resort to commercial sanctions or direct intervention if the case becomes difficult," Jaramillo said.
Yet, granting him safe passage and refuge has appeal for Ecuador as well as Cuba and Venezuela, which have all been criticized for rules limiting independent media.
"This is a case in which I think the U.S. does not look all that good," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia.
"I think it's quite useful for either Venezuela or Ecuador to grant a person like this asylum, because it allows them to sort of deflect attention towards the United States and the United States' own shortcomings," Smilde said.
The Cuban state controls all TV, radio and newspapers. Venezuela has done things like forcing TV stations off the air by not renewing licenses and detaining people for tweets deemed destabilizing. Ecuador's media law, approved last week, establishes official media overseers, imposes sanctions for besmirching personal reputations and limits private ownership to a third of radio and TV licenses.