The Illogic of Ecuador

Fleeing surveillance, Snowden seems destined for the country with one of the world’s most powerful national surveillance systems.

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In this Jan. 8, 2013 photo, a plane approaches the Mariscal Sucre airport for landing, seen through a glass wall inside the Eloy Alfaro school in Quito, Ecuador. Landing at Ecuador’s capital can be a white-knuckle affair. High altitude, a cramped runway and towering, active volcanos nearby make it one of Latin America’s most challenging aiports for pilots. And the constant roar of the planes has tormented those on the ground as well. Mariscal Sucre airport sat amid cornfields when it was christened in 1960, and on Feb. 19, the airport will close and a new airport will be built in an agricultural setting 12 miles (20 kilometers) northeast of the capital.

Where's your dream destination when you're a 29-year-old who has infuriated the most powerful nation in the world? Apparently ... Ecuador. Edward Snowden, the now-famous former National Security Agency contractor, may (or may not) be heading to that South American nation. At first glance, Ecuador seems like a logical hiding place, but that logic breaks down under even a cursory investigation of how the country treats dissidents.

Here are at least a few reasons why Snowden's move seems logical: the 140-year-old U.S.-Ecuador extradition treaty states that "[t]he stipulations of this treaty shall not be applicable to crimes or offences of a political character." Therefore, Snowden may believe that Ecuador should protect him. After all, Ecuador is currently sheltering Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at its embassy in Great Britain for similar reasons.

Another reason is because Ecuador's President Rafael Correa wants to burnish his anti-American credentials. The far left is far from dead in South America, and Correa has built his political base by taking on the West – and the U.S. in particular. Shielding Snowden and Assange – two potent human symbols – fits very neatly with Correa's role as heir to America's Latin American bête noire, now that Hugo Chavez is no longer running Venezuela.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

After all, after taking office, Correa shut down America's anti-narcotics base in the city of Manta – at the time, the only U.S. military facility in South America, and the one responsible for 60 percent of the drug interdictions in the Eastern Pacific – and expelled the World Bank's representative to Ecuador.

But in light of Snowden's purpose for disseminating top secret documents, a move to Ecuador appears illogical. Snowden's stated reason for disseminating NSA documents is motivated by his beliefs on privacy rights – he said "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded" – but Ecuador boasts the world's first countrywide surveillance system that "combines voice and face identification capabilities." Not even the U.S. has that kind of technology.

Further, as many have noted, Correa's Ecuador is no friend of free speech. Freedom House continues to label the country's press "not free," and the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that "the press freedom climate continued its sharp decline" under Correa. In 2011, executives and a journalist for El Universo, a newspaper critical of Correa, were heavily fined and sentenced to three-year prison terms (although they were later pardoned). Correa also recently signed a new law that imposed strict limitations on privately owned media, making it easier to penalize journalists for alleged acts of libel.

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Of course, Ecuador is not immune from U.S. influence – and pressure. After all, the U.S. is still Ecuador's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade accounting for around 50 percent of its overall exports. Also, Ecuadorian nationals living in the U.S. account for almost 50 percent of the remittances flowing back into the country, with such remittances constituting 3 percent of Ecuador's gross domestic product. If U.S. policymakers wanted to squeeze Quito, they could very easily refuse to renew the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, a measure which allows Ecuador to export a range of products to the U.S. duty-free. America could also implement new regulations on remittances or withhold foreign aid.

But punishing Ecuador over the fate of one man might have unintended consequences which could damage America's long-term interests. America's competitors are already making strides in Ecuador, most notably China. For example, by 2015 China's Sinohydro Corporation will have finished building the 1,500 megawatt hydroelectric Coca-Codo Sinclair plant, which will generate some 60 percent of Ecuador's energy needs. China has also become Latin America's moneylender of choice, providing some $75 billion in loans to the region since 2005 – dwarfing the combined efforts of the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank. While the U.S. is still a top trading partner in Latin America, we would be foolish to engage in actions which could diminish our influence, and enhance our Asian competitor's progress, in our own backyard.

So, if Snowden eventually arrives in Ecuador, he's going to have to leave his ideological beliefs at the border. If he ever criticizes Ecuador –by accusing Correa of intimidating reporters or working with authoritarian governments, for example – he will become the country's most unwelcome guest. And once that happens, there may be nowhere left to run.

Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda." Gary Ashcroft is the national security intern at Third Way.

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