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Snowden case pits Ecuador against Washington, again


Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino (right) says he is considering a request for asylum from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, a diplomatic dilemma that threatens to strain already tense relations with Washington.


Ecuador is considering granting political asylum to Edward Snowden, a former intelligence analyst who is wanted in the United States on espionage charges, with a decision by the country's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino expected on Monday.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters in Vietnam Monday that Ecuador was considering the request and was in “respectful” contact with Russia, where Snowden is believed to be now. Patino also said that human rights principles were the most important consideration in the case.

According to FRANCE 24 correspondent Carolina Leon, it is likely the request by the fugitive will be approved by Ecuador’s government.

“We suspect the asylum case will be finalized and that it is just a matter of time before it is approved,” Leon said by telephone from the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. “[Snowden] has already received assistance by the Ecuadorean government [in Moscow].

The question of protecting Snowden from US justice threatens to further strain frayed relations between the Obama administration and the small South American country, which have been under pressure ever since Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa rose to power in 2007.

Correa, an economist trained in the US and Europe, aligned himself with other left-leaning and nationalist governments in the region, and became an outspoken critic of the American meddling in the region.

One of the first diplomatic initiatives of Correa’s first term was to refuse to renew a contract with the US Defense Department that allowed it to keep an army base in the coastal city of Manta.

A Colombian army strike that killed rebel leader Raul Reyes inside Ecuadorean territory in March 2008 fuelled suspicion and resentment. The kill, deep in the jungle, which violated international treaties in that Ecuador was kept in the dark, was made possible by intelligence assistance from the US.

Then in 2009, a top diplomat at the US Embassy in Quito was given 48 hours to leave the country after he denied Ecuador’s police funding for anti-drug operations because the US was denied oversight of the programme.

Wikileaks throws fuel on the fire

Ties might have been mended were it not for the explosive revelations from a huge trove of diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks whistle-blower website, which began to be published by leading global newspapers in November 2010.

In April 2011, US Ambassador Heather Hodges was expelled from the country for a diplomatic cable in which she said it was likely Correa had knowledge of rampant corruption within the national police.

In retaliation, Ecuador’s ambassador was declared persona non grata by the US.

It was the first time in history the two countries cut ambassadorial-level relations – a rift that was not fully repaired until May 2012.

But the fallout from the Wikileaks quake was not over. In June 2012, Wikileaks figurehead Julian Assange, on the run from prosecutors in the US and Sweden, hid from authorities in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he remains to this day.

Taking the place of Hugo Chavez?

Reacting to Sunday’s announcement that a new whistleblower was possibly headed to Ecuador, and that US officials had urged Ecuador to deny Snowden entry, state newspaper El Telegrafo said in an editorial that Ecuador’s sovereignty rested on its ability to make its own decisions when “human rights were under immediate threat”.

However, according to FRANCE 24’s foreign affairs editor Armen Georgian, the dilemma over Snowden’s likely asylum had little to do with legal considerations, and was on the contrary, highly political.

“It’s a chance for Ecuador’s Rafael Correa to rally this leftist block that had been led by Hugo Chavez,” Georgian said in reference to the late firebrand Venezuelan president who became famous for his defiance of the United States.

It is unlikely Caracas will weigh in on the Snowden affair, especially since the foreign ministers of the US and Venezuela made a very public gesture earlier this month on the sidelines of the meeting of the Organisation of American States in Guatemala to show that diplomatic ties between the two countries are on the mend.

A week after the one-year anniversary of Assange’s stay in the Ecuadorean embassy – a major hurdle to normalizing ties between Quito and Washington in the near future – a new request for sanctuary threatens to send relations crashing down.

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