Could Snowden make Ecuador's leader 'the new Chávez?'

In championing Snowden, President Correa is further cementing his image as a successor to Chávez who can take on the US.

By , Correspondent

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    Journalists stand next to Ecuador's Ambassador's car while waiting for the arrival of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who recently leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at Sheremetyevo airport, just outside Moscow, Sunday, June 23.
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Just a year after opening his London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has another chance to taunt the US government.

Mr. Correa’s administration is weighing a request to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the man who leaked classified National Security Agency intelligence. Mr. Snowden’s exact plans are unknown – he left Hong Kong for Russia, and Venezuela, Cuba, and Ecuador have all been mentioned as final destinations.

Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño hinted Monday that his asylum request was likely to be granted.

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Speaking to reporters in Vietnam, Mr. Patino said the request “has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world.”

If Snowden, who is wanted in the US on espionage charges, does wind up in Ecuador, it will provide Correa with another notch in his anti-imperialist belt. With the March death of Venezuela’s firebrand President Hugo Chávez, Correa is seen as one of the most prominent Latin American leftist leaders to oppose the US. Granting Snowden asylum only raises his standing.

“I do think it makes Correa the new boogeyman in the region for Washington,” says David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It makes him the regional personality who is willing to poke the US in the eye.”

Correa has been criticized for limiting freedom of expression, including a far-reaching media law – referred to as a “gag law” by press freedom advocates—approved by Congress this month.

By granting Snowden asylum, Correa can turn the tables on the US in a case that comes down to freedom of information. “It allows him to criticize the criticizers,” says Mr. Smilde.

While less confrontational and less vocal than Mr. Chávez, Correa has a history of standing up to the United States.

In 2009, he threw out a US military base and high-ranking diplomats. In 2011, he declared the US ambassador persona non grata after WikiLeaks published a State Department diplomatic cable alleging corruption. And last year, he took in the founder and spokesman of the WikiLeaks organization. Mr. Assange, who was wanted by the Swedish government for questioning related to allegations of sexual misconduct, has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since June 19, 2012.

None of the previous incidents seriously damaged relations between the US and Ecuador. The Obama administration might view this case with more urgency, says Jonas Wolff, a senior research fellow at the Frankfurt-based Peace Research Institute.

“In spite of all of those issues, bilateral relations have been OK,” Mr. Wolff says.  “In this case, the US position is clearly different. Here, I would expect a reaction from the US.”

Wolff says the US is limited in the severity of its response. The US Congress was already unlikely to renew trade preferences for Ecuador that are set to expire this summer.

“The US doesn’t have too many measures it can utilize, other than to criticize,” he says.

What’s more, the case has been a source of embarrassment for the Obama administration.

“The US does not look very good in this case,” he says.

While the US may pursue an agreement that would bring Snowden home to face charges, Smilde does not foresee a major diplomatic response, such as withdrawing its ambassador. "Logic would tell me that the US will let it blow over once he gets asylum, simply because it’s not a very flattering case for them," he says.

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