Long layover: Ecuador says it could take two months to decide on Snowden's asylum

Russian officials say NSA leaker Edward Snowden is still in a Moscow airport.

Alexander Demianchuk/REUTERS
People wait before boarding an Aeroflot Airbus A330 plane heading to the Cuban capital Havana at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 27, 2013.

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For the fifth straight day former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden remains “in transit” in a Moscow airport, officials there say, while Ecuador announced his political asylum bid could take up to two months to approve.

"If he goes to the [Ecuadorean] embassy, we will make a decision," Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said yesterday. He acknowledged the parallel with WikiLeak’s founder Julian Assange who has been holed up in the South American country’s embassy in London for over a year.

"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner than that," Mr. Patino said.

Mr. Snowden is wanted by the US government after he leaked top secret information on US surveillance programs to The Guardian, The Washington Post, and a paper based in Hong Kong where he first sought refuge. The US revoked his passport, but he managed to flee Hong Kong Sunday. Reuters reports that Ecuador denies granting Snowden special travel documents.

Snowden was expected to leave Russia on Monday on a flight to Cuba, however he did not board the plane. The Los Angeles Times writes that some speculate Snowden has already left the Moscow airport and is slowly making his way toward Ecuador’s Embassy there.

Ecuador has come under fire for offering Snowden asylum, to which embassy official Efraín Baus told the White House, "Mr. Edward Snowden has requested political asylum in Ecuador ... this situation is not being provoked by Ecuador."

There have been calls in the US Congress to cut off aid to Ecuador.

"The fact is is that we're giving millions of millions of dollars to this country right now who may potentially be harboring somebody who could have been responsible for one of the most massive intelligence leaks in the history of both private contracting and our espionage world," national security analyst Aaron Cohen told Fox News in reference to Ecuador. "We've had trouble with these guys for a long time." 

Ecuador has received $144.4 million in US aid over the past five years, Fox reports.

Some speculate Ecuador is taking its time considering the asylum application in order to come across as seriously weighing the legal implications of Snowden’s asylum request; others point to the windfall of media attention Ecuador garners while the decision is pending.

Mr. Baus stated that Snowden’s application "will be reviewed responsibly, as are the many other asylum applications that Ecuador receives each year.” Ecuador does have an extradition agreement with the United States, but makes exceptions for political crimes, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

"This legal process takes human rights obligations into consideration," Baus said, inviting the US to submit its position on Snowden in writing so that it could be taken into consideration during the decision process.

Steve Striffler, a Latin America specialist at the University of New Orleans, wrote on CNN that Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa isn’t considering Snowden’s asylum request just to gain political points at home. He notes that after offering Mr. Assange asylum President Correa actually fueled opposition party criticism.

Politicians are always looking to score political points, and Correa has certainly had his moments. But when Correa offered Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange asylum in 2012, he had relatively little to gain politically beyond raising his international profile….

Similarly, Correa will score relatively few political points by embracing Snowden in 2013. Correa's stance is best seen as a principled one. In broad terms, Correa's openness to Assange and Snowden, as well as his decision to close a U.S. military base in Ecuador, is part of an effort to deepen Ecuadorian sovereignty while strengthening Latin America's ability to limit the influence of the United States in the region.

This is perfectly within the rights of an independent nation, even one that has historically followed the U.S. lead.

Many have criticized Ecuador for the apparent irony in its support of freedom of information when it comes to individuals like Assange and Snowden sharing top-secret information, but deterring expression at home. The country recently passed a media law that contains "questionable or dangerous provisions" to clamp down on criticism by the press according to Reporters without Borders. Correa has called reporters there "rabid dogs" and "assassins with ink," according to the Monitor.

There could be some immediate political and economic consequences for Ecuador if it does indeed grant Snowden asylum, as well. The renewal of preferential treatment for trading certain products including roses and tuna is on the table, reports The New York Times.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue told the Times, “The risks are enormous… It would bring the United States down very hard on him.”

Others, however, say preferential treatment was already at risk of not being renewed. “The US Congress was already unlikely to renew trade preferences for Ecuador that are set to expire this summer,” according to a second Monitor story.

“The US doesn’t have too many measures it can utilize, other than to criticize,” says Jonas Wolff, a senior research fellow at the Frankfurt-based Peace Research Institute.

The Guardian’s Stephen Kinzer says Ecuador is a good choice for Snowden because even if Ecuador’s government drastically changes in coming years, the region as a whole has moved away from falling in line behind US policy.

Because President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was the most flamboyant of these defiant leaders, some outsiders may have expected that following his death, the region would return to its traditional state of submission. In fact, not just a handful of leaders but huge populations in Latin America have decided that they wish for more independence from Washington.

This is vital for Snowden because it reduces the chances that a sudden change of government could mean his extradition. If he can make it to Latin America, he will never lack for friends or supporters.

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