As whistleblower Snowden remains out of sight, Ecuador mulls consequences of asylum plea

As the exact whereabouts of NSA-leaker Edward Snowden remained a mystery Monday, this small Andean nation said it’s reviewing his asylum plea and suggested it wouldn’t easily cave to U.S. demands that he face espionage charges. But Ecuador could risk its multi-billion dollar trade relationship with the U.S if he lands here, analysts say.

Snowden, 30, has managed to elude a global manhunt by U.S. authorities and throngs of reporters. On Monday, he was registered to fly from Moscow to Havana but reportedly was not on the aircraft, fueling speculation he’s still in Russia. While the United States has revoked his passport, WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange said Snowden was travelling with refugee documents issued by Ecuador.

“We are aware of where Mr. Snowden is, he’s in a safe place, and his spirits are high,” Assange said in a telephone briefing. “Due to the bellicose threats coming from the U.S. administration, we can’t go into further details at this time.”

On Monday, Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño confirmed that Snowden had sent an asylum request to President Rafael Correa. Reading from that document at a news conference in Hanoi, Patiño said Snowden feared for his life and believed he couldn’t get a fair trial in the United States.

Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, said he was exercising freedom of speech when he “exposed that the United States is intercepting the majority of the world’s communications.” In the document, he also noted that “prominent figures in Congress and the media have accused [him] of treason and have publically asked that [he] be jailed or executed.”

Ecuador is studying the asylum request, as well as protests from U.S. authorities, Patiño said. But he didn’t speculate how quickly the government might process the asylum plea.

“It’s another complicated week,” Correa wrote Monday on Twitter. “Rest assured, we will responsibly analyze Snowden’s case and make the most adequate decision based on absolute sovereignty.”

But a diplomatic tug-of-war could have economic consequences in this country of 15 million, which exported more than $9 billion in products to the U.S. last year. About 23 percent of Ecuador’s exports to the United States, including flowers and broccoli, enter the country tax-free under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. But that deal expires at the end of July. And while Ecuador has been trying to find other ways to keep its tax-free status, the Snowden affair casts doubts on its ability to do so.

Ecuador supplies 27 percent of all roses to the U.S., and those exports will be slapped with a 6.8 percent tax hike unless a new deal is reached, said Alejandro Martinez, executive director of the country’s flower-export association.

“Of course this worries us,” he said about the prospect of losing the tax-free status. “That decision would hurt us and the importers in the United States.”

But that could just be the beginning, said Carl Meacham, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Snowden likely had to trade his secrets with the Chinese and the Russians to guarantee his safe passage, Meacham said. And he’ll probably have to do the same in Ecuador.

“And what if the Ecuadorans start selling those secrets to Venezuela or whomever?” Meacham asked. “These secrets, if shared, are clearly a threat to U.S. national security.”

Under those circumstances, the United States may be forced to “build a sanctions regime,” he said.

Patiño didn’t seem worried. He said the United States has “many times” turned down Ecuadoran extradition requests. Since 2000, this country has been asking for the extradition of Roberto and William Isaías, two brothers and former bankers who are accused of embezzling more than $660 million. The men live in Miami. Ecuador’s attorney general has also said the country will ask for the extradition of former central bank president of Pedro Delgado, its former Central Bank president. Delgado, who is Correa’s cousin and also lives in Miami, is being accused of lying about his resume.

It’s still not clear where Snowden will end up.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell on Monday said the government assumes he’s still in Russia and has been in contact with authorities there. But it’s not clear that Russia is cooperating. Hong Kong previously said a U.S. extradition request arrived too late, allowing Snowden to leave the country over the weekend.

“For us, we’re just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” Ventrell said. “This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant. And that decision, as I said, unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.”

Ventrell said the government had been in contact with Ecuador and a “number of countries that were potential destinations.”

“We’ve made our point clear that, as I said, this is somebody who is wanted on criminal felony charges here in the United States and we’d like him returned to the United States to face justice,” Ventrell said.

Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Ecuador was within its rights to protect Snowden, who he sees as a whistleblower, not a spy.

“It is important that everyone who believes in freedom to defend Ecuador from Washington’s threats, which are very likely if the Ecuadoran government grants asylum to Snowden,” Weisbrot said. “Other governments around the world — whose citizens’ rights have been violated by NSA surveillance overreach — should stand behind Ecuador if it chooses to grant Snowden asylum, as should NGOs.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Melissa Sanchez and McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

An earlier version of the story misstated Snowden’s age. He turned 30 last week.