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Ecuador, Unusual Destination for Free Press Asylum Seeker

Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño speaks to reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam,  June 24, 2013.
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño speaks to reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 24, 2013.
Brian Padden
In asking for political asylum from the government of Ecuador, NSA leaker Edward Snowden seems to be contradicting his earlier statement that he would look for a country that believes in protecting free speech and global privacy.  The South American country’s democratic but increasingly authoritarian government has been criticized by human rights groups for imprisoning journalists and political opponents.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño says his government will consider Snowden’s request for asylum because of the risk of persecution from the government of the United States.

"The state will consider the request, but also will consider some important international principles under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said Patiño.

On one hand, it is understandable why Edward Snowden, who leaked details of a top secret U.S. surveillance program, would look to Ecuador for asylum. Last year, Ecuador granted asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, who remains in that country's embassy in London. He is under extradition from Sweden on rape charges. Assange and Wikileaks have been assisting Snowden in avoiding extradition to the U.S. on charges of espionage.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has been a harsh critic of Washington, and these asylum cases could enhance his international stature.  Carl Meacham, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the Ecuadorian leader wants to be seen on the same level as the Castros in Cuba and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.  

“The countries in the world that don’t like the United States, what it stands for, that they would see him as a leader in that effort to say these things that are negative and point out faults with American foreign policy," said Meacham.

Even though President Correa obtained a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, he is critical of what he calls U.S. imperialism and capitalism. The president describes himself as a Christian Leftist, and defaulted on foreign loans he said were "illegitimate."  He closed a U.S. airbase in Ecuador, saying the U.S. could keep the base if Ecuador could operate a similar base in Miami.
But on the other hand, Ecuador is an unusual destination for advocates of free speech, transparency and human rights. The opposition in Ecuador has accused President Correa of dictatorial policies. Reporters Without Borders criticized the presdient for shutting down several broadcasting outlets that were critical of the government.  José Miguel Vivanco, with Human Rights Watch says Ecuador recently passed some of the most restrictive media laws of any democratic country in the world, laws that ironically forbid the media from disseminating classified information.  

“The case of Ecuador is unique in the region in terms of standards that imposed prior censorship on the media, even creates an environment for self-censorship and criminal punishment for journalists or anyone who cross the line," said Vivanco.

While espionage and treason are not covered under Ecuador’s extradition treaty with the U.S., the United States does have some economic leverage. Ecuador relies on the U.S. for 45 percent of its exports. Under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, it is allowed to ship many goods duty free.  Congress must soon vote to renew the program, but could opt to exclude Ecuador if its leaders give Snowden asylum.

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