June 25, 2013

Flowers, vegetables could affect Snowden's fate

The Associated Press

QUITO, Ecuador — With Edward Snowden stuck in Moscow and Washington pushing hard for his return, many Ecuadoreans began realizing Tuesday that this small country's deep economic ties with the U.S. could make it the one with the most to lose in the high-stakes international showdown over the National Security Agency leaker.

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Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, greets passersby from the balcony of the presidential palace during the weekly, The Change of the Guard, in Quito, Ecuador, Monday, June 24, 2013. Correa declared Monday that national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights would govern his decision on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, powerful hints that the former National Security Agency contractor is welcome in Ecuador despite potential repercussions from Washington. Correa said on Twitter that "we will take the decision that we feel most suitable, with absolute sovereignty." Vice president Jorge Glass is pictured left. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

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While President Rafael Correa's leftist government was virtually silent on Snowden's request for asylum, Ecuadorean analysts said his fate, or at least his safe harbor in Ecuador, could depend as much on frozen vegetables and flowers as on questions over freedom of expression and international counterterrorism.

Unlike with China, Russia or Cuba, countries where the U.S. has relatively few tools to force Snowden's handover, the Obama administration could swiftly hit Ecuador in the pocketbook by denying reduced tariffs on cut flowers, artichokes and broccoli. Those represent hundreds of millions of dollars in annual exports for this country where nearly half of foreign trade depends on the U.S.

A denial wouldn't mean financial devastation for Ecuador, which has been growing healthily in recent years thanks in large part to its oil resources. But analysts and political figures said the prospect of any economic damage could nonetheless alter the political calculus for Correa, a pragmatic leftist who's long delighted in tweaking the United States but hasn't yet suffered any major consequences.

"Much of our foreign trade is at stake," said flower grower Benito Jaramillo, president of the country's largest association of flower farmers, who shipped more than $300 million in flowers, mostly roses, to the U.S. last year. "They've been inserting themselves in a problem that isn't Ecuador's, so we're in a dilemma that we shouldn't be in."

For years, Ecuador's oil, vegetables and roses have kept flowing northward even as Correa has expelled U.S. diplomats and an American military base, publicly hectored the U.S. ambassador and harbored WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at Ecuador's embassy in London.

Correa's strongest backers have delighted in his attacks on Washington. And even his detractors have tolerated his foreign policy as the indulgence of a man who has maintained general economic and political stability, funneling billions of U.S. dollars, which are also Ecuador's currency, to social spending and infrastructure projects.

The president's office and other government agencies declined comment on Snowden, referring questions to Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who said only that he doesn't know where Snowden is or what travel documents he might be using.

Analysts and politicians said any potential loss to Ecuador could make hosting Snowden a tougher decision than previous ones for Correa, a member of Latin America's leftist bloc who's maintained cordial relations with countries like Cuba and Venezuela without marching in lockstep with them.

"The president's ideology toward the United States is one thing. It's another thing to be president of a country whose dependence on the U.S. is unavoidable, irreplaceable and extremely valuable, because we sell the U.S. a lot more than we could ever could to any other country," said former vice president Blasco Penaherrera, member of the center-left Liberal Party.

Many Ecuadoreans see the NSA surveillance revealed by Snowden's leaks as part of a longstanding and broad pattern of excessive U.S. interference abroad, including in Latin America. So, some people said, asylum for Snowden would be humane and wise despite any economic consequences.

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