QUITO, Ecuador -- Standing up for Edward Snowden has thrown local politics slightly off schedule in Ecuador, a country of 15 million people living in an area the size of the state of Colorado.
President Rafael Correa postponed a yearly vacation, scheduled for last Thursday, to deal with Snowden’s application for asylum to Ecuador and the subsequent international attention this has brought.
In Ecuador, all political decisions go through the Alianza PAIS party, a relatively new movement born in 2006 that hasn’t lost a national election since then. More than two thirds of legislators in the National Assembly, the mayor of Ecuador’s capital Quito and of course President Correa and all his ministers are party members.
So to find out what the dominant political class is thinking about Ecuador’s involvement in the asylum case, the best place to start was the PAIS party headquarters in Quito.
At 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, however, the large building was emptying out, with party members piling into cars. A snap rally had been called at the Spanish embassy, to protest the treatment of Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Ecuadorian ally.
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According to Morales, on Tuesday, four European countries blocked his plane, on the way back home from Moscow, from crossing their airspace, because they suspected he was transporting the former NSA analyst. “Kidnapped by imperialism,” Bolivia’s vice president called it. The plane’s emergency landing in Austria and forced 14-hour layover has outraged Latin Americans.
Why was the PAIS party protesting at Spain’s embassy and not those of Italy, Portugal or France, the other countries that blocked Morales’ plane?
“Because Spain was the most audacious. They said they’d let the plane through only if they could search it for Snowden,” said the regional PAIS director, María Luisa Maldonado, in whose car I traveled to the embassy. “They think they can still do that to Latin America.”
The driver got lost, and we almost missed Galo Lara, the PAIS party secretary, being admitted into the embassy to file the official protest. At the rally, the lime green flags of the party members were outnumbered by TV cameras, ready to capture the bold reaffirmation of Latin American sovereignty Lara would make when he exited.
But does the party feel as strongly about Snowden’s asylum case as they do about Ecuador's (or Bolivia’s) sovereign right to make the decision?
María Augusta Calle, a PAIS legislator representing the province of Pichincha in the National Assembly, said "yes." At a panel discussion on Wednesday night, she expressed admiration for hacker Aaron Swartz, WikiLeaks whistle-blower Bradley Manning and investigative journalist Michael Hastings, whom she sees as challengers of American excess in the same vein as Edward Snowden is.
She was asked after the event if the sympathy she expressed on behalf of PAIS carries over to Snowden, who is in Moscow and hasn’t been granted asylum by any country but is free and alive, unlike the other men on that list (Swartz committed suicide, Hastings died in a car crash last month, and Manning is in prison and awaiting sentencing in his court martial.) Would legislators make an exceptional effort to demonstrate that sympathy, either by a resolution in the assembly or by putting pressure behind the scenes?
She answered that the PAIS legislators would not be making a resolution in the assembly to that effect: That would undermine the authority of the president. “It’s delicate. The asylum decision must be made by the president. He's the chief of international politics.”
As for how Correa may choose to act, it’s a mystery. He left for Europe on Thursday for that postponed vacation and is not expected to make any more public statements about the case.
“The president feels like he’s caught between the tip of a sword and the wall,” said Richard Guayanay, a member of the president’s staff who was at the Spain embassy rally.
The sword, he explained, is Ecuador’s stated commitment to human rights and the president’s belief that Snowden’s leaks revealed human rights violations carried out by American government agencies. Ecuador also believes Snowden’s persecution is political and that as such he has a right to asylum. The wall is the consequences that giving Snowden asylum would mean.
A high-ranking party member who has participated in meetings with the president where Snowden was discussed said Ecuador would prefer if Snowden could end up in a place like Russia or China, because those countries have the means to match the United States’ power if giving Snowden asylum leads to increased surveillance, communication interference or worse.
“The U.S. could invade us at any time, you know ... on the pretext of looking for guerrilla groups,” the party member said. “Ecuador doesn’t have anything like [the defenses Russia or China have].”
As if to highlight Ecuador’s amateur status as a world player, the leaking of confidential emails exchanged by Ecuadorian ambassadors in Washington and other world capitals about the Snowden affair has caused further embarrassment for the government. A consul in London who signed a safe-conduct letter for Snowden that the president said he knew nothing about has been summoned to Ecuador to face punishment for his actions.
In a TV interview, the editor-in-chief of state-funded newspaper El Telégrafo said that Ecuador’s interest in protecting its international reputation has a lot to do with an initiative it is trying to raise money for: the protection of Yasuní-ITT, a section of rainforest advertised as “the most biodiverse place on the planet.”
For six years, Ecuador has been aggressively promoting a campaign to get foreign investors involved in keeping the 800 million barrels of crude oil in Yasuní-ITT underground. Ecuador was hoping to raise pledges of up to $3 billion (about half of what the oil is worth at today’s prices) from foreign governments and companies interested in saving the rainforest in exchange for a promise not to drill. But the pledge campaign hasn’t been as successful as hoped, and Correa has said he will have to decide by this month whether drilling will go ahead. As National Geographic magazine reports, roads have already been built in the pristine jungle near the ITT oil exploration block.
After six years of intense public relations inside and outside of Ecuador about the unique importance of the Yasuní rainforest and the damage oil extraction would do, deciding to drill after all would be an unpopular move.
On the other hand, Snowden and that other asylum seeker currently in Ecuador’s London embassy, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, could bring something to Ecuador that the country desperately wants: technical expertise to help it create a knowledge economy.
“Any country that accepts his asylum won’t take him for free. There will be a price,” the PAIS member concluded. In Ecuador, the price Snowden could have to pay would be involvement in Yachay, a “city of knowledge” the government is building from scratch in an Andean village. The dream of Yachay is to combine a university, an urban area, technological development and agriculture to create a small Ecuadorian Silicon Valley.
To get the knowledge economy they crave, Ecuador can send its top students to foreign universities to study technology-related careers (and it does). But for a fraction of what foreign tuition costs for 100 students, Ecuador can import foreign experts to teach 100-student classes at Yachay. Assange and Snowden shouldn’t expect a tropical retirement, if they ever make it down south.
Bethany Horne is a freelance journalist based in Ecuador. She is in charge of Web innovation at Guayaquil daily El Telégrafo and tweets at @bbhorne.