He was recently called a traitor by Secretary of State John Kerry, and is now officially wanted in the U.S. for espionage. But Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who flew from Hong Kong to Russia over the weekend, probably made a good move for himself on Sunday, by asking for asylum in Ecuador.
Snowden's asylum request was read out on Monday morning by Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patiño. In the letter, Snowden asks the Ecuadorean government to consider granting him political asylum because he is being persecuted in the U.S. for using his right to free speech to reveal information on government abuses. He also says that chances of a fair trial are slim in the U.S., where he may be charged with treason and is likely to face life in prison or the death penalty.
Patiño explained that the asylum request was currently "under review." But the foreign minister also made some "reflections" on this case, which will sound like music to Snowden's ears.
"The government of Ecuador puts principles above [political and commercial] interests," Patiño said. "In this case human rights principles."
"We would have to ask ourselves who has betrayed who, [in the Snowden case]" Patiño continued. "Did [Snowden] betray the interests of humanity, or did he betray the interests of certain political elites, in a certain country."
These statements suggest that Snowden will probably get asylum in Ecuador. An interesting twist of fate if you consider that this whistleblower had initially said that he would seek refuge in Iceland, because of its strong internet freedom laws.
But why did Snowden go for Ecuador, and not some other country that would happily host a CIA nemesis? Consider this:
1. Ecuador is already protecting Julian Assange
The Wikileaks founder has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for a year, avoiding British officials who want to extradite him to Sweden. Assange has not been allowed to head to Ecuador, which granted him asylum last year on humanitarian grounds because British officials will not allow him to leave the embassy without arresting him.
Since Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy last summer however, the South American nation has not buckled to pressure from British officials who say that they are obliged to arrest Assange and send him to Sweden where he faces sexual assault charges. In fact, Ecuador's foreign minister recently visited London to present the British government with a series of legal arguments that would force the British to allow Assange to board a plane to Ecuador. The UK did not budge, but Ecuador proved that it is quite a plucky nation when it comes to defending high-profile refugees.
2. Ecuador has weak extradition treaties with the U.S.
Like many countries in the western hemisphere, Ecuador has an extradition treaty with the U.S. But as BBC Mundo notes, the treaty between Ecuador and the U.S. excludes crimes that are committed with "political motifs." As long as Snowden can prove that he broke his oath of secrecy for political reasons instead of, say, for personal profit, he will not be eligible for extradition to the U.S.
3. The Government of Ecuador profits politically from having Snowden around
Unlike Iceland, the Ecuadorean government has a proven record of saying no to U.S interests, so it is much more likely to tell the U.S. government to take a hike when it asks for Snowden's extradition.
President Rafael Correa has backed environmental lawsuits, against Chevron for example, that accuse the U.S. company of polluting large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. In 2009, Correa also refused to renew the U.S. military's lease on an airforce base in the Pacific port of Manta despite requests by U.S. diplomats to renew the lease, as the base was being used for anti-narcotics flights.
Alex Sanchez, an international security analyst at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs says that providing asylum to Snowden wins political points for Ecuador's leftist president.
"Correa wants international recognition, [as a defender of human rights]," Sanchez said. "This also allows him to show [domestically] that he is not a lackey of the U.S. like previous presidents of Ecuador."
The decision to grant asylum to Snowden would, of course, generate diplomatic tensions between Ecuador and the U.S. But Sanchez said that such tensions might not be too risky for Ecuador.
Sanchez noted that Venezuela is still allowed to sell oil to U.S. refineries, for example, even while its government blasts out anti-U.S. rhetoric in international forums and accuses U.S. embassy personnel of being part of plots to "destabilize" that country. If the U.S. government fails to take any reprisals for such matters, Ecuador is probably figuring that there will be few reprisals from the U.S. over Snowden's asylum claim, Sanchez said.
4. President Correa will be around for a while
From Snowdens perspective, the political situation in Ecuador provides another important bonus. President Correa was just re-elected this year and has four years left in his current term. If Correa pushes for a law that allows for an unlimited number of re-elections like Chavez did in Venezuela, he could also be around for more than that.
Snowden will probably be safe in Ecuador while Correa is at the helm. Though as Foreign Policy magazine notes, he will have to come up with a long-term strategy to ward off legal challenges, and even with a way to make a living for himself, after the Ecuadorean government tires of paying for his bills.