Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who publicized a surveillance program carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA), may spend his immediate future in Ecuador, which has agreed to grant him asylum.
This recent development has put the small South American nation at the center of the global media, something akin to what happened in June 2012, when Quito granted asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
What is the logic behind Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s recent foreign policy decisions, particularly his granting asylum to individuals such as Snowden?
A Collision Course?
Correa’s lengthy presidency (he was first elected in 2006) has been characterized by his recurrent clashes with Washington and his intention to distance his county from U.S. influence. The country made global media headlines in 2012 when it granted asylum to Julian Assange, founder of the website Wikileaks and wantedby the Swedish governmenton charges of sexual assault.
Assange, an Australian citizen, has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past year, and it is unclear if he will leave the embassy anytime soon.
Now, Ecuador may be the future home of Edward Snowden.Snowden is currently in Moscow, where he should have boarded a flight that would have taken him to Havana, Cuba and then to Ecuador. However, the American whistleblower reportedly was not on his scheduled flight to Cuba.
The Edward Snowden affair is not the first time Washington and Quito have clashed. Back in 2009, President Correa refused to renew an agreement that allowed the U.S. military to operate a base in Manta. This base had been a critical cornerstone of Washington’s anti-drug operations in South America.
Quito justifies its decision by arguing that Ecuador must focus its multilateral defense relations on fellow South American nations, particularly via the Union of South American Nations.
Although Quito has decided to leave the IADB, it is simultaneously trying to influence other Western Hemisphere agencies. Namely, Ecuador recently put forth suggestions for major reforms within theInter-American Commission on Human Rightswhich included moving the Commissions’ headquarters from Washington to Argentina.
Correa takes Center Stage
The question is: Why did Correa accept Edward Snowden when he knew the United States would disapprove? The South American leader was re-elected this past February with a comfortable margin – he obtained 56 percent of the vote while his closest opponent, Guillermo Lasso, obtained only 23 percent.
This striking victory (which suggests that he is supported by the majority of the population) may have emboldened him to execute other aggressive foreign policy decisions. Even before granting asylum to Assange and Snowden, Correa was regarded as having an anti-Washington ideology. Recent events only further reinforce this view.
Nevertheless, Ecuador is a small country with limited natural resources to make it a global economic powerhouse. It does possess significant quantities of oil, which has helped the country survive the global financial crisis.
Ecuadorian financial officials have continuously praised the country’s economic growth in recent years, but while economic stability affords Correa the luxury of focusing on foreign policy instead of domestic economic issues, his country’s oil reserves are not abundant enough to be utilized as a diplomatic weapon to gain allies, like the late Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela.
The extent to which Ecuador is isolating itself from the international community is debatable. Certainly, Washington and countries across Europe will not look upon the decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden with friendly eyes.
One can only wonder how Ecuador’s foreign policy is being debated in Quito, and what type of advice Correa is receiving from his ministerial cabinet, including the minister of foreign affairs,Ricardo Patiño, and diplomatic corps when it comes to his recent decisions.
On the other hand, such bold moves that upset “el imperio” (as the United States is commonly labeled) will likely make the nations of ALBA (Chavez’s pet project)—including Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela—declare their diplomatic support for Ecuador.In a March meeting, ALBA nations expressed their support for Ecuador in its ongoing dispute with the oil company Chevron.
It is likely that La Paz, Havana, and Caracas will similarly display their support for Correa’s decision to accept Snowden.
At the same time, it is debatable to what extent Washington will be able to exercise pressure on Ecuador for its role in the Edward Snowden scandal. Washington could push for some kind of trade sanction, but Correa clearly has little interest in cementing trade relations with the United States, as Quito is seeking more integration with fellow ALBA states.
For example, this past April, ALBA’s members came together for a summit in Guayaquil to discuss further integration initiatives, such as the group’s virtual currency (the Sucre), and the creation of a new agency, Eco ALBA, to promote financial aid between the bloc’s members.
Understandably, future analyzes will debate whether the Ecuadorian president should be regarded as Chavez’s successor, and if he is indeed actively trying to embrace this role. While Correa is not trying to become the new Chavez, he is nonetheless trying to make a mark and give the impression that his country is no “pushover.”
But because Ecuador is not profiting in any real way from accepting Snowden, other than by angering the United States even further, the real question here is who is formulating Ecuador’s foreign policy – is it created by a consensus of senior policymakers, or solely by Correa.