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NSA Leaker Sets Sights On South America, But Why Ecuador?


The U.S. continues its cat and mouse game with the man who confessed to leaking NSA secrets, Edward Snowden. After spending the last few weeks in Hong Kong, Snowden caught a plane to Moscow this weekend, and he's believed to still be in Russia. But his exact whereabouts are uncertain. The U.S. has urged Russia not to let Snowden leave.

Today, officials from Ecuador said Snowden has applied for asylum there. It's the same nation that's been providing cover for WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, at its London embassy for more than a year.

So what makes Ecuador so appealing for these high-profile self-professed whistle-blowers? For more, we turn to South America correspondent for The Washington Post, Juan Forero. He joins us now from Bogota, Colombia. And, Juan, first of all, why Ecuador?

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Well, I think it's because Ecuador has a leader, Rafael Correa, who is not shy about tussling with the United States and criticizing the United States. And, of course, a year ago, he gave Julian Assange, the leader of WikiLeaks, he gave him sanctuary in the embassy of Ecuador in London. And now, comes this. I don't think it was very surprising, actually.

CORNISH: So then, remind us a little bit more about President Correa, sort of what position he's tried to assume in Latin America.

FORERO: Well, President Correa is a leftist populist. He was educated in the United States. But he belongs to a line of leftist leaders in Latin America, which include leaders from Bolivia, from Venezuela, from Cuba and from Nicaragua, which tried to build a bulwark against the United States and frequently criticizing United States on all kinds of things.

Now, Correa was sort of in the shadows in the sense that for many years, the guy who really was leading all this was the bombastic leader of Venezuela, who was Hugo Chavez, but he died in March. And so now, people are wondering whether Rafael Correa in Ecuador is now picking up the mantle here.

CORNISH: So what does Ecuador stand to gain by granting Snowden asylum?

FORERO: I think part of it is that Ecuador in a sense wants to have a bigger role. I mean, it's a tiny country in South America. And really, you rarely hear about it. But here is a chance to say, you know, we are here. You know, we exist and we are a player, and we can deliver a blow to the United States. I think part of it is that.

Part of it is also that Ecuador has come under very sharp criticism from the United States, from press freedom groups, from the Organization of American States and so forth for its own restrictions against the press and against freedom of speech in its country. And so this is a way of saying: Hey, look, we actually protect freedom of speech and that's why we're protecting people like Julian Assange and, now, Edward Snowden.

CORNISH: Now, Ecuador's foreign minister said today that his country will base its decision about Snowden's asylum on principles and human rights, not on its interests with other countries, i.e. the U.S. But if Ecuador does grant Snowden asylum, what does it stand to lose as far as its relationship with the U.S.?

FORERO: It could be a big loss. Ecuador has a preferential trade agreement with the United States. It's very rare. It's the only South American country that has one of these. And what happens is Ecuador can export a range of different products to United States, tariff-free. And so it's almost like a free-trade agreement except it's a one-way trade agreement. Ecuador is the one that benefits. Now, that trade agreement is up for renewal in July. We'll have to see what the U.S. Congress says.

CORNISH: And, Juan, you're speaking with us from Bogota, Colombia, but I understand you're headed soon to Ecuador. And do you get the sense that there is any popular support there for Edward Snowden or if people even know who Edward Snowden is?

FORERO: Well, I think that people there who I've been speaking to have said that, you know, part of this also is this is a way to solidify support. Now, Correa is quite popular and the economy is doing well and so forth, but there are pockets of resistance to him. There are people out there who are critical. And when you go up against the United States, that kind of brings people together, you know? Here is a little country and on the other end is United States, the biggest superpower.

And so I think that will certainly be something that will get support for him, and not just from people who are already supportive of his government but people who maybe are on the fence or may be even critical and so forth.

It kind of also depends a little bit on how the United States reacts. For instance, if the United States does do away with those trade preferences, well, people will say: Look at how this big bully is going after our little country and our workers.

CORNISH: Juan Forero is South America correspondent for The Washington Post. Juan, thank you for talking with us.

FORERO: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Forero
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Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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