QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — 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.
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. Growing ties with China also could give the Ecuadorean government a sense of diminished vulnerability. 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.
"On a commercial basis, the U.S. and Ecuador are guided by pragmatism, independent of economic agendas. Businessmen set priorities based on cost-benefit and because of that I don't think there are going to be major consequences, because the commercial line is separate from the geopolitical one," said Pablo Davalos, an economics professor and analyst at the Catholic University in Quito.
But on the streets of the capital, people appeared to be increasingly feeling that their country should keep out of the affair.
"We shouldn't give him asylum," said Fredy Prado, a retired shoe company manager. "Every country needs to take care of itself, its own security."
The U.S. administration is supposed to decide by Monday whether to grant Ecuador export privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences, a system meant to spur development and growth in poorer countries. The deadline was deadline set long before the Snowden affair but conveniently timed for the U.S.
More broadly, a larger trade pact allowing reduced tariffs on more than $5 billion in annual exports to the U.S. is up for congressional renewal before July 21. While approval of the Andean Trade Preference Act has long been seen as doubtful in Washington, Ecuador has been lobbying strongly for its renewal in recent months.
"I hope the government doesn't decide to give Snowden asylum, because obviously this isn't in Ecuador's interests," said Roberto Aspiazu, chairman of a coalition of Ecuador's largest industries. "Hopefully the issue will be looked at from the perspective of Ecuador's interests, and I don't think it's in our country's interest to unnecessarily confront the U.S."
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mweissenstein