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Originally published June 24, 2013 at 5:20 AM | Page modified June 24, 2013 at 11:46 AM

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Snowden is tempting risk for Ecuadoran leader

Ecuador's president and foreign minister declared Monday that national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights would govern their decision on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, powerful hints that the former National Security Agency contractor is welcome here despite potential repercussions from Washington.

Associated Press

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QUITO, Ecuador —

Ecuador's president and foreign minister declared Monday that national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights would govern their decision on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, powerful hints that the former National Security Agency contractor is welcome here despite potential repercussions from Washington.

Snowden's whereabouts remained a mystery and his application for Ecuadoran asylum was formally just under consideration. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, nonetheless, made little effort to disguise his government's position. He told reporters in Hanoi that the choice Ecuador faced in hosting Snowden was "betraying the citizens of the world or betraying certain powerful elites in a specific country."

President Rafael Correa said on Twitter that "we will take the decision that we feel most suitable, with absolute sovereignty."

Analysts said welcoming Snowden would sharply escalate Correa's policy of tweaking the United States while maintaining strong economic ties that have maintained healthy growth rates and fueled the president's wide popularity, over 60 percent in recent polls. It would be a tempting but potentially dangerous play, they said, for a leader who appears to delight in slamming U.S. foreign policy but depends on Washington for nearly half Ecuador's foreign trade.

Correa has given WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refuge from Swedish sexual assault charges in Ecuador's embassy in London for a year, garnering international headlines and few consequences.

Welcoming Snowden, a man who has acknowledged leaking secret U.S. information, may be a different matter. Analysts said it could jeopardize tariff-free access to U.S. markets for Ecuadoran fruit, seafood and flowers. U.S. trade, which also includes oil, accounts for half of Ecuador's exports and about 400,000 jobs in the nation of 14.6 million.

The U.S. Andean Trade Preference Act requires imminent congressional renewal and hosting Snowden "doesn't help Ecuador's efforts to extend it," said Ramiro Crespo, director of the Quito-based financial analysis firm Analytica Securities. "The United States is an important market for us, and treating a big client this way isn't appropriate from a commercial point of view."

At the same time, high oil prices, a growing mining industry and rising ties with China may give Correa a sense of protection from U.S. repercussions. And at home, many of the Ecuadorans who re-elected Correa in February with 57 percent of the vote see flouting the U.S. as a welcome expression of independence, particularly when it comes in the form of granting asylum.

"This person who's being pursued by the CIA, our policy is loving people like that, protecting them, perhaps giving them the rights that their own countries don't give them. I think this is a worthy effort by us," said office worker Juan Francisco Sambrano.

Patino, the foreign minister, described Snowden as "a man attempting to bring light and transparency to facts that affect everyone's fundamental liberties, whom we can now see being pursued by those who should be explaining themselves to the governments and citizens of the world about the allegations made by Mr. Snowden."

But others saw hypocrisy in a possible offer of asylum by a government that has aggressively pursued critics in the press for perceived slights and recently passed a media law that some call an assault on freedom of speech.

In 2011 Correa pursued civil charges against two reporters who reported that his brother had illegally obtained government contracts, a case that ended with a $2 million judgment against them, though Correa later voided it. Ecuadoran and international media groups nonetheless labeled the case as part of an increasingly hostile government stance toward the local press.

"If Assange and Snowden were Ecuadoran, they would definitely be in jail," one of the reporters sued by Correa, Juan Carlos Calderon, told The Associated Press.

Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries, Assange said. A trip to Ecuador from Moscow could take him through Cuba and Venezuela, both in the midst of quiet thaws in long-chilly ties with the United States, and taking in Snowden would likely damage those efforts.

Last week, Cuba and the United States held talks on restarting direct mail service, and announced that a separate sit-down to discuss immigration issues will be held in Washington on July 17.

Officials from both countries also report far greater cooperation in behind-the-scenes dealings, including during a brief incident involving a Florida couple who sought asylum in Cuba after allegedly kidnapping their own children. Cuba worked with U.S. officials to quickly send the couple back.

Venezuela this month agreed to high-level negotiations on restoring ambassadorial relations and improving more than a decade of sour ties. That announcement came after a meeting in Guatemala between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.

The United States remains the No. 1 buyer of Venezuela's oil.

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Orsi reported from Caracas, Venezuela. David Barraza in Quito, Ecuador contributed to this report.

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter-Orsi

Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mweissenstein

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