QUITO/DAKAR: A defiant Ecuador dropped out of a trade pact with the United States Thursday, claiming it had become an instrument of “blackmail” as Quito considers asylum for fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
In a deliberately cheeky touch from the leftist government of President Rafael Correa, Ecuador also offered a multimillion donation for human rights training in the United States.
“ Ecuador unilaterally and irrevocably renounces these preferential customs tariff rights,” Communications Minister Fernando Alvarado said, reading a government statement.
“ Ecuador does not accept pressure or threats from anyone, and does not trade on principles or make them contingent on commercial interests, even if those interests are important,” he said.
The government of Correa said that while it had received the preferential rights in exchange for its cooperation in the war on drugs, they had become a “new instrument of blackmail.”
The preferential trade program, which covers key Ecuadoran exports such as fresh-cut roses, fruits, vegetables and tuna, was set to expire on July 31 unless the U.S. Congress renewed it.
The arrangement, which dates back to the early 1990s, originally benefited four Andean nations, and Ecuador was the last country still participating in it.
But analysts have warned that Washington may refuse to renew it if Quito grants asylum to Snowden.
The 30-year-old Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who embarrassed the government of U.S. President Barack Obama by revealing details of vast Internet and phone surveillance programs, has requested asylum from Ecuador.
Ecuador has said it could take as little as one day or as long as two months to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden, who remained Thursday in the transit area of a Moscow airport after fleeing Hong Kong.
Snowden’s exit from Moscow appears complicated, as the United States has revoked his passport and a senior Ecuadoran Foreign Ministry official denied claims by anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks that Quito had given him a travel document.
Snowden’s case has also raised tensions between the United States and both China and Russia.
Obama said Thursday he would not start “wheeling and dealing” with China and Russia over a U.S. request to extradite Snowden.
Obama dismissed suggestions that the United States might try to intercept Snowden if he were allowed to depart Moscow by air.
“No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he told a news conference in Dakar. Snowden turned 30 last week.
Obama said regular legal channels should suffice to handle the U.S. request that Snowden be returned. Obama said that he had not yet spoken to China’s President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue.
“I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is … No. 1, I shouldn’t have to,” Obama said.
“No. 2, we’ve got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia, and I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues,” the president added.
Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency in China and Hong Kong have given Beijing considerable ammunition in an area that has been a major irritant between the countries.
China’s Defense Ministry said Thursday the U.S. government surveillance program known as Prism “has revealed the concerned country’s true face and hypocritical behavior.” It did not name the country.
“This ‘double standard’ approach is not conducive to peace and security in cyberspace,” ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told reporters, according to state news agency Xinhua.