Top Dem threatens to block trade deal with Ecuador over Snowden

Ecuador can kiss its trade preferences with the United States goodbye if it offers asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, a key lawmaker told The Hill.

“There's been issues about Ecuador all along,” said Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. “And if they do this, there's no basis for even discussing it.”

The South American nation had been hoping to renew and extend a trade deal aimed at getting impoverished farmers to cultivate flowers and broccoli instead of coca leaves.

But Levin said that deal could be threatened if leftist President Rafael Correa takes in Snowden, who is fleeing a U.S. extradition request after disclosing classified information on the NSA’s secret surveillance programs. Snowden, currently in Moscow, is facing federal charges for espionage and theft of government property and has asked Ecuador for asylum.

Ecuador has also been hosting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its embassy in London for more than a year, as he evades an extradition request to Sweden on sexual assault charges.

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The Andean Trade Preference Act expires at the end of next month. Its renewal would have to go through the Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance panel.

Correa has taken up Snowden's cause as he seeks to portray himself as a fighter alongside Venezuela, Cuba and others against U.S. "imperialism" amid criticism of a domestic crackdown on the press.

"Ecuador puts its principles above its economic interest," said Ricardo Patiño, his foreign minister, defending their decision to consider asylum for Snowden "We take care of the human rights of the people."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) declined to speculate about the consequences until Ecuador acts. 

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said members would look to the Obama administration for guidance.

“I think [the administration] can't be happy with it,” Hatch said. “And there are some foreign policy approaches that could be used to express our displeasure.”

Hatch said he was "hesitant" to "mess up" trade relations over the issue, however.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not respond to a request for comment. White House spokesman Jay Carney, however, warned Monday that there would be consequences to the U.S.-China relationship after Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong, and tiny Ecuador could also be expected to feel the administration's wrath.

The clash over Snowden comes as the Andean trade pact was already in trouble. 

Chevron has hired lobbyists to argue that Ecuador has violated the terms of the agreement with its $18 billion pollution lawsuit judgment against the American oil company. They say the government is ignoring the ruling of an international tribunal convened under the U.S.-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty that ordered Ecuador to prevent enforcement of the judgment against Chevron.

The real losers in the dispute would likely be Ecuadorian farmers. 

The country's exports under trade pact represented 61 percent of total exports to the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, the embassy wrote in comments to the Office of the United States Trade Representative last year. The trade deal supports 320,000 Ecuadoran jobs and helps maintain political stability, the embassy wrote, while enhancing counternarcotics cooperation between the two countries.

The Andean Trade Preference Act was initially enacted in 1991 to help four countries — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru — fight drug trafficking by providing duty-free access to the U.S. market for thousands of rural products. 

Ecuador is the only country left in the program after Colombia and Peru signed free-trade agreements with the U.S. and Bolivia lost its preferences after a diplomatic spat.

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