CARACAS, Venezuela — President Rafael Correa of Ecuador embraces his role as a thorn in Washington's side, railing against U.S. imperialism in speeches and giving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refuge in his nation's embassy in London.
But nothing Correa has done to rankle the United States is likely to infuriate as much as granting the asylum being sought by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who faces espionage charges back home after revealing details of two highly secret surveillance programs.
Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, and had been widely expected to fly on to Cuba — an ally of Ecuador — on Monday. But when the plane from Moscow took off Monday, Snowden was not in the seat he had booked and there was no sign of him elsewhere on board.
Even so, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister confirmed on Monday that his government is analyzing the request for asylum. He told reporters during a visit to Vietnam that it "has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world," a strong hint Correa would accept the petition.
"Correa may find it hard to resist the temptation to get increased attention and seize this opportunity to provoke and defy the U.S.," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. "Correa is confrontational and relishes fights. Should he ultimately grant Snowden asylum, one hopes that Correa has thought through the likely consequences of such a decision."
Taking in Snowden certainly would increase Correa's popularity among those who see him as a champion of open information, help him counter criticism of a new media law that some call an assault on freedom of speech in Ecuador and cement his name as a leading voice of opposition to U.S. foreign policy.
But it could threaten preferential access to U.S. markets for Ecuadorean goods under the U.S. Andean Trade Preference Act, and strain already shaky ties between two nations that only last year re-established full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.
Some 45 percent of Ecuadorean exports went to the United States last year, accounting for about 400,000 jobs in the small nation.
Giving Snowden asylum for leaking secret information would be "irresponsible," former Ecuadorean diplomat Mauricio Gandara said.
"It would be an illegal act, because what he has done is a crime in both the United States and Ecuador," said Gandara, who was Ecuador's ambassador in London. "It is a confrontation with the people and government of the United States and both (political) parties. It is an unnecessary conflict."
Ecuadorean analyst Grace Jaramillo said Washington takes the Snowden case more seriously than Assange's because it involves an internal leak of intelligence activities that otherwise operate in total secrecy.
"The United States will keep pushing until the end for Snowden to be handed over, and could even resort to commercial sanctions or direct intervention if the case becomes difficult," Jaramillo said.
Yet, granting him safe passage and refuge has appeal for Ecuador as well as Cuba and Venezuela, which have all been criticized for rules limiting independent media.
"This is a case in which I think the U.S. does not look all that good," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia.
"I think it's quite useful for either Venezuela or Ecuador to grant a person like this asylum, because it allows them to sort of deflect attention towards the United States and the United States' own shortcomings," Smilde said.
The Cuban state controls all TV, radio and newspapers. Venezuela has done things like forcing TV stations off the air by not renewing licenses and detaining people for tweets deemed destabilizing. Ecuador's media law, approved last week, establishes official media overseers, imposes sanctions for besmirching personal reputations and limits private ownership to a third of radio and TV licenses.
But Cuba and Venezuela are 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.
Diplomats and 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 kidnapping their own children. Cuba worked with U.S. officials to quickly send the couple back to face justice.
Philip Peters, a longtime Cuba analyst, said allowing Snowden to pass through Cuban territory would not necessarily doom rapprochement, though he acknowledged the fallout would be unpredictable.
"My guess is that it would be a blip, because Cuba, by allowing him to pass through Cuban territory, is hardly embracing his actions, or sheltering him or giving him asylum," Peters said.
It's the same story for Venezuela, which earlier this month agreed to high-level negotiations on restoring ambassadorial relations and easing 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.
Caracas has huge commercial dealings with the United States, which remains the No. 1 buyer of Venezuela's oil.
"It's much better for President Nicolas Maduro that (Snowden) is not going to Venezuela," said Gregory Weeks, a political scientist specializing in Latin America at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "It's something that Maduro really doesn't want to have to deal with, whereas Correa, he's already in it (by giving Assange asylum). So of all the places to go, Ecuador is logical."
Being placed on the international stage by Snowden's asylum bid drew mixed reactions from Ecuadoreans.
"People who steal information or any other thing should face the consequences, and Ecuador shouldn't get involved," said Maria Jimenez, a 42-year-old homemaker.
Jorge Rojas Cruzatti, a 34-year-old web designer, disagreed.
"I'm proud of my country ... and more than pride, I'm glad that human rights are being protected," he said. "Other countries wouldn't dare grant this type of support to citizens who are helping protect freedom of expression."