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'No one wants this fight:' Ecuadoreans divided over Snowden asylum

Dolores Ochoa / AP

A vendor who sells roasted corn pushes her cart past a flower shop in Quito, Ecuador, on Wednesday. Unlike with China, Russia or Cuba, the Obama administration could swiftly hit Ecuador in the pocketbook by denying reduced tariffs on cut flowers, artichokes and broccoli if it grants Snowden's request for asylum.

QUITO, Ecuador -- Ecuador, the South American country known for the Middle of the World -- a park honoring the Equator that boasts a yellow line painted on the ground said to be precisely at Earth’s midpoint -- is now becoming the center of an international chase for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Public opinion in Ecuador runs hot and cold on whether the country should extend political asylum to Snowden. While some admire their president for trying to stick it to the United States, others fear economic fallout if Snowden settles in Ecuador.

One Ecuadorean newspaper this week called the leaker a “hot potato,” while another labeled him “a spy.”

Luis Ortega, who makes his living working in tourism, believes political fighting of any kind is bad for business. His big question: “Will Americans stop coming here?”

The 25-year-old, who had just finished showing a tour group from Chicago around Quito’s World Heritage landmarks, said he was worried about his livelihood.

“I just got married and I can’t afford for my business to suffer,” he said.

Ecuador’s tourism industry generates more than $1 billion a year and is growing.

Jose Jacome / EPA file

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa smiles at the crowd during a military act at the presidential palace in Quito, Ecuador, on Wednesday. Correa announced that his government will decide with 'absolute sovereignty' on political asylum for Edward Snowden.

“Americans come here because we’re friends,” Ortega said. “No one wants this fight.”

Rodrigo Espinosa shared that same point of view. He’s employed by a private security firm that caters to American business executives.

“Snowden is not our problem, so why are we sticking our nose into this business?” he said.

The concerns are not unfounded. On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vowed to eliminate the preferential trade agreements in place under the Andean Trade Preference Act should Snowden, 29, gain asylum in Ecuador.

"Our government will not reward countries for bad behavior," Menendez said in a written statement. At the end of July, Congress must vote to renew the trade accord.

That message angered Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, an economist educated in the United States. In a tweet, Correa denounced the U.S. view as “unjust” and “immoral."

Heightening tensions further, Correa's representative on Thursday renounced the trade benefits and called the lower tariffs “blackmail,” sarcastically suggesting that Washington instead use Ecuador’s share of $23 million for human rights training inside the United States.

"Ecuador does not accept pressure or threats from anyone, nor does it trade with its principles," said Fernando Alvarado, the communications secretary.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told reporters in Washington that despite Alvarado's comments, Ecuador was still eligible for benefits under two different programs, Reuters reported.

Although China invests heavily in the region, the U.S. remains Ecuador's main trading partner, accounting for some 40 percent or about $9 billion of all exports.

Ecuador benefits heavily from its Andean trade program with the United States. An oil-rich country, Ecuador exported an estimated $5.4 billion worth of oil, as well as $166 million from its flower industry, $122 million of fruits and vegetables and $80 million of tuna to the United States in 2012.

In a country that battles a high poverty rate, the flower industry alone employs more than 100,000 workers, many of them women. 

Ecuadoreans like Dr. Catalina Nuncios applaud Alvarado's view and stand ready to welcome Snowden with open arms.

“We are Christians and cannot turn our back on this young man who needs our help,” said Nuncios, a pediatrician who voted for Correa twice. She said she felt offended by Menendez's statement.

President Obama remarks on the situation with admitted NSA leaker Edward Snowden, saying he has no plans to disrupt relations with Russia and China, nor to scramble jets to capture the "29-year-old hacker."

“No one can threaten us to toe their line," Nuncios said.

Engineering student Jesus Lombardi, who was born in Ecuador but raised in southern California, said he feels torn.

“The American part of me understands national security, but my Ecuadorean side is proud that Correa is putting my country on the map.”

As tensions escalate, Snowden remains in legal limbo somewhere in the Moscow airport.

Ecuadorean law is, in fact, hindering his case. Under the constitution, Snowden must make his asylum request in person either in the country or at an Ecuadorean embassy or consulate. And, according to local press reports, Snowden still does not possess a legal travel document that would allow him to board a flight to Quito.

NBC's Carlos Rigau and Reuters contributed to this report.