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Ecuador flower growers fear Snowden backlash

By Michael Weissenstein in Pifo, Ecuador | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-01 09:11

Gino Descalzi used to fret about things such as aphids, mildew and the high cost of shipping millions of roses a year from Ecuador to florists in the United States. These days he's worried about a 30-year-old former spy stuck in the transit area of the Moscow airport, and he can't believe it.

The Obama administration sent a thinly veiled economic threat to this South American country on Thursday when it indefinitely delayed a decision to eliminate tariffs on imports of roses worth about $250 million a year. The move created leverage over Ecuador seen as the likeliest to grant National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden political asylum that would protect him from US criminal charges.

About the same time, a small group of US senators made explicit threats of trade retaliation if Ecuador harbors Snowden. And on Saturday, Vice-President Joe Biden asked Ecuador's President Rafael Correa to turn down any asylum request, although Correa described the conversation as cordial.

A week after Snowden began his flight across the globe, every passing day without him making progress toward Ecuador's asylum makes the prospect look less likely. But the men who grow roses, asters and delphinia in the thin air of Ecuador's sun-soaked highlands are deeply concerned that, whatever happens to Snowden, they may turn out to be the most unlikely collateral damage from the geopolitical wrangle over his fate.

"This totally changes the financial panorama for our businesses and seriously affects the structure of our markets," said Descalzi, whose 280 employees produce some 22 million roses a year. "We're just shocked that an event so far from the political and economic life of Ecuador has caused so much commotion and worry."

The rose benefit for Ecuador had been widely expected to be approved. Any delay, they say, puts it into uncomfortably uncertain territory.

Even if Snowden never touches Ecuador's soil and the US cuts the 6.8 percent tariff on Ecuador's roses, along with tariffs on frozen broccoli and canned artichokes, Ecuador's flower growers are worried that the brouhaha has damaged Ecuador in the eyes of the US, hurting its reputation for stability and reliability among the buyers who must decide between flowers from Ecuador and the already tariff-free blooms from its nearby market-dominant competitor, Colombia.

Flowers are serious business in Ecuador. The industry says it employs about 50,000 people on about 550 farms across the country and is indirectly responsible for 110,000 jobs, putting it after only oil, seafood and bananas in the ranks of the country's biggest exporters.

The Associated Press

(China Daily 07/01/2013 page10)

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