Ecuador, Possible Snowden Haven, Is High on Beauty but Low on Tech

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Correction Appended

QUITO, Ecuador -- The only authorized dealer for Apple computers here, where the intelligence leaker Edward J. Snowden had hoped to take refuge, is called Mundomac. The name means WorldMac, but it is a pretty small world indeed. There are only three laptops and two desktop computers on display at the store in one of Quito's top malls, plus two iPads, an iPad mini and a couple of iPods. The tiny shop is nowhere near the size of one of Apple's flagship emporia in New York or other major cities.

"Computers, cellphones, Internet, all of those things, they're four or five years behind," Lars Pedersen, a Danish Web site designer who lives here, said of the state of technology in Ecuador. Then, standing outside the Mundomac store in the Quicentro Mall, he issued the ultimate techie put-down: "They still think BlackBerrys are cool."

The chances that Mr. Snowden will end up here -- or any other country, for that matter -- are growing more fleeting by the day. Of the 21 countries Mr. Snowden asked for asylum, only Venezuela and Bolivia appeared to offer him hope of escaping the international airport transit lounge at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, where he has been ensconced out of public view for nine days. Ecuador has said it will consider granting him asylum if he can get here, or to one of the country's embassies abroad.

In truth, however, this was never the ideal refuge for a technology geek addicted to his laptop -- Mr. Snowden was said to be horrified by the prospect of being imprisoned without access to a computer. He would very likely find life in tiny, beautiful, impoverished Ecuador a bit of an adjustment.

Internet speeds are not what they are back home. You can forget about smoothly streaming that cool new video on your iPhone. And there are no Starbucks.

"This Snowden guy is going to be very bored," said Mr. Pedersen, who runs a company that creates Web sites. But he offered a diversion: "I'll give him a job if he comes here."

And yet, while Ecuador may not be the Silicon Valley of the Andes, it has many things going for it, according to Americans and other foreigners who have settled here.

Most talked about the gorgeous landscapes and natural diversity, which ranges from Pacific beaches to snow-covered Andean peaks, green mountain valleys and the jungle of the Amazon basin, all packed into a country about the size of Nevada, with 15.4 million people.

In recent years, Ecuador has become a favorite of American retirees on a budget looking for a place to while away their golden years, and some of the same features that appeal to them may also be attractive to Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who is wanted in the United States on espionage charges.

International Living magazine has listed Ecuador as the top destination several years in a row for retirees looking to live abroad, citing its low cost of living, including inexpensive real estate and rents, and good, affordable medical care.

There is also plenty to make a homesick American feel more at home. Ecuador uses the dollar as its currency, having "dollarized" its economy in 2000 and dropped the national currency, the sucre, after a banking crisis and a period of high inflation in the 1990s.

While Quito has beautifully preserved colonial churches and other historic buildings, the country is chock-full of American chains. Sitting in Bigoté, a tea shop frequented by Americans in Cumbayá, a well-off suburb of Quito, one can look out at a panorama of shopping malls that include a McDonald's, a K.F.C., T.G.I. Friday's, a Payless Shoe Source, a Nike store and a Chevrolet dealership.

And despite the fact that he is wanted for espionage crimes by the United States and some politicians there have called him a traitor, if Mr. Snowden were to gain asylum here he seems likely to get a warm reception from many Americans.

"I would give him a high five and invite him to my house for dinner," said Robin Fink, 25, who is from California but has lived for about three years in Quito and volunteers for a group that advocates for women's health issues. "What he did was heroic."

"The less secrets the better," said Ronny Lane, 53, an Air Force veteran who did duty during the first Persian Gulf war and the war in Afghanistan, and came to live in Ecuador seven years ago after retiring from his job as an assistant fire chief in Mississippi. "What is it he's outed? That the C.I.A.'s monitoring people? You'd have to be in a coma not to know that."

Drinking with pals in a dark wood-paneled Cumbayá bar called St. Andrews, a copy of many suburban watering holes in the United States, Mr. Lane said that the American community in Ecuador tended to be fairly liberal, including a lot of "retired college professors and nature-type people." Of Mr. Snowden, he said, "No doubt in my mind, he'll fit in."

Sipping from a glass of mineral water, Mr. Lane offered some advice for newcomers.

"When you come here, throw that gringo mentality out of your head," Mr. Lane said. He said the hardest thing for many new arrivals to accept was the pervasive corruption, like police officers soliciting bribes for minor traffic stops.

"Life here is not easy like it is in the United States," said Cody Leigh Brown, 30, the owner of the Bigoté tea shop, who is from Montana and has lived for four years in Ecuador (she would give Mr. Snowden a free lunch and coffee). "You're going to miss a lot of the first-world concepts. We're used to big highways and people who obey traffic signals."

But many Americans were also skeptical about Mr. Snowden's potential protector, President Rafael Correa, who will ultimately decide his asylum request and who recently signed a law that critics say restricts press freedom.

"It's just that he wants to put his finger in the eye of the U.S.," Mr. Lane said. "It's hypocritical."

As for Mr. Snowden's technological needs, the government has ambitions to make Ecuador a technology and science powerhouse. It plans to build a  large research center called the City of Knowledge near Quito, the capital. But that is still years away.

In the 2013 Networked Readiness Index of the World Economic Forum, a measure of countries' development of the Internet and other technological capabilities, Ecuador ranked 91st out of 144 countries, although it was ahead of many of its South American neighbors, including Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela (another country increasingly mentioned as a possible destination for Mr. Snowden).

Mr. Pedersen, the Web site designer, said that he takes frequent trips home to Denmark to immerse himself in technology culture, an option that presumably will not be available to Mr. Snowden. "He'd have to stay here forever, and that's not supercool," Mr. Pedersen said. After a moment, he added, "It's better than a U.S. jail, I guess."

Correction: July 4, 2013, Thursday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the size of Ecuador relative to the size of Texas. Ecuador is smaller than Texas, not bigger.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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