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Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is said to be willing to take on the U.S. because it makes his country a ‘centre of attention.’AFP/AFP / Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been living in the protection of its embassy in London for more than a year. Edward Snowden, the young defence contractor sought by the United States for revealing a secret surveillance program, has asked it for asylum. Ecuador, a tiny oil-producing nation of just 15 million people, is setting itself up to be a paradise for whistle-blowers.

The standoff over Mr. Snowden, who fled Hong Kong on Sunday and is now in limbo in a transit area of the international airport in Moscow, is pitting the Obama administration against China and Russia in an increasingly nasty diplomatic conflict. But it is Ecuador, geopolitically puny by comparison, that could give the U.S. its biggest headache.

Rafael Correa, its president since 2007, is a big reason. A left-wing populist in the mould of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, he has repeatedly locked horns with U.S., refusing to renew its lease on an air base and expelling American diplomats. That the Obama administration would like to get its hands on Mr. Assange, and now on Mr. Snowden, has provided him a new opportunity to annoy the superpower to the north.

His policy is playing well at home, too. Mr. Correa has done well at the ballot box by pledging to restore Ecuador's sovereignty, which he says means breaking free of dependency on the U.S. Ecuadorians also find it easier to identify with an underdog, and many see the surveillance program revealed by Mr. Snowden's leaks as part of a broad pattern of excessive U.S. interference abroad.

Mr. Correa is willing to tweak the U.S. on the Assange and Snowden cases because it makes Ecuador a "centre of attention," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, in an interview with National Public Radio. "And he likes that. He likes needling the U.S. This satisfies that impulse."

Since Mr. Correa won a second term in 2009, after a new constitution mandated fresh elections, relations have only soured further. He was re-elected for a third time in February.

WikiLeaks disclosures have only contributed to the bad feelings, which go a long way to explain Mr. Correa's championing of Mr. Assange. A trove of U.S. diplomatic cables released by the whistle-blowing group in 2011 included some sent in 2009 by Heather Hodges, then the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador. In the cables, she suggested that Mr. Correa was aware of corruption allegations against a police commander when he appointed him to a senior post. Ms. Hodges was expelled, the third U.S. diplomat to be thrown out of the country since Mr. Correa took office.

The current U.S. ambassador, Adam Namm, hasn't smoothed things over much. He recently made pointed remarks about Mr. Correa's record on protecting press freedom, after Human Rights Watch said Mr. Correa has "undercut" press freedom. The President responded angrily: "Don't come lecturing us about liberty."

Mr. Correa has not commented on Mr. Snowden's asylum request, referring questions to Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino. In his comments, Mr. Patino expressed sympathy for the fugitive security analyst and suggested he served the cause of human rights by leaking. "We will act on the basis of principles of human rights written in our constitution, not on whatever interests of others," he said earlier this week.

The Obama administration has little beyond diplomatic pressure to force Russia or China to hand over Mr. Snowden. But it could swiftly hit Ecuador in the pocketbook by denying export privileges such as reduced tariffs. Nearly half the country's trade depends on the U.S. A denial wouldn't mean financial devastation for Ecuador, which has been growing healthily in recent years thanks in large part to its oil resources. But some Ecuadorans worry that Mr. Correa could be treading a dangerous line.

"Much of our foreign trade is at stake," said flower grower Benito Jaramillo, who is president of the country's largest association of flower farmers and shipped more than $300-million in flowers, mostly roses, to the U.S. last year. "They've been inserting themselves in a problem that isn't Ecuador's, so we're in a dilemma that we shouldn't be in."

With a report from Associated Press