CARACAS, Venezuela – A plane took off from Moscow Monday headed for Cuba, but the seat booked by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was empty, and there was no sign of him elsewhere on board.
An Aeroflot representative who wouldn't give her name said that Snowden wasn't on flight SU150 to Havana. Associated Press reporters on the flight couldn't find him.
He might be instead bound for Ecuador, the South American country that previously took in another renowned leaker -- Julian Assange of Wikileaks.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa of Ecuador embraces his role as a thorn in Washington's side, railing against U.S. imperialism in speeches and giving 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 Snowden, who faces espionage charges back home after revealing details of two highly secret surveillance programs.
WikiLeaks, which has been assisting Snowden, said Sunday that he formally requested asylum from Ecuador. Ecuador's foreign minister confirmed receiving the request, and analysts said the precedent set by Assange's case suggested Correa would honor it.
"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."
- David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia
Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, and Aeroflot confirmed that he was booked to fly to Cuba on Monday.
A plane took off from Moscow Monday headed for Cuba, but the seat booked by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was empty, and there was no sign of him elsewhere on board. The reports said he was then booked on a flight to Venezuela, another South American country whose government has touchy relations with Washington.
After spending a night in Moscow's airport, the former National Security Agency contractor — and admitted leaker of state secrets — had been expected to fly to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador.
"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 Ecuadorian 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 Ecuadorian 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 Ecuadorian 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."
Ecuadorian 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 Ecuadorians.
"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."
Still, the United States is likely to have problems interrupting Snowden's passage. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, but does with Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. Even with an extradition agreement though, any country could give Snowden a political exemption.
The likelihood that any of these countries would stop Snowden from traveling on to Ecuador seemed remote. While diplomatic tensions have thawed in recent years, Cuba and the United States are hardly allies after a half-century of distrust.
Another country that could see Snowden pass through, Venezuela, could prove difficult, as well. Former President Hugo Chavez was a sworn enemy of the United States and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, earlier this year called President Barack Obama "grand chief of devils." The two countries do not exchange ambassadors.
Snowden's options aren't numerous, said Assange's lawyer, Michael Ratner.
"You have to have a country that's going to stand up to the United States," Ratner said. "You're not talking about a huge range of countries here."
It also wasn't clear Snowden was finished disclosing highly classified information.
Snowden has perhaps more than 200 sensitive documents, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.