By Brian Ellsworth and Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) - Even as Ecuador contemplates offering asylum to former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, there are few signs on the streets that the small South American nation is at the center of a global dispute between superpowers.
Taking in Snowden would mark the second time in a year that Ecuador has defied the West, following its decision in August to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy despite furious objections by Britain.
But the country is hardly on guard for a diplomatic fire storm.
President Rafael Correa heads off for vacation on Friday and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino is on an Asia tour. Ecuador's top newspapers have given only scant coverage to the saga.
No demonstrators have taken to the streets, for or against the cause, and many seem unaware of who Snowden is.
"I haven't heard of him and haven't followed the case," said one man reading a newspaper in central Quito's colonial plaza who declined to be identified. Minutes earlier, Correa had waved from a balcony on the presidential palace during a ceremony unrelated to Snowden.
The former U.S. National Security Agency contractor is in Moscow's international airport after leaving Hong Kong on Sunday, but Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he had no intention of handing him over to the United States.
Snowden is wanted by U.S. authorities for revealing classified information about a spying program.
His secretive movements in China and Russia have triggered angry diplomatic tussling with Washington over whether they are trying to help him avoid capture.
A U.S. State Department official said Washington had told countries in the Western Hemisphere that Snowden should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel "other than is necessary to return him to the United States."
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Correa, a high-profile member of the anti-U.S. leftist ALBA bloc of nations created by Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, has in the past described similar U.S. statements as hallmark traits of the "imperialism" he wants to eliminate.
Ecuador could take weeks, or even months, to make a decision about Snowden - as it did with Assange, who was granted asylum after arriving in June at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over sexual crimes.
In contrast to the frenetic diplomatic activity presumably going on behind the scenes, an Ecuadorean presidential press official said Correa's only scheduled appearances this week are two events on Friday morning related to social programs.
The front page of the country's main newspaper, El Comercio, focused on developments in the local mining industry, while its editorial demanded greater security for ranchers.
Patino, the foreign minister, has shown no signs of cutting short a tour of the Far East meant to strengthen commercial ties with countries including Vietnam and Malaysia.
He told reporters in Hanoi on Tuesday that the country will take its time making a decision, as it did with Assange, and was prepared for the consequences.
He bristled at the idea that Ecuador would receive anything in return for asylum - such as documents on Snowden's laptops - that could be used to put pressure on Washington.
"We act upon ethics and morals. We would never even think about that, that we offer protection in exchange for that," he said.
Ecuador provided Snowden with a refugee document of passage, WikiLeaks said, after the United States revoked his passport.
"This case is not likely to be resolved quickly. This is more like a soap opera with many episodes," said Marcelo Fernandez, a career Ecuadorean diplomat and former foreign minister.
(Additional reporting by Martin Perry in Hanoi; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthai Osterman)