PIFO, Ecuador (AP) — Gino Descalzi used to fret about things like 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 American thought to be 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 the leftist government seen as likeliest to grant National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden political asylum that would protect him from U.S. criminal charges.
A week after Snowden began his stuttering, surreal flight across the globe, every passing day without him making progress toward Ecuadorean 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 Ecuadorean soil and the U.S. cuts the 6.8 percent tariff on Ecuadorean roses, along with tariffs on frozen broccoli and canned artichokes, Ecuadorean flower growers are worried that the brouhaha has damaged Ecuador in the eyes of the United States, 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.
"This is not a mathematical equation," said Benito Jaramillo, the head of the Ecuadorean flower-growers' association. The graduate of Texas A&M and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign employs hundreds of people growing "summer flowers" — a category of less-flashy blooms like hydrangeas and asters — on his farm about a half-hour from the capital, Quito.
"The point is that there are a lot of other factors that damage our industry's image and competitiveness in the midterm," Jaramillo said.
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. It boasts that the long days, rich sunlight and cool nights of the Andean highlands mean the heads of flowers, particularly roses, grow fuller and richer than those from Colombia, which they scoff at as more suitable for grocery stores than florists.