Having already applied to Ecuador for asylum, and reportedly in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Edward Snowden may be inching his way towards Latin America, hoping to be granted asylum there as Washington continues its stumbling diplomatic offensive to apprehend the intelligence whistleblower. Whatever Snowden’s motivations, the leaking of classified information regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs to the Guardian and the Washington Post has galvanized debate over the use and abuse of information technology in the spying business. This debate impacts relations between nations as well as among states and their constituencies. As Snowden and his advisors negotiate his way to a safe haven, not only is Snowden’s flight bound to affect those governments that directly aid him, but also much of the international community is taking positions on this issue. For now the spotlight is on Moscow, Havana, and Quito.
With regards to the relationship between the United States and its constituents, there is little public outcry to apprehend and prosecute Edward Snowden. This notable absence takes some of the pressure off of any potential asylum destination. For officials in Washington, Edward Snowden may be an enemy of the state, but for a potentially growing number of North Americans he is not an enemy of the people. On the contrary, many people are calling him a hero. As this is being written, the number of persons of varied ideologies signing a petition to the White House to pardon Snowden has exceeded 117,000, and a campaign to send Obama copies of George Orwell’s 1984 has just gotten under way. If the anecdotal evidence of conservative talk radio, liberal and progressive news outlets, civil libertarians from across the political spectrum, and social media are an early indication of public ire over the issue, the Snowden affair marks an awakening of those who have been napping through an extraordinarily important Orwellian nightmare. By making transparent the extent of NSA spying on the citizens of the United States and other, including friendly, nations, Snowden created an important space for a broader and more intense airing of concerns about the erosion of privacy and the corruption of institutions of formal democracy.
Growing public skepticism about safeguards for the so-called ‘meta data’ collected on private domestic communications now poses an immediate and broadening problem for the Obama Administration. It may mean that efforts to capture and prosecute Snowden lack not only universal solidarity among states in this hemisphere but also democratic legitimacy at home. Moreover, it is likely that the more aggressively Washington hunts down Edward Snowden by ratcheting up its rhetoric against nations that help to shelter him, the more vigilant and mobilized the defenders of civil liberties will become in the United States. And while a number of lawmakers, including bona fide liberals, have called for Snowden’s head, others have seen the writing on the wall and are seeking to rein in the NSA and runaway government by asserting appropriate congressional oversight on surveillance by the state. Already a bipartisan group of senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has introduced legislation to restrict the NSA surveillance programs and a bipartisan group in the House has introduced similar legislation.
Should Snowden make his way to Ecuador, the geopolitical dimension of this case will further define the degree of ideological independence of Latin America in its face-off with the leviathan to the north. In seeking cooperation from Cuba and Ecuador, or elsewhere in Latin America for that matter, Washington will appeal to the rule of law. But there is a historical backdrop to this story that cannot be passed over.
Historically, the use of United States intelligence in Latin America on behalf of oligarchic interests in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to massive violations of human rights throughout the region, including in Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Moreover, Washington is suspected by some observers of playing a role in the coup in Honduras in 2009 and a bungled coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002. Also, some Latin American nations have found it necessary to expel a number of U.S.-affiliated aid organizations of varying hue and purchase, charging them with political subversion, and have withdrawn their soldiers from the School of the Americas (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). Although Snowden is not being charged with terrorism, the United States is presently on shaky diplomatic ground asking for cooperation on this issue given the protection that the United States has given Luis Posada—a known terrorist wanted by Venezuela—who walks the streets of Miami with impunity. And while Cuban authorities might be thinking twice about allowing Snowden to use Cuba as a transit point, the continued incarceration of Cuban agents in the United States who were on a relatively mild intelligence mission to prevent further terrorist attacks against Cuba and the relisting of Cuba by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism has not been conducive to bilateral cooperation.
If, as is likely, Ecuador grants Snowden asylum, there is the potential for a realignment of regional blocs and alliances as regional leaders line up in favor of or in opposition to such an action. It can be argued that Ecuador in fact is taking a principled stand in its review of Snowden’s asylum request, weighing questions not only about the political implications of the leaks but also of Snowden’s plight, should he be extradited to the United States. Given President Correa’s continuing resolve in extending asylum to Julian Assange, despite the round-the-clock stakeout by British authorities of the Ecuadoran embassy in London, it is unlikely that after so many risks Correa would cave to pressure from the North.
The Snowden affair has certainly brought the Obama Administration and the North American people to both a decisive domestic and foreign policy crossroads. It has provided an occasion for citizens to engage in an overdue reassessment of the permanent war on terror and the direction of national security policy. It has highlighted the factor of the homeland security-corporate partnership. It has likely evoked the concern of citizens in nations around the world that their phone communications might, as in China, be subject to surveillance. And as Snowden seeks a safe haven in Latin America, attention is drawn to the history of U.S. policy towards the region and to the growing independence and pro-democracy current throughout the hemisphere. For these reasons it is not easy for Washington to attack the morality and legality of Edward Snowden’s actions without at the same time provoking very significant constituent push back against the hubris of a surveillance state that may be dangerously out of control.
(Updated at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 26.)
Frederick B. Mills, Senior Research Fellow at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs and Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University, with the collaboration of Laura Powell, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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