How the West Enabled Snowden’s Bid for Latin American Asylum

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Juan Karita / AP

Demonstrator launch firecrackers outside the U.S. embassy to protest the denial of permission for Bolivia's President Evo Morales to enter the airspace of some European countries, in La Paz, Bolivia, on July 8, 2013.

Let’s say, as Bolivian President Evo Morales insists, that the U.S. did urge European officials to deny Morales their air space on his flight home from Moscow last week because fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden was rumored (falsely) to be onboard. If that’s true — and we may never know, since U.S. officials aren’t commenting — did the Obama Administration just make it easier for Snowden to win political asylum in Latin America?

Up until that July 2 incident, it wasn’t at all certain that the Latin American left, which includes Morales, would follow through on its threats to grant asylum to Snowden, who is wanted in the U.S. on espionage charges after he exposed secret NSA communications surveillance at home and abroad. Socialist Venezuela—which confirmed July 9 that it had received Snowden’s asylum request—and the rest of the region’s anti-U.S. bloc seemed to be waiting for a stronger pretext for giving Snowden refuge, and preferably their favorite kind of pretext, an act of U.S.-backed imperialismo. That’s exactly the gift that Spain, Portugal, France and Italy provided by forcing Morales’ plane to land in Vienna for inspection.

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Suddenly, South America’s leftist presidents, whose hemispheric influence had been waning of late, found their mojo again. They rushed breathlessly to Bolivia to greet Morales, who shouted, “United we will defeat American imperialism!” while calling for the closure of the U.S. embassy there. By Friday evening, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, in need of a political boost after just barely winning a special April election to succeed his mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, formally offered the “young American” Snowden asylum from “persecution from the empire.” Bolivia said it too was willing to give refuge to the 30-year-old Snowden, who has been holed up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport since June 23. Nicaragua said it would also consider it, as has Ecuador.

Bottom line: Snowden may well now elude U.S. authorities after he seemed to be cornered in Sheremetyevo’s transit lounge. “If the U.S. was involved in diverting Evo’s plane, it was a bit of old-style cold-war maneuvering that backfired,” says Ariel Armony, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Latin American Studies. “But even if it wasn’t [involved], the global perception is that those four European countries wouldn’t have decided to do this of their own volition. Either way, it puts the U.S. at risk of failing to get Snowden in the end.”

Perhaps most baffling is the fact that the U.S. and Europe had already seen something like this play out last summer. It was then that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had released thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables, showed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London. He hoped to avoid extradition not just to Sweden, where he faced sexual assault charges, but possibly to the U.S. as well. Leftist and anti-U.S. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa hemmed and hawed about giving Assange asylum — until British authorities made the blunder of reminding Correa that U.K. law revokes an embassy’s diplomatic immunity if it’s judged to be harboring a fugitive.

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That was all Correa needed to hear: He accused the Brits of practicing imperialista gunboat diplomacy in the service of Washington. Feeling global opinion shift in his favor, Correa used what he called London’s threat to storm his embassy as justification for going ahead and granting Assange asylum as the only honorable thing for Ecuador to do. (Assange, however, is still holed up in the embassy building.)

What the Brits failed to remember then, and what the U.S. and its European allies seemed clueless about last week, was the centuries of often ugly foreign intervention that Latin American countries have experienced. The Latin American left exploits that resentment at every opportunity — and it will certainly get stoked when world powers so much as appear to be pushing around the President of South America’s poorest nation (its first indigenous head of state to boot) on the flimsy basis of a rumor that he’s ferrying a U.S. fugitive at 40,000 feet.

Even so, John Maisto, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and Nicaragua, says he doesn’t believe the Venezuela-led bloc was necessarily waiting for an excuse to offer Snowden sanctuary and kick the “empire” in the shins. “I don’t think they needed a pretext,” says Maisto, now chairman of the Washington-based American Committees on Foreign Relations board of advisers. “For them, this is about thwarting the national interests of the U.S., which has a real, justified and important interest in getting Snowden.” Without or without Morales’ flight diversion, he adds, one of those anti-yanqui allies was probably bound to invite Snowden in.

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But did the Morales episode make that easier to do? Before Snowden leaked the NSA surveillance details to the media last month, for example, Venezuela and the U.S. had begun a post-Chávez process of rapprochement. If Venezuela had come forward before July 2 and given Snowden asylum as a poke in the Obama Administration’s eye, Maduro may well have looked diplomatically churlish. After July 2, he seemed to decide that the Morales fiasco gave him an out — in other words, international political cover for jilting the new outreach between Caracas and Washington.

And he could do so amid a sudden air of moral support from the rest of Latin America. Even as Morales was fuming on the tarmac in Vienna last week, new Snowden media leaks revealed a massive NSA surveillance operation in more U.S.-friendly Brazil, prompting its Foreign Minister to voice “deep concern” and Brasília to launch an investigation. (The U.S. insists the program is standard intelligence-gathering practiced by all nations.)

Yet if Snowden does go to Venezuela — and that may depend on whether communist Cuba’s leader, Raúl Castro, who is involved in his own fledgling detente with the U.S. right now, lets Snowden stop in Havana enroute to Caracas — he’ll face the irony of receiving asylum from a government that’s hardly a champion of his own free speech and open information values. Under Chávez and now Maduro, in fact, Venezuela is better known for tough anti-defamation laws, including criminal prosecution for insulting officials like the President. Ditto for Assange: Correa just pushed through a measure that essentially makes him Ecuador’s media censor.

That’s just one more reason to ask whether what happened last week in the skies over Europe was the height of folly.

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