While many who have been following the Edward Snowden affair have taken sides over Snowden’s actions, a lesser-known consequence of the events associated with him have drawn attention to the United States’ relations with Latin America, or lack thereof.
Snowden is a former National Security Agency contractor who fled to Hong Kong in order to expose classified documents which detailed the United States’ surveillance programs on American citizens. Unable to determine whether Hong Kong authorities would detain him, Snowden left the Special Administrative Region for Russia, where he remained hidden in Moscow’s international airport for more than five weeks.
During the course of his globetrotting escapades, Snowden applied for political asylum in over 20 countries, according to the Guardian.
The decision to grant Snowden’s request has been a contentious issue for many countries. Foreign governments are left having to decide between disappointing their domestic base, who consider Snowden to be a whistleblower deserving protection from prosecution, or risk drawing the ire of the United States government.
The U.S. has been putting diplomatic pressure on the international community in an attempt to extradite Snowden back to America to be brought up on charges of espionage.
While flying back from Russia, Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, was forced to land in Austria, as France, Spain, Portugal and Italy denied his plane access through their respective air space. Europe’s actions drew strong condemnation across South America, with Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay issuing fiery statements using words from their battle cry: “imperialism,” “colonialism,” “impunity” and “arrogance.”
Two days following the grounding of President Morales’ plane, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela formally announce their approval of Snowden’s request for asylum. The decision was no coincidence.
If the three Latin American countries were on the fence about granting asylum to Snowden, the actions of their European partners served only to push them over to the side of defiance against the United States.
Ecuador would have been the fourth country to offer Snowden asylum, but swift action from Washington had President Rafael Correa humming a new tune altogether. Ecuador, which had provided Snowdern with the necessary travel documents to leave Hong Kong, had been on Snowden’s shortlist of countries to seek refuge.
Within a series of days, the country which Snowden had praised for “standing for the human rights of an individual against the most powerful government on earth,” cancelled the travel documents they had issued him earlier and said they would only consider his application for asylum if he reached Ecuador, or Ecuador’s embassy.
Correa’s decision followed a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden, who reminded him of the severe economic consequences of accepting Snowden’s request for asylum.
Jonathan Watts of the Guardian pointed out that Europe’s actions were especially insulting as they had detained the first Bolivian President of indigenous ancestry.
As if the threatening phone calls from Washington had not reeked of colonialism enough, Latin American governments had already been irked this year when Secretary of State John Kerry characterized the region as America’s “backyard.”
Putting aside the secretary’s offensive comments, the Snowden affair should serve as a wake up call for the United States to start paying attention to their southern neighbors.
If Washington had used the election of Venezuela’s new president as an opportunity to normalize bilateral relations, President Maduro may have reconsidered Snowden’s request for asylum. The same goes for Nicaragua.
A reexamination of America’s ‘War on Drugs’ would have gone a long way in easing tensions in Latin American transit zones where civilians are paying the price for an unsuccessful policy bent on militarization.
Now that Snowden has been granted asylum in Russia, the United States should focus on mending old wounds instead of giving the media more sensational stories, which only glamorize the action of leaking classified documents.
Applying a carrot and stick method may work for now, as the case with Ecuador shows, but honest engagement with Latin America may be in the United States’ long term interest.