Dónde está Edward Snowden?
June 27, 2013
As of the time of publication, NSA leak Edward Snowden remains in Moscow, Russia, having flown there from Hong Kong, his initial destination upon releasing information about the NSA’s intelligence gathering capacities and operations.
Snowden, who was an NSA contractor working with Booz Allen Hamilton until he fled the United States just a few weeks ago, has been charged with espionage and theft of government property. And thus far, he has chosen his destinations carefully—countries that would be willing to harbor him, at least temporarily, in exchange for highly classified information.
His time, even in those countries, however, may be running out. Even as the U.S. government continues communications with Russia over their potential extradition of Snowden, U.S. officials are looking to uncover where he may head next.
Rumors have surfaced that he plans to seek asylum in Latin America—rumors corroborated when Ecuador’s foreign minister confirmed the country’s receipt of Snowden’s asylum request, and when the Venezuelan president said Wednesday that Venezuela would "almost certainly" grant political asylum to Snowden if he applied for it.
The focus on Latin America may well be no more than misdirection on Snowden’s part. But if Snowden does go to a Latin American country, where is he likely to end up, and why?
Q1: What’s in it for Ecuador? Why would Snowden go there?
A1: Ecuador is the potential destination that has garnered the most media coverage, and in many ways, that coverage is justified. Snowden has already sent the Ecuadorian government a request for political asylum, and the foreign minister has publicly acknowledged that the country is considering taking Snowden in.
Rumors have surfaced that Snowden received travel papers from the Ecuadorian government that would allow him to board a flight to Quito, though the source and authorization of the papers remains ambiguous. Once the rumors gained press attention Thursday (June 27) morning, the government insisted that the papers were invalid, citing the necessity for Snowden to be on Ecuadorian territory before an asylum request could be processed.
Snowden’s legal ability to travel without foreign papers is limited. His U.S. passport has been revoked and he is yet to pass through customs in the Moscow airport. He currently remains in the airport’s transit zone. But should Ecuadorian officials (or perhaps Wikileaks representatives, who have collectively supported Snowden’s actions) smuggle him to the Ecuadorian Embassy in Moscow, Snowden could be formally granted asylum, much as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange managed in London last year.
While the United States and Ecuador have an extradition agreement, it explicitly excludes U.S. citizens’ crimes or offenses of a political character. Arguably, then, Ecuador would be under no international legal obligation to return Snowden to the United States.
For his part, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has incentive to harbor Snowden. His official statements have focused on protecting Snowden from “persecution” under U.S. law and on maintaining consistency with the government’s own commitment to freedom of expression—notwithstanding the questionable nature of that commitment at home.
However, likely more meaningful in President Correa’s calculus are regional politics and power dynamics. Correa, in simplest terms, is an autocratic leader—the self-proclaimed successor to Hugo Chávez. And following Chávez’s death earlier this year, Correa may well see harboring Snowden as an opportunity to pick up the late Venezuelan leader’s proverbial mantel, all while directly opposing U.S. influence in the region.
His opposition seems all the more relevant in light of this week’s developments. Initially, the U.S. Senate hinted that the extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which amounts to a set of trade preferences aimed at fostering development and reducing cocaine production, would be unlikely should Ecuador grant Snowden asylum.
The 42 percent of Ecuador’s exports that get shipped to the United States, collectively valued at US$9.6 billion, and the 5,000 Ecuadorian jobs reliant on the ATPDEA seemed a sufficient disincentive for Correa.
But Thursday (June 27), Correa officially renounced the renewal of the ATPDEA, citing his refusal to be “blackmailed” by the U.S. government over the trade agreement and downplaying the economic effects of its termination, though granting Snowden asylum may well move Ecuador from the enjoyment of trade preferences to the pain of trade sanctions.
And, as much as harboring Snowden might distract attention from Correa’s repressive policies at home, the move would underscore the hypocrisy the recently passed Organic Communications Law that limits private media, which Correa has long referred to as his own “biggest enemy.”
Q2: What’s in it for Venezuela? Why would Snowden go there?
A2: Tuesday, the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro announced that its foreign ministry, like Ecuador’s, would consider and “almost certainly grant” an asylum request from Snowden, though it has yet to receive one.
As with Ecuador, the U.S.-Venezuela Extradition Treaty excludes crimes or offenses of a political character. Given Snowden’s charges, the Treaty would not obligate Venezuela to extradite him. And like Correa, Maduro may well see harboring Snowden as in his interests.
Despite continued support for Chavismo since Hugo Chávez’s death this year, Maduro still faces trouble shoring up domestic support for his leadership, leaning heavily on his predecessor’s legacy. Granting asylum to Snowden would undoubtedly be in line with the Chavista standard.
Venezuela may also see Snowden’s predicament as an opportunity to bargain with the United States—perhaps, for example, for wanted terrorist Luis Posada Carriles (among others), who, though pursued by the Venezuelan justice system since 1976, lives freely in the United States.
However, like his southern counterpart, Maduro faces a tough decision. Recent months have seen efforts to improve dialogue between the United States and Venezuela, with both states making verbal commitments to better relations moving forward. Harboring Snowden would likely render moot discussions of exchanging ambassadors and continuing talks. Already many feel that Maduro’s asylum offer will prove detrimental to rapprochement efforts. This may be especially relevant in the U.S. Congress, where legislators are both suspicious of Venezuela’s intentions and responsible for ambassadorial confirmation.
Beyond that, Maduro and his government run the risk of ramped-up U.S. sanctions—certainly a substantial deterrent in light of the ongoing economic troubles and domestic shortages the country already faces.
Q3: What’s in it for Cuba? Why would Snowden go there?
A3: The case for—and against—Cuba is perhaps the simplest of all. Snowden himself has, in all likelihood, the least to lose should he seek asylum in the Caribbean nation, whose relations with the U.S. are limited. The same can be said for the Cuban government, which could incur little-to-no punishment from the United States given the state of their relations. However, it is well worth noting that recent months have seen a notable thawing in the interactions between the two governments.
While Snowden would likely be safe in Cuba, and the U.S. government is essentially out of tools to coerce its Cuban counterpart to act as it pleases, granting asylum would bring little tangible benefit to Cuba.
Conclusions: Since fleeing the United States, Snowden has taken—and appears to be planning the continuation of—a tour of the states with the most to gain from the classified information he has to offer. These states in turn provide him protection.
Given the immeasurable importance of Russia and China to geopolitics and the U.S. economy, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed their disappointment with the two, warning that their willingness to harbor an individual with access to information so pivotal to U.S. national security would lead only to a cooling of relations with the United States.
The U.S. government is quick to act in the promotion of its own security and in the condemnation of those that endanger it. It is perhaps hard to believe, then, that Ecuador and Venezuela are readily willing to consider granting Snowden asylum.
It is also possible that the Russian government may seek to delay Snowden’s departure, garnering as much classified information from him as possible. Many believe that Ecuador and Venezuela could be helping Russia extend Snowden’s stay, with all of their “diplomatic delays.” At some point, Russia could further Snowden’s asylum efforts or willingly return him to the United States, with much to gain and little to lose in either case. Back in the United States, having served his purpose for the Russian government, Snowden’s relevance would no longer protect him. Needless to say, this is the worst outcome for the U.S. government, with its national security compromised and no scapegoat abroad.
The United States, and much of the international community, waits impatiently for Snowden’s next move. Only time will tell where he ends up.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, intern scholar with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.