Hey, NSA: Why Latin America?

Earlier this week, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported the latest leak of confidential documents from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. According to these reports, the NSA monitored former Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s e-mail account and personal communications, gaining insight into Mexico’s political system and internal stability.

All of this comes merely one month after leaks alleged further NSA spying on the Mexican government. In September, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported that in 2012, the NSA had monitored the e-mails, phone calls, and text messages of then-presidential candidate (and current president) Enrique Peña Nieto.

And this latest report coincides with the week of the scheduled state visit of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff—a visit that Rousseff cancelled in light of similar leaks revealing U.S. intelligence gathering efforts in Brazil.

Though the NSA’s efforts have undoubtedly targeted countries all around the world, it seems to have gone largely unnoticed that the lion’s share of the media coverage of the Snowden leaks has focused on the agency’s large-scale efforts in Latin America. So, then, what does this Western Hemisphere emphasis mean, and what are the political implications of this for the United States?

Q1: Where have NSA spying allegations been focused?

A1: According to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, NSA intelligence gathering efforts have targeted the communications of countries, embassies, international institutions, political leaders, and diplomats worldwide.

Just this week, France’s Le Monde reported the agency’s widespread surveillance of French citizens—and similar allegations have been levied by Germany. And though the espionage accusations have not originated only in Latin America, the leaked documents suggest that some of the most extensive spying efforts target countries in our hemisphere.

The first major allegation of NSA spying in Latin America involved Brazil. Just days after that news broke, it came to light that the NSA may have been spying on other countries in the region as well, including Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, and El Salvador. O Globo reported the existence of NSA and CIA stations in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Panama.

At first, the agency claimed the surveillance was done out of concern for U.S. national security. But as more and more documents were leaked, skepticism mounted over the program’s intentions—particularly when it was revealed that the NSA’s efforts may have pursued strategic commercial information on oil, energy, and trade as well.

Within the Western Hemisphere, Mexico and Brazil appear to be the main targets of the alleged surveillance efforts. According to the recent reports in Der Spiegel, the NSA’s efforts in Mexico seem to have focused on Mexico’s economic stability, military capabilities, human rights situation, international trade relations, drug trade, and national leadership. In Brazil, in contrast, the intelligence gathering efforts are reported to have focused on the country’s leaders and nuclear program.

Q2: Why are the NSA’s alleged operations in Latin America significant?

A2: In simplest terms, the alleged targeting of Mexico and Brazil demonstrates the U.S. government’s interest in the major political and economic powers—and some of its most important partners—in the region.

That said, that interest may, in fact, end up running counter to recent U.S. diplomatic efforts.
Throughout the period of alleged spying, the U.S. government was in the process of establishing stronger relationships with Mexico and Brazil. And though the efforts in the two most influential Latin American economies were certainly at different stages, a friendly diplomatic environment was pivotal to the countries’ ability to grow closer moving forward.

The reports of U.S. spying on Brazil had an immediate and visible effect on the bilateral relationship. In response to mounting domestic pressure to push back against what was seen as an overextension of U.S. power, Rousseff took the rare diplomatic step of cancelling her scheduled state visit to Washington, D.C. And, weeks later, she used her position as the opening speaker of the UN General Assembly to criticize the United States.

Rousseff’s response to the allegations has been, perhaps, the strongest—and the future of the U.S.-Brazil relationship is, as a result, more uncertain than in recent memory.
In contrast, Peña Nieto’s response to initial reports suggesting NSA monitoring of his personal communications was relatively mild, confined to simply demanding an investigation into the agency’s efforts in Mexico. Still, the Mexican government’s response may continue to evolve. With the recent revelations of NSA efforts targeting Calderón, the government may feel domestic pressure to take a more dramatic response.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the two bilateral relationships at stake here will, at best, be colored by these allegations for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion: Though the NSA’s alleged efforts appear to have targeted every region of the world, the most blistering criticism of the United States—and the clearest repercussions—have come from Latin American governments.

Since the beginning of President Obama’s second term, his administration has prioritized the rebuilding of its relations with Latin American countries, seeking to transform the treatment of U.S. relations with its hemispheric neighbors into relationships of equals. Unfortunately, the progress made under Obama this past year toward rebuilding the U.S.–Latin America narrative appears to have been set back, with the NSA allegations stirring up old suspicions and mistrust of U.S. intentions in the region.

Perhaps, then, the leaks and the coverage of them have focused so heavily on Latin America because it is in our relations with our neighbors that the United States had the most to gain—and thus the most to lose. The recent efforts to rebuild trust and establish new partnerships were sound, but stood on shaky ground—and the NSA accusations have chipped away at those nascent foundations.

Time will tell if more allegations of spying are to come. But if they do, as seems likely, what can the United States do to limit the fallout in its relations throughout the Americas?

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Sinclair and Jillian Rafferty, staff assistants for the CSIS Americas Program, 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).

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Carl Meacham