Snowden, Latin America, and Russia
July 18, 2013
Hard as it may be to believe, it was nearly a full month ago that Edward Snowden leaked highly classified NSA documents revealing the details of the agency’s widespread, global surveillance programs. From that point, Snowden began his stay in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, sparking wild and ongoing speculation of where he would end up.
Finding himself a fugitive of U.S. law without a valid passport (the U.S. government revoked his upon news of his flight to Russia), Snowden, with the help of Wikileaks, began a fervent process of application for asylum around the world. It rapidly became clear that his best chance for receiving state protection would be in Latin America—likely in Venezuela, Ecuador, or Bolivia. Though Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has agreed to grant the fugitive asylum, it remains to be seen if Snowden will identify a means of turning up on Venezuelan soil, whether in the embassy in Moscow (considered the sovereign territory of Venezuela) or in Caracas.
Still, the fact that the countries willing to offer Snowden asylum are all in Latin America raises a set of questions for the United States. Why is it that those states closest to us physically are the most willing to push back against our national interest? What do these developments mean for the U.S. role in Latin America moving forward?
Q1: Why is this happening in Latin America?
A1: Since news leaked that Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa would consider Snowden's asylum bid, questions have been raised in the United States and abroad regarding why the cluster of states supportive of Snowden seem to be concentrated in the Western Hemisphere. Ultimately, the explanation has three parts.
First—and most importantly—the support of several Latin American leaders for Snowden derives largely from the radicalization of a portion of the region's political left in recent years. The rise of Hugo Chávez and the spread of his ideology through the ALBA (the Spanish acronym for the “Bolivian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America”) bloc are representative of a movement that lay largely dormant in the period immediately following the Cold War. That movement, for a number of reasons, is largely based on some Latin American leaders' resentment for the United States left over from its relations with its Latin American neighbors throughout the Cold War.
Beyond this radicalization effect, a number of the region's leaders—particularly Maduro—seek to follow the example set by Chávez and Fidel Castro. Their leadership largely relied on gaining relevance and leverage by positioning themselves as contrary to the United States and the U.S. national interest. By lending a hand to Snowden, a fugitive from U.S. law, these Latin American leaders continue a long (and largely tired) trend.
The third and perhaps most obvious reason is simple proximity. The countries that have reached out to Snowden are, by and large, well within the physical sphere of U.S. influence. For better or worse, the United States remains the undisputed “hegemon” of the Western Hemisphere and leaders that seek to increase their own power and credibility have only the United States to push back against to boost their reputation.
Q2: What does it mean for the United States that countries in its own hemisphere are willing to extend their support and protection to Edward Snowden?
A2: It is, in simplest terms, unremarkable for the United States to find that the entirety of Latin America is not united behind it. In every region of the world, the United States’ reputation is vulnerable to a handful of states whose priorities and beliefs overlap little with our own.
That said, the Obama administration would be served well to articulate and work toward a compelling vision for the region and its future; though, to be sure, recent rhetoric and the president's and vice president's visits to the region earlier this year are steps in the right direction. Taking that still further would require that the United States identify and pursue allies that are willing, capable, compatible, and relevant in today's world—a set of qualifications that, while inapplicable to a Nicaragua and Bolivia (among others), certainly hold for many of our regional neighbors.
Snowden's publication of classified NSA documents certainly surprised and angered many Americans. But it is important to remember that the information he disseminated was of high value to those countries around the world on less-than-perfect terms with the United States. The fact that Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela have shown willingness to consider harboring Snowden is, given their history with the United States, far from noteworthy—particularly in light of Snowden's requests for asylum assistance to 21 countries around the world. While the countries demonstrated their potential support early on, their willingness to consider Snowden's request is no different from that of any other country around the world.
Q3: To what extent is the Latin American public in line with those countries in the hemisphere less friendly to U.S. interests?
A3: While there are leaders in the region that view the United States in a decidedly negative light, the majority of the Latin American public sees things somewhat differently. Having long since moved out of the Cold War perspective, “millennial” generation Latin Americans in particular have adopted a more pragmatic view of their northern neighbor and its place in the world, understanding that U.S. policies—like those of other countries in the region and world—are driven by the country's self-interest.
Latin Americans look at the United States without illusions, either because they see U.S. power as waning or because emerging powers all around the world present a viable alternative to U.S. influence more than ever before.
Q4: What does the future hold for Snowden? Will he go to Venezuela? Stay in Russia? Or come back to the United States?
A4: For now, Snowden remains in the Sheremetyevo Airport’s transit zone, unable to enter Russian territory or board an international flight without a valid passport. From there, Snowden’s future may take one of three courses.
Venezuela has formally offered Snowden asylum. While he may find this option attractive, Snowden’s prospects for actually getting to Venezuela are dubious at best. The United States and its allies abroad have made clear their unwillingness to allow a Snowden-bearing plane through their airspace. Even if that were not a concern, there are no direct commercial flights available from Moscow to Venezuela.
Snowden’s second option is finding a way to the Venezuelan embassy in Moscow. Once inside the embassy, considered the sovereign territory of Venezuela, Snowden would enjoy the protection conferred by political asylum—though his movements would be strictly limited. In effect, he would become Russia’s Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder and fugitive of Swedish law enforcement who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since last year.
These first two options grow less likely by the day. Last week, the U.S. government began taking action to pressure Venezuela to deny Snowden asylum, either in an embassy or in Venezuela itself.
On a call with Venezuelan foreign minister Elías Jaua, Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the measures Washington would take should Venezuela harbor Snowden, potentially including the suspension of oil and oil-based products sales to Venezuela that amount to 850,000 barrels of oil each month. The United States is reportedly also considering materializing accusations of various Chavistas for drug trafficking, money laundering, and other criminal activity—a process in preparation for some time.
The United States is clearly not interested in Snowden being granted safe passage from Russia to Venezuela. Russia knows this and Prime Minister Putin is said to be weighing the implications of aiding in Snowden’s transfer to Venezuela.
Snowden’s third option is in its very nature nebulous. As long as he provides Russian intelligence officials with privileged U.S. information, he could stay in the airport’s transit zone for as long as he will be permitted to do so by his Russian handlers—though that likely will not last beyond the coming months. Should his permission to remain there expire, it remains possible that he will be returned to the United States, where he is sure to face legal repercussions for his actions.
Conclusion: The scandal around Snowden will continue to unfold moving forward—that much cannot be denied. But as the media continues to sensationalize the still-unfolding events, it's increasingly important to keep everything in perspective. The NSA's actions are not unique, nor should they be surprising. Countries throughout our hemisphere and all around the world conduct parallel operations. What the United States does is unremarkable; our neighbors and peers do the same. The only difference is that we got caught.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Pamela Pamelá and Jillian Rafferty, intern scholars with 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).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.