Is South America the Answer to Edward Snowden's Prayers?

Much to the chagrin of the Obama administration, the unlikely Evo Morales incident has made Washington look like an international bully. In Germany, there are growing calls to assist Snowden, and meanwhile, South America may prove more receptive to the young whistleblower.
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Having failed to secure diplomatic protection in China and Russia, fugitive Edward Snowden faces a dwindling number of options. Nevertheless, Snowden is steadily gaining a following in Western Europe and has acquired some sympathizers. (In a late breaking development, it has also been reported that Iceland's Pirate Party has proposed a bill in the local parliament that would grant Snowden asylum, though it's unlikely that the measure will be considered anytime soon, since legislators are currently off on summer break.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. faces a growing backlash in South America following the outlandish blocking of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane from French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese airspace. Earlier, Morales had been in Moscow, meeting with Vladimir Putin, and there was speculation that Bolivia would provide Snowden with protection. It seems likely that Washington may have suspected that Snowden was on board Morales' plane en route from Russia to La Paz and pressured European nations to force the Bolivian president's plane to touch down in Vienna.

International Fiasco

Much to the chagrin of the Obama administration, the unlikely incident has made Washington look like an international bully. In Germany, there are growing calls to assist Snowden, and meanwhile, South America may prove more receptive to the young whistleblower. If Snowden winds up going to Venezuela or Bolivia, it certainly would mark a dramatic reversal of circumstances. Indeed, just a few days ago Snowden's search for South American diplomatic asylum was looking bleak.

Rebuffed by Ecuador, a country that had earlier intimated that it would be receptive to the NSA leaker, Snowden might have written off the entire region. Now, however, the Bolivian government is claiming that the Vienna incident amounts to "kidnapping." Technically speaking, there be may be some justification for such arguments, since aircraft carrying national leaders hold diplomatic immunity. Not surprisingly, South American nations are outraged over the affair and may decide that protecting Snowden has now become more of a politically expedient option. French and German Hypocrisy

Though Snowden isn't receiving any asylum offers from Paris or Berlin, the NSA scandal may wind up embarrassing the Merkel and Hollande administrations. In the wake of Snowden's revelations about NSA spying in Western Europe, both leaders indignantly denounced Washington for its interference, but recent reporting suggests that France and Germany are hypocritical. Indeed, Der Spiegel suggests that Merkel may be blowing a smokescreen. When the magazine asked the German Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, whether it was aware of the NSA spying program, authorities denied such rumors. However, Der Spiegel writes that "it is hard to imagine that the NSA acted without the involvement of the BND."

What is more, as I reported earlier, Germany has been in league with U.S. intelligence for some time. According to WikiLeaks, which has recently been offering logistical support to Snowden, the Germans have sought to develop a joint satellite program with Washington. Sensitive diplomatic cables reveal that the program, code-named HiROS, or High Resolution Optical Satellite System, would reportedly detect objects on the ground as small as 50 centimeters in diameter and take infrared images at night.

All the reported double-dealing goes down badly at home, since Germans hold negative memories of the Nazi Gestapo and Stasi secret police. Whether Merkel's hypocrisy will lead to a groundswell of support for Snowden remains unclear, but some are already calling for Berlin to extend greater protections for the whistleblower. Take, for example, Jürgen Trittin of the opposition Green Party, who recently remarked that Edward Snowden had "done us all a great service." Writing in the Guardian, Trittin declares that the whistleblower has made Europeans aware of "massive data collection from their private and business communications by American and British security services. The extent of this surveillance has been staggering." Snowden, the German adds, "should not have to rely on a cynical human rights violator such as Vladimir Putin. He should be given shelter in an EU country. Germany, as one of the countries targeted most by the NSA's programs, should be among the first to offer him refuge."

Could Washington's overreach in Western Europe result in similar calls for Snowden's protection in France? Like Merkel, Hollande has also been exposed as a hypocrite in light of the NSA scandal. Striking a nationalist chord, Hollande initially lambasted the U.S. for its spying program. However, according to Le Monde, France's external intelligence agency spies on the public's phone calls, emails and social media activity. The spying, which targets French citizens both domestically and abroad, is described as similar to Washington's NSA program. Faced with such skullduggery, French parties from across the political spectrum have called for the government to extend diplomatic asylum to Snowden.

Crass Correa

Like Merkel and Hollande, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa hasn't exactly emerged from the Snowden affair smelling like a rose. Initially, at least, Quito intimated that it might be receptive to the young NSA whistleblower. In an epic David-and-Goliath struggle, Correa thumbed his nose at the Obama administration by suggesting that he might help Snowden. Pugnaciously, Correa announced that he would not submit to Washington's "blackmail" or threats of economic retaliation. Indeed, Quito even declared that it would unilaterally give up special U.S. trade preferences under the so-called Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, or ATPA.

Correa's audacity proved highly controversial, however, and gave rise to a chorus of opposition from the U.S. mainstream media, powerful business groups and Beltway politicians. Meanwhile, the Guardian suggested that Correa had placed great strains on his own political coalition, with some leftists embracing Snowden and other centrists fearing economic and diplomatic fallout. Following a threatening telephone conversation with Vice President Joe Biden, Correa seemed to get the message and backed off.

The Quito government, Correa remarked, would not consider Snowden's asylum request. The chastened Ecuadorian then praised Biden for his supposedly gracious call and even lambasted his own diplomatic consul in London for providing Snowden with safe passage from Hong Kong to Moscow. The diplomat, Correa added, would be "sanctioned." Asked if he would ever like to meet Snowden, Correa remarked dismissively, "not particularly. He's a very complicated person. Strictly speaking, Mr. Snowden spied for some time."

Enter Morales

In the wake of the Snowden affair, some may dismiss Correa's bid to become the next firebrand Hugo Chávez of South America. Even as Correa fades, however, Evo Morales' political star may be rising on the regional stage. The last time Morales captured international attention was back in 2009, when the Bolivian challenged Washington's cynical climate change agenda in advance of an environmental summit in Copenhagen. Thumbing his nose at the Obama administration, Morales even convened his own alternative climate summit in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba while declaring that the Global North should pay reparations for spurring climate change. According to WikiLeaks documents, Morales paid the price for his environmental activism, with the U.S. conspiring with others to isolate Bolivia diplomatically. At the time, I suggested that Morales should receive the Nobel Prize for his audacious approach to climate change.

In light of recent events, however, I'm not sure whether that was such a good suggestion. Indeed, for the past few years, Morales has been embroiled in a nasty dispute over a local highway project that would cut through the so-called TIPNIS indigenous national park and rainforest. The project, which is financed by Brazil, has come under withering criticism from Bolivia's indigenous peoples. In late 2011, the Indians launched a nation-wide protest march from the lowlands to La Paz. When the police brutally attacked the protesters' makeshift camp, Morales' reputation was tarnished. Later, an Aymara indigenous leader even went before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to denounce Morales for the latter's handling of the TIPNIS affair. What is more, leftist protesters recently dogged Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera in New York at the yearly Left Forum conference. The Morales government, they declared, had turned against popular and indigenous movements in Bolivia and had shown its true colors by openly repressing the people.

South American Anti-Imperialist Backlash

However, Morales will perhaps reap maximum political benefit from the Snowden affair, and Bolivia's indigenous peoples will once again rally to the banner of their political leader. In the wake of Morales' bizarre detention in Vienna and the ensuing diplomatic furor, the U.S. embassy in La Paz decided to suspend its traditional July 4 celebrations. Meanwhile, Aymara Indians staged a protest at the French embassy, where they promptly burned the tricolor and broke several windows.

The Hollande government, they declared, had put Morales' life in jeopardy by forcing down the Bolivian's plane. French and other European governments, the protesters remarked, were "racist" and "colonialist." García Linera, the same politician who had earlier faced leftist protests in New York, remarked that the French and Italian ambassadors, as well as the Portuguese consul, would be summoned to the Bolivian Foreign Ministry to account for their governments' questionable conduct.

Perhaps Morales may hope to reverse his eroding popularity as the wider region rallies to his defense. Bolivia has complained about the Vienna incident at the United Nations, and regional leaders have presented a united front against what they perceive as Washington's overreach. In Buenos Aires, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said that the episode underscored the "humiliation" of a sister country as well as the entire South American continent. In Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tweeted, "I reaffirm all our solidarity with Evo [Morales] and from Venezuela, with dignity, we will respond to this dangerous, disproportionate, and unacceptable aggression." In Quito, meanwhile, the now-chastened Correa chimed in, declaring, "We express our solidarity with Evo [Morales] and the brave Bolivian people."

Snowden's Latin American Alternatives

Despite such calls of unity, some observers suspect that backroom parlor deals may be afoot. Speaking to RT, Brazilian journalist Mauricio Savarese said there might be a split in Latin America between U.S. allies and the anti-American left. "Some countries that are very closely allied to Morales have been very vocal, but many others have kept silence," Savarese remarked. "That's the case for Chile, Colombia and Brazil, the biggest country in the region," he added. Indeed, though Brazil forms part of South America's left bloc, the country has denied asylum to Snowden. (Perhaps that is not too surprising in light of earlier intrigue related to the case of Julian Assange.)

Despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric, Snowden may find the South American option highly problematic. Though many countries routinely issue fiery denunciations of the U.S., WikiLeaks documents reveal crass divisions in the region's left bloc. Nevertheless, Snowden might receive support from certain nations like Cuba or Venezuela. Even there, however, the U.S. might opt to exercise diplomatic pressure. Over at the rather oxymoronic-sounding Fox News Latino, Chris Sabatini of the conservative Americas Society remarks smugly that "Cuba is engaged in its own process of quiet, narrow negotiation with the U.S. over direct mail service and migration, and would likely not want to rock the boat."

The Venezuela Card

That leaves Venezuela, though here too Snowden may find that he lacks crucial diplomatic timing. Perhaps in the days of Hugo Chávez, Caracas might have been more receptive to the NSA leaker, but today Venezuela is engaged in delicate negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry that could lead to a thaw in relations. Nevertheless, President Maduro seems to be leaving the door open to Snowden. In Russia recently, the Venezuelan remarked that the whistleblower might be awarded diplomatic asylum in Caracas. Maduro added that it was time to stop attacking a man who had "done something very important for humanity." Snowden, the Venezuelan declared, "has a right to protection because the United States in its actions is persecuting him.... Why are they persecuting him? What has he done? Did he launch a missile and kill someone? Did he rig a bomb and kill someone? No. He is preventing war."

Perhaps if Maduro did provide asylum to Snowden, the Venezuelan could frame the move as part of a defensive posture against the NSA, an entity that reportedly conducted earlier espionage on Chávez. According to a recent report issued by the Globalist, George W. Bush ordered the NSA to spy on Chávez during the latter's visit to Rome and the Vatican in 2006. Reportedly, the White House "wanted to know every detail of Hugo Chávez's visit," and the operation employed the most cutting-edge technology. Indeed, even as Chávez met with the new Pope Benedict XVI, NSA planes circled over Rome 24 hours a day.

'Stateless' Snowden?

In the event that Snowden tires of tedious backroom parlor games in Western Europe and Latin America, might the whistleblower look into other diplomatic alternatives? In a note that has been attributed to Snowden, the NSA leaker remarks that the Obama administration has sought to "use citizenship as a weapon. Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person." (Technically speaking, Snowden's stateless claims may not be entirely correct, since American authorities have simply revoked the whistleblower's passport and not his right to citizenship.)

Perhaps Snowden is deliberately employing the rhetoric about statelessness to build some kind of legal case. The United Nations reports that there are around 12 million stateless people around the world who are denied basic human rights. Current examples of stateless people include the Rohingya of Burma, select hill tribes in Thailand, some Roma or gypsy groups in Europe and Bidoon people residing in Gulf States. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, or UNHCR, is very concerned about the rights of stateless peoples, and the organization has pledged to work with governments to help put an end to the ongoing problem.

In the meantime, Snowden may find that he still has some aces up his sleeve. It's still possible that the young whistleblower is holding on to additional information and plans future releases. Perhaps further disclosures could enhance Snowden's political and diplomatic prospects in select countries. In something out of a Jason Bourne movie, the Guardian newspaper meanwhile suggests that friendly governments could offer Snowden a private plane, and that "prominent citizens from the U.S. and other countries could offer to accompany Snowden, to reduce the chances of risky behavior by the US military."

However it turns out, the Snowden saga has certainly revealed Washington's crass agenda and the extent to which the Obama administration is prepared to lean on compliant governments in order to achieve its underhanded ends. As Snowden is finding out, it's difficult to find any spot on the face of the globe where whistleblowers can breathe easier and feel as if they are safely out of the clutches of "the Empire."

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.

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