Why Cuba might not be safe for Snowden

June 25, 2013

Havana, Cuba. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

One of the countries discussed as a potential haven for Edward Snowden is Cuba, the tropical communist hold-over ruled by Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul. Snowden was even expected to fly to Cuba on Monday, on the way to Ecuador, though he never boarded the flight.

One Cuba scholar thinks that the country might not be willing to shelter Snowden, though. Anya Landau French, who previously headed up the New America Foundation's Cuba program and now writes a Cuba policy blog sponsored by the Center for International Policy, points out that Cuba agreed in 2006 to stop its practice of harboring American fugitives. And, unlike Ecuador, Cuba has an interest in calming relations with the United States, not worsening them.

Here's French:

In the State Department's 2006 report detailing why it would continue to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it noted that Cuban authorities had given assurances they would no longer accept "new" U.S. fugitives (whether their crimes were considered political or not). Allowing Snowden to transit Cuba would be a break of faith from that assurance given. Allowing a fugitive to transit your territory is tantamount to giving refuge, as the fugitive wouldn't be able to reach their ultimate destination without the transit stop.

To be clear, though, Cuba's 2006 agreement is nowhere near binding. The country could surely offer to assist Snowden if it wanted to. The point is that Havana doesn't seem to want to do this sort of thing anymore. In 2007, around the time of the agreement, the U.S. estimated that Cuba was harboring 70 American fugitives. And these were not necessarily whistleblowers or activists. The most famous, Charlie Hill, is wanted for murdering an Arizona state trooper and hijacking an airplane. Another killed a New Jersey state trooper.

This was back in the Cold War, after all, when the U.S. was trying to topple Fidel Castro, who wanted to do whatever he could to needle the Americans. Today, the U.S.-Cuba stand-off is thawing. There are more and more Cubans economic migrants to the United States, which began easing travel and money transfer restrictions during President Obama's first term. Cuba reciprocated in October. The death of Venezuela's anti-American leader, Hugo Chavez, raised hopes that the U.S. and Cuba might finally be ready to move past decades of hostility.

Other than Cuban citizens themselves, who are held back by the U.S. embargo that makes it tough for them to even get Internet access, few people would benefit more from easing U.S.-Cuba tensions than the Cuban leadership. This is probably not a moment when the Cuban leaders are trying to throw sand in America's face, for example by defying an earlier pledge not to harbor fugitives.

It's entirely possible, of course, that they might shelter him anyway. But Havana's likely calculus would seem to make that less than a sure thing. French speculated that Cuban leaders might even be tempted to trade him for some of the Cuban citizens still held in the United States. Tough to say. Presumably, someone in either Russia or Ecuador or both is looking out for Snowden's interests now and will make sure he doesn't end up in another country, as in Hong Kong, that doesn't want to shelter him. That might include Cuba.

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Max Fisher | June 25, 2013