Snowden could head to Latin America

June 23, 2013

The three Latin American countries said to be helping Edward Snowden flee from American authorities are united in their opposition to the Obama administration and pursue foreign policy objectives designed to counter U.S. influence.

As Snowden, the intelligence contractor who disclosed documents about U.S. surveillance programs, arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on Sunday, Russian media reported that he was booked on a flight to the Cuban capital Havana, and from there on to Caracas, Venezuela.

By Sunday afternoon, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, said via his Twitter account that his government had received an asylum request from Snowden. Ecuador’s embassy in London is already hosting Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that published reams of classified U.S. documents.

WikiLeaks, which is also assisting Snowden, said in a brief statement that Snowden “is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purpose of asylum.” WikiLeaks said that once in Ecuador, Snowden’s request for political asylum would be processed.

The Ecuadoran government of President Rafael Correa, a populist who expelled the U.S. ambassador from Quito in 2011, did not confirm the WikiLeaks account. But his administration, which has sought a greater role for the small country on the international stage, has reveled in the attention it has received since Assange holed up in its London embassy.

Sen. Feinstein: Snowden fleeing Hong Kong ‘a very big surprise’

“Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for a year,” Patiño said in a Thursday tweet. “We will not faint in this fight for liberty.”

Analysts who closely follow the region said it would make sense for the former contractor to the National Security Agency to wind up in Venezuela or Ecuador. Both countries are led by self-styled leftist leaders who are publicly hostile to the Obama administration and position themselves to oppose U.S. policies in this region and beyond.

“Their foreign policy is based on being the anti-United States, and so this is consistent with that posture,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They try, at every stop, to point out the problems they have with U.S. foreign policy.”

In Venezuela, the new president, Nicolás Maduro, a former foreign minister, has suggested that the United States had a hand in the death of Hugo Chávez, who led the country for 14 years and frequently accused Washington of hatching assassination plots against him. Chávez died in March after a long battle with cancer. Chávez, like Correa, expelled the U.S. ambassador from Venezuela.

“The different elite groups that represent the United States government and its imperial policies will have to recognize that in Venezuela there’s a revolution,” Maduro said earlier this month. “They will have to accept our system, as they had to with Vietnam and other countries.”

Ecuador’s relations with Washington have also been strained, with Correa frequently critical of American policies in Latin America and eager to form alliances with U.S. adversaries such as Iran. Still, Ecuador has an ambassador in Washington, and the United States last year appointed Adam E. Namm as ambassador in Quito.

Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and a handful of smaller Caribbean countries also belong to a Venezuela-led bloc called ALBA, which sees itself as an alternative to U.S. trade efforts. But ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, also has clashed with the Obama administration after left-leaning leaders were ousted in Honduras and Paraguay.

“ALBA, in its permanent confrontation with the United States, looks for these kinds of possibilities,” said Milos Alcalay, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, referring to the possibility of Snowden finding asylum in the region. “This is part of the new Cold War against the United States.”

Cuba, too, has been locked in conflict with the United States, with the Castro brothers battling a half-century-old American economic embargo. Since the 1960s, Havana has been a welcoming home for dozens of American fugitives. Perhaps the most prominent was CIA agent Philip Agee, whose 1975 book, “Inside the Company: CIA Diary,” alleged U.S. misdeeds in Latin America and included a list of secret agency operatives.

But Havana may be a likely transit point for Snowden rather than serving as a long-term refuge. The island’s communist government, now led by Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro’s younger brother, has recently revived diplomatic talks with the Obama administration. Giving Snowden asylum would inject new tensions into the already-strained relationship.

Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, though, could prove to be a key steppingstone for Snowden as he tries to escape American extradition efforts. There are direct flights from Moscow, giving the former American contractor ample possibilities to fly to Havana and from there fly on to Caracas or Quito.

Ironically, both Venezuela and Ecuador have been energetically criticized by press freedom organizations for clamping down on media outlets critical of the government.

Venezuela’s government shuttered RCTV, a once shrill critic of Chávez’s government, as well as a range of anti-government radio stations. More recently, investors with close business ties to Maduro’s government bought the only sharply critical television news station, Globovision, which has since toned down its coverage.

Ecuador, though, has recently been at the forefront of activities that the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says amount to a blow to freedom of expression. A new law proposed by Correa and approved June 14 establishes regulation of editorial content and provides authorities with the power to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press.

“It’s a country where there is a vibrant press but where they have used laws, discrediting campaigns and the interruption of news programs and other obstacles to limit the work of journalists,” said Carlos Lauria, who oversees the Latin American division of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “There is frankly a serious deterioration of free speech.”

Nick Miroff in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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