The spectacle of certain Latin American countries lining up to offer asylum to National Security Administration (NSA) contractor and leaker Edward Snowden has become a sad reminder of the lack of diplomatic maturity of those countries and a red herring to the whole issue that they want to highlight.
Whatever you may think of the man’s motives (and believe his future should be), Snowden’s revelations that the U.S. NSA was surreptitiously collecting data on U.S. and foreign phone calls and Internet communications should give us all pause and are a legitimate point for domestic and diplomatic debate.
But that’s not what we’re getting when the presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua line up to offer the 29-year-old asylum and the president of Argentina calls a poorly-attended summit to denounce the unfortunate detention of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Austria after he glibly offered Snowden asylum when he was in Russia. Those reactions have been a sharp reminder of the divisions in the hemisphere, between the rhetorically/ideologically oriented countries of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America—ALBA) and the rest.
Leaving aside the issue of how Snowden—without a passport—could leave the Moscow transit lounge, set foot on an airplane whose company will surely be banned from landing in U.S. airports in the future, and cross the airspace of countries opposed to seeing him leave, there is the question of “Why make the offer?” What is the practical benefit of giving the guy safe haven? As a recent Washington Post editorial argued, the irony of this recent convulsion of symbolic gringo-bashing south of the border is that none of the countries that have offered Mr. Snowden safe haven are themselves paragons of freedom of expression.
There’s also another ironic twist to this as well: these countries are themselves distracting from a larger, legitimate issue in an effort to make it all about them.
Note to the Media: Please, Let’s Focus on the Real Story
In the past week, the media has been obsessed with presidents Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and their offers of asylum to Snowden. In doing so, they’ve largely taken the bait. These governments have been engaging in classic anti-Americanism, but with either little consequence or content. For the reasons mentioned above, the 29-year-old hacker is unlikely to make it to the shores of those countries regardless of the offers.
At the same time, there are legitimate issues that have been raised with the United States’ invasion of extra-nationals’ freedom of expression and rights.
The Brazilian and Colombian governments have now started to raise these issues after a report in O Globo revealed that the NSA had been collecting electronic and phone information in these countries on everything from arms purchases to corporate practices. The U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Tom Shannon, responded that the O Globo story misrepresented the programs. Nevertheless, the governments deserve an answer.
Also note that what these governments are not doing is making a grand showing to offer Snowden asylum or traveling with a presidential delegation to Bolivia to attend the summit called by the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to denounce the unfortunate grounding of President Morales’ plane in Austria.
The difference between the reaction of the ALBA countries (among them Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua—though conspicuously absent was Cuba) from the rest of the hemisphere (notably, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru—to name a few) reminds me of my own family. I used to have a sister-in-law who, no matter what the family occasion—birthday, graduation, funeral, even Thanksgiving—acted as if it was all about her, despite the reality of the gathering.
While not directly comparable—and I would never wish my former sister-in-law on President Morales, whom I’ve met and respect—there is an element of solipsistic distraction over this whole issue. But that’s what many want: an ideological spectacle that focuses on them, rather than a real discussion.
It’s a shame. There are real issues here that deserve real attention. Fortunately, other countries are now demanding it; let’s hope these issues gets treated with the respect and lack of grandstanding that they deserve.