Will Snowden Come Between the U.S. and Latin America?


July 16, 2013


In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, AS/COA Senior Director of Policy and AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini analyzes Latin American governments' varied reactions to revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency conducted large-scale spying programs in Central and South America. Sabatini predicts that the consequences for U.S.-Latin American relations should be minimal because the U.S. has a multifaceted relationship with Latin American countries. However, he cautions that the news could lead to extra scrutiny of telecommunications agreements in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and adds that it will have a negative impact on the U.S.' moral standing in the region.

Will Snowden Come Between the U.S. and Latin America?

Interviewee: Christopher Sabatini

Interviewer: Brianna Lee

U.S.-Latin American relations have hit a bump after leaked National Security Agency documents revealed that covert U.S. surveillance operations allegedly extended into Central and South America. The leaks came shortly after a plane transporting Bolivian president Evo Morales from Moscow was grounded on suspicions he was transporting NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The event prompted Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to offer asylum to Snowden, and Latin American leaders have collectively denounced both the grounding of the plane and the NSA programs.

Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, says that for many of these countries, the wide scope and nature of the alleged U.S. surveillance activities have "triggered an understandable reaction"—though he acknowledges that some responses have been disproportionate. In the end, he says, the practical implications for U.S. relations in the region "will be minimal, in part because the United States has such a multifaceted relationship with these countries."

Recent leaks reveal that U.S. surveillance programs extended into Latin America, going beyond security and military affairs into commercial enterprises as well. How surprising is this?

It's surprising that in most of the cases, the United States was spying on some of its closest allies in the region. Mexico, Colombia, Brazil—these weren't places that were hotbeds of terrorism or where we were even spying or gathering information on matters of terrorism. If proven true, [the allegations] reveal that we were gathering information that extended beyond the supposed justification for the NSA program.

Second, while all countries spy on each other, what's different is the type of spying. We were massively collecting information, potentially even on their citizens communicating with each other. That has triggered an understandable reaction from these governments for the United States to explain what it was doing. This isn't government-to-government spying, or even government spying on people they suspect could place our national interests at risk. This is casting a very wide net both in terms of the people whose information is being collected and also the topics around which it's being collected. If proven to be true, this surveillance may very much violate the U.S. congressional justification under which a lot of this had occurred. A third surprising element, if proven true, is that the United States was doing this with the complicity of telecom companies in Brazil—though the U.S. ambassador to Brazil denies these reports.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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