Latin America and the Snowden Saga

By Rachel Glickhouse

Which Latin American countries are involved in NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s quest for asylum and revelations about the U.S. agency?

Updated July 12—While the fate of whistleblower Edward Snowden remains unclear, the fugitive’s ties to Latin America grew tighter in recent days. Three countries from the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc offered the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor asylum, with Snowden rumored to have chosen Venezuela as his next destination. Meanwhile, Brazil’s O Globo published new revelations about the U.S. agency’s activities in Latin America. The paper stated on July 7 that Brazil was second only to the United States in terms of the number of emails and phone calls intercepted. Two days later, the newspaper reported that the NSA also spied on Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. The July 9 report also said that, until at least 2002, the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated directly in Bogota, Caracas, Mexico City, and Panama City.

Here’s how various Latin American countries are connected to the Snowden controversy:

Bolivia: On July 3, Bolivian President Evo Morales saw his plane rerouted to Austria while flying over Europe, amid suspicions that Snowden was on board. Morales spent 13 hours in the Vienna airport before getting cleared to leave. Bolivian officials said France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain had refused to let the plane enter their air space, and spoke out against those countries. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) released a statement denouncing Morales’ treatment, and the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela traveled to Bolivia on July 4 for a special UNASUR summit in response to the incident. The head of the Organization of American States (OAS) also spoke out against the incident, and the OAS Permanent Council held a special meeting today to discuss what happened to Morales.

On July 6, Morales said Bolivia would be willing to give Snowden asylum. Government officials say they spurned a pre-emptive extradition request from the United States.

Brazil: Despite receiving an asylum request from Snowden, a spokesperson from Brazil’s foreign ministry said on July 2 that the government would not respond. Just five days later, the country’s O Globo newspaper revealed that, according to Snowden, the NSA intercepted millions of emails and phone calls in Brazil over the last decade. The outlet also published a story reporting that the NSA and CIA worked directly from Brasilia to capture data via satellite. In response, the Brazilian Senate requested a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador Thomas Shannon, who met with the country’s communications minister July 8. President Dilma Rousseff called the NSA activities a “violation of sovereignty” and demanded an investigation into the allegations, saying the government would begin requiring data from Brazilians to be stored in Brazil. Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said the government plans to address privacy issues at the United Nations.

Colombia: According to a July 9 O Globo report, Colombia was the third-most spied on country by the NSA in Latin America—after Brazil and Mexico. Along with mapping the movements of guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the NSA studied FARC ties to drug cartels. It also examined economic issues, like the oil industry.

Cuba: Though representatives from this Caribbean country did not respond to Snowden’s asylum request, Cuban leader Raúl Castro praised ALBA countries on July 7 for offering Snowden asylum. However, Castro did not say if he would offer Snowden asylum or safe passage—an important question given that Snowden may have to fly through Cuba to reach Venezuela or Nicaragua.

Ecuador: Despite reports that Snowden would seek asylum in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa told the Guardian on July 2 that the whistleblower would have to make it to Ecuadoran territory before evaluating his request. Later, Correa noted that the United States had asked him not to allow Snowden to stay in Ecuador. In addition, the Andean country renounced a trade deal—the Andean Trade Preference Drug Eradication Act—after U.S. legislators threatened not to renew it should Ecuador grant Snowden asylum. Work even began in Quito to develop a bill that would compensate Ecuadoran exporters. However, a State Department official questioned whether Ecuador could make this type of decision—the U.S. Congress ultimately decides on these trade preferences.

In fact, the accord is still in effect. A call from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Correa urging him not to give Snowden aslyum “brought an uncharacteristically warm response,” wrote The New York Times. The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office decided to include a number of new products in the agreement, according to the Ecuadoran embassy in Washington, while the U.S. Congress has yet to decide whether to extend preferential tariffs on roses, broccoli, and artichokes.

Mexico: The July 9 O Globo report indicated that Mexico was also a top focus of the NSA in Latin America. Not only did the agency track narcotrafficking and military issues, but it also searched for trade secrets related to energy.

Nicaragua: President Daniel Ortega said on July 5 that Nicaragua would accept “if circumstances permit.” The government also released the official request letter, dated June 30, to the public. Nicaraguan business leaders asked Ortega to reconsider, fearing the decision could hurt the economy.

Venezuela: On July 5, President Nicolás Maduro announced he would be willing to give Snowden asylum. The United States sent an extradition request to Venezuela in the case that the whistleblower enter the Andean country. Maduro said he received Snowden’s official request on July 8. On July 9, senior Russian lawmaker Alexei Pushkov tweeted that Snowden had accepted Venezuela’s asylum offer, but subsequently deleted the tweet and said he had heard the report from a Russian news channel. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first published Snowden’s leaked documents, told Reuters this week that the whistleblower will likely go to Venezuela. The New York Times reported Friday that Snowden is seeking asylum in Russia “until he can safely travel to Latin America.”

According to O Globo, the United States also spied on Venezuela, examining the oil industry and weapons acquisitions.