'Anti-Imperialist' Latin America Challenges US on Snowden?

Regardless of where Edward Snowden winds up in his flight from US justice, the hard-line group of “anti-imperialist” Latin American countries called ALBA, led by Venezuela and backed by Cuba, have chosen to draw a fighting line against the United States on Snowden’s right of asylum. If the Obama administration does not meet this challenge with political skill, ALBA could turn the Snowden affair into a new banner of leftist defiance against Washington’s influence in the hemisphere.

Ever since the Cuban revolution took power in 1960, it has been a tenet of the Castro regime that US intervention against the “revolution” was an existential danger, requiring national mobilization against an implacable “enemy.” This became a manifest truth when the Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban dissidents, organized by the CIA, came to grief on the southern beaches of Las Villas Province. “Fatherland or Death: We will Prevail” became Castro’s nationalist slogan.

This sense of peril from the north led to the Cuban nuclear missile crisis, when Castro convinced the Soviet Union to install atomic weapons in Cuba that could reach targets in the USA. The international confrontation led to the withdrawal of the nuclear weapons in exchange for a pledge by President John Kennedy that the United States would not invade Cuba again. But the defenders of the revolution in Cuba and the Latin American left never abandoned the politically useful propaganda that the United States was the “enemy,” a belief perpetuated by US support for anti-communist military regimes that took power in subsequent conflicts from the Dominican Republic to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. The ALBA group came into being under the leadership of the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, after a failed right-wing coup in 2002 nearly toppled him.

It should come as no great surprise, therefore, that Snowden, the laptop raider of highly classified US national security systems, has been offered political asylum by Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, with the official endorsement of Cuba. This is designed to show that Latin America is not aligned with the United States and has an “independent” foreign policy that includes reducing US influence in the hemisphere. In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, sees standing up to the US as a way of consolidating his shaky domestic political backing.

Russia, where Snowden is currently holed up, would clearly like to get rid of an unwelcome guest, and President Vladimir Putin has shown that he doesn’t want Snowden’s public revelation of security documents to escalate into a conflict with the United States. But the media backers of Snowden that facilitated his disclosure of US security secrets, such as WikiLeaks and the Guardian, a British newspaper, don’t feel such inhibitions. Glenn Maitland, a California lawyer and journalist who works with Snowden, has said his trove of security documents includes undisclosed materials that could be “very compromising” if Snowden is prevented from reaching a Latin American sanctuary.

So what should the Obama administration do? If the US captures Snowden, it will certainly prosecuted him on very serious charges for violating state security, which he swore to uphold when he was employed as a computer technician by the CIA and then the National Security Agency. But if Snowden obtains asylum as an ALBA guest, what action should be taken by the US against the host country to exact a price for providing shelter to a wanted man?

The right of asylum has a long tradition in Latin America, where political conflicts have produced many cases in which asylum was the only alternative to arbitrary imprisonment or summery execution of the losers. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the great 19th-century leader of Argentina’s modernization, spent a decade living in Chile as a political exile before returning to be elected to the Argentine presidency. Many other political figures, like Víctor Raúl Haya de La Torre of Peru’s APRA party, spent a decade hiding in the Colombian Embassy in Lima, before being allowed to leave the country. In Cuba, Latin American embassies were the road to escape imprisonment for thousands during the Castro regime, and many leftist activists in Chile escaped the repression of the military regime by reaching a friendly embassy. There are strong humanitarian grounds, therefore, for the region’s political tradition of asylum.

The subject is delicate and needs to be treated with care, to avoid a new wave of anti-American backlash, such as the protests from Latin American governments over Snowden’s revelations of the extent of electronic spying by the NSA in their countries’ communications networks. This reaction to “invasion of privacy” has been toned down in countries like Brazil, whose president, Dilma Rousseff, is schedule to visit President Obama during October. But in the ALBA group, the issue is treated as defense of national sovereignty against an “enemy,” even spurring demands that the global Internet system be placed under international controls that would prevent carriers from cooperating with the NSA. 


Photo Credit: Agência Brasil

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