By Fulton T. Armstrong
The rhetoric and diplomatic jostling surrounding the flight of American whistleblower (or, depending on perspective, criminal leaker) Edward Snowden have once again thrust to the fore Latin America and U.S. policy toward the region. Some Latin American presidents have seemed to go out of their way to prick U.S. sensitivities, and Washington seems to have gone out of its way to stomp on Latin American sensitivities. Both sides have been happy to live up to the caricatures of themselves held by the other, but both sides’ interests have been harmed in the process.
The drama started, of course, while Snowden was in hiding in Hong Kong, and it has dragged on as he’s resided in a transit lounge of the Moscow airport. U.S. media, which in the past have published stories casting Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and others as eager to poke the U.S. in the eye, ran pieces – shifting attention to Latin America – and away from China and Russia’s even bigger slap in Washington’s face in refusing to hand the leaker over. Reporters believed their own rumors and piled into an Aeroflot plane bound for Cuba. Washington rolled out the big guns, including Vice President Biden, to discourage the Latin Americans from offering Snowden any help – and seemed to have success. Ecuador, which has protected Wikileaks boss Julian Assange from British, Swedish and U.S. pursuit, initially welcomed Snowden but, after a phone call from Washington, pointed out that an asylum petition could not be considered until he arrived in country. The crisis between the U.S. and Latin America deepened, however, when several European countries – presumably responding to U.S. pressure and bad U.S. intelligence – closed their airspace to Bolivian President Morales, who someone, somewhere, suspected of flying Snowden out of Moscow on the president’s return home. Latin American condemnation exploded.
Venezuelan President Maduro, stating that that he wanted “to protect this young man from the persecution unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire,” publicly offered Snowden asylum on Friday. That move ended the slight progress Caracas and Washington had made toward rapprochement– evident since the OAS General Assembly in June – and bilateral relations will surely worsen. But the Obama Administration’s relations with Latin America writ large don’t appear likely to fare much better. Some leaders’ rhetoric may be over the top, but Washington’s language has been threatening, and its actions speak louder than its words. An unidentified senior U.S. official told the New York Times that “there is not a country in the hemisphere whose government does not understand our position at this point,” adding that any aid for Mr. Snowden “would put relations in a very bad place for a long time to come.” Such statements leave one wondering whether we are approaching the point where this administration will cease proclaiming its commitment to a new era of US-Latin America relations characterized by partnership and respect among equals. Transcripts of Mr. Biden’s calls will not be released, but rarely do countries reverse their positions publicly in the absence of either serious threats or generous inducements – and few clear-thinking Ecuadorans, tracking the Administration’s attitudes toward President Correa, see the latter as in the cards. In pressuring its European allies to establish a no-fly zone to keep a head of state from returning home, Washington took an action that many Latin Americans – not without a grain of truth – believe it would never take against a region that it respected. Repairing the damage of el asunto Snowden will be hard for both sides, but Washington has the bigger task ahead.