Snowden eyes friendly soil in Latin America

by Juan Forero

The Washington Post

The three Latin American countries said to be helping Edward Snowden flee from U.S. authorities are united in their opposition to the White House and pursue foreign policy objectives designed to counter U.S. influence.

As Snowden, the intelligence contractor who disclosed documents about U.S. surveillance programs, arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on Sunday, Russian media reported that he was booked on a flight to Havana, and from there on to Caracas.

By Sunday afternoon, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said via his Twitter account that his government had received an asylum request from Snowden. The Ecuadorean Embassy in London is hosting Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that published reams of classified U.S. documents.

WikiLeaks, which is also assisting Snowden, said in a brief statement that he “is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purpose of asylum.” WikiLeaks said that once in Ecuador, Snowden’s request for political asylum would be processed.

The Ecuadorean government of President Rafael Correa, a populist who expelled the U.S. ambassador from Quito in 2011, did not confirm the WikiLeaks account. But his administration, which has sought a greater role for the small country on the international stage, has revelled in the attention it has received since Assange holed up in its London embassy.

Analysts who closely follow the region said it would make sense for the former National Security Agency contractor to wind up in Venezuela or Ecuador. Both countries are led by self-styled leftist presidents who are publicly hostile to the Obama administration and position themselves to oppose U.S. policies in this region and beyond.

“Their foreign policy is based on being the anti-United States, and so this is consistent with that posture,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They try, at every stop, to point out the problems they have with U.S. foreign policy.”

In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro, a former foreign minister, has suggested that the United States had a hand in the death of Hugo Chavez, who led the country for 14 years and frequently accused Washington of hatching assassination plots against him. Chavez died in March after a long battle with cancer. He, like Correa, expelled the U.S. ambassador to his country.

Ecuador’s relations with Washington also have been strained, with Correa frequently critical of American policies in Latin America and eager to form alliances with U.S. adversaries such as Iran.

Still, Ecuador has an ambassador in Washington, and the U.S. last year appointed Adam Namm as ambassador in Quito.

Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and a handful of smaller Caribbean countries belong to a Venezuela-led bloc called ALBA, which sees itself as an alternative to U.S.-led trade partnerships. ALBA, or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, has also clashed with the administration of president Barack Obama after left-leaning leaders were ousted in Honduras and Paraguay.

“ALBA, in its permanent confrontation with the United States, looks for these kinds of possibilities,” said Milos Alcalay, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, referring to the possibility of Snowden finding asylum in the region. “This is part of the new Cold War against the United States.”

Cuba, too, has been locked in conflict with the United States, with the Castro brothers battling a 50-year-old American economic embargo. Since the 1960s, Havana has been a welcoming home for dozens of American fugitives. Perhaps the most prominent was CIA agent Philip Agee, whose 1975 book, “Inside the Company: CIA Diary,” alleged U.S. misdeeds in Latin America and included a list of secret agency operatives.

But Havana may be a likely transit point for Snowden rather than serving as a long-term refuge. Cuba’s communist government, now led by Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, has recently revived diplomatic talks with the White House. Giving Snowden asylum would inject new tensions into the strained relationship.

Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, though, could prove to be a key steppingstone for Snowden as he tries to escape U.S. extradition efforts. There are direct flights from Moscow, giving him ample possibilities to fly to Havana and from there fly on to Caracas or Quito.

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