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From India to Venezuela, the NSA whistleblower's case takes on different shades of symbolism.
Americans have debated for weeks now where fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden falls on the continuum between traitor and hero. But his actions have had political resonance abroad, too. The NSA secrets Snowden revealed and his decision to make them public have strained relationships with some of the United States' closest allies, while the whistleblower's bold exposure of US government intrusions garnered respect from others.
From his awkward refuge in Moscow's airport, Snowden, who is wanted in the United States on Espionage Act charges, has now requested asylum from more than 20 countries. Many have already turned him down, but average citizens even in those countries don't necessarily feel the same way as their governments.
GlobalPost correspondents take the pulse of populations from Ecuador to India.
Snowden has lodged asylum requests with five Latin American countries, one of which — Brazil — has already flatly rejected his advances.
The others are Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela — which have, to varying degrees, been making sympathetic noises — and Cuba and Nicaragua, which have played their cards closer to their chests.
Initially the front-runner expected to shelter the NSA whistleblower, Ecuador has now edged toward the back of the line of Snowden's reluctant suitors. President Rafael Correa withdrew the temporary travel documents provided by his London consul that allowed Snowden to fly from Hong Kong to Moscow, even telling the UK’s Guardian that pass was a “mistake.”
For good measure, Correa has now said publicly that the consul will be “sanctioned” for acting without authorization. And in case that wasn't clear enough, he added that Snowden’s asylum request could only be considered once he is on Ecuadorean soil or in one of the South American country’s embassies.
That's possibly some smart positioning by Correa, who would want to be seen to be following due process should he ever grant asylum.
But equally, the intense pressure that Washington has likely been exerting behind the scenes on Quito — along with a charm offensive from Vice President Joe Biden, who called Correa directly over the weekend — may just have paid off. Snowden may need to scratch any plans for trekking in the Ecuadorean Andes or sipping pina coladas on its Pacific beaches.
Visiting Russia’s Vladimir Putin this week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro publicly expressed support for Snowden, saying the whistleblower needs the “world’s protection.”
“He did not kill anyone and he did not plant a bomb,” Maduro said, according to Russian media cited by The New York Times. “He only said a big truth to prevent wars.”
But whether that position translates to offering Snowden refuge is unclear.
Some Venezuelans mocked the situation. Blogger Francisco Toro wrote a satirical piece to "make the case for our homeland as the clearly superior destination for irony-immune freedom of information martyr types."
"As you know, we are anti-imperialists to the core … so don’t pay attention to those gushing pictures of our foreign minister with John Kerry, they don’t mean anything. When we keep an American, we keep him for good. Just ask Tim Tracy!" Toro wrote, referring to a US filmmaker whom Venezuelan authorities detained in April for allegedly spying and expelled in June.
But Maduro claimed he wasn't in Moscow to talk about Snowden's fate. He stressed that his focus was on striking oil and gas deals with the Putin administration — not spiriting the leaker away in his plane.
That leaves Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, whose anti-US credentials are not in doubt.
Also visiting Moscow this week, Bolivian President Evo Morales has increasingly risen the ranks of likely suitors. He indicated he would “consider” an asylum bid from Snowden.
"I know that the empires have an espionage network and are against the so-called developing countries. And in particular, against those which are rich in natural resources," he added.
Morales has been demanding — unsuccessfully so far — that the US extradite his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, back to La Paz where he is due to face charges of human rights crimes.
Morales might decide to grant safe haven to Snowden in a tit-for-tat move responding to the Obama administration’s non-cooperation regarding Sanchez de Lozada. He might also regard Snowden as the perfect bargaining chip.
Meanwhile, reading Cuban President Raul Castro’s intentions is proving impossible. Originally reported to be his stepping-stone to Ecuador, via an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana, Cuba has at no point commented on Snowden’s plight.
When Fidel Castro was in his pomp, he surely would not have missed the chance to bring Snowden to the Caribbean isle and parade him triumphantly in front of the world’s media. But those times are long past, and his “younger” brother Raul Castro, 82, may well view Snowden as a headache he could do without.
Perhaps one clue came from Tuesday’s report in government newspaper Granma, which stated that Snowden had applied to Russia for asylum — but made no mention of the long list of other countries, including Cuba, where he is also seeking refuge.
Members of the Indian public, who by and large have backed Snowden from the beginning, were dismayed that their government jumped to deny him asylum before anybody else bothered to take the request seriously.
“#India where persecuted people found asylum for centuries, pretends to make laws for whistleblowers. #fail as independent democracy #snowden,” wrote a Twitter user who goes by the handle @Vidyut.
“India should show courage and grant asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden,” wrote another Twitter user.
“If India can give asylum to #DalaiLama why not give asylum to #Snowden? He just may hand us all the USA #NSA secret data?” tweeted Ramesh Sharma, an Indian filmmaker.
“Dalai Lama 1959, Snowden 2013. India are u ready?” wrote economist Ajit Ranade.
In part, the support for Snowden harks back to India's stance during the Cold War, when New Delhi was a stalwart of the Non-Aligned Movement, but considered by the US to be a tacit partner of the Soviet Union. Distrust of the US continues from that period, when Washington also supported Pakistan unapologetically. Many Indians still see America's military aid to Pakistan as proof that Washington is at best a fair weather friend — all talk of a “strategic partnership” notwithstanding. But Indians' enthusiasm for the US whistleblower also stems from their own battle against internet censorship and state surveillance.
Beginning last year, India has periodically cracked down on internet users, freezing accounts and even, in at least one incident, arresting young people for offending Facebook status updates, as GlobalPost has reported.
And in May, the Indian state quietly launched its own massive internet surveillance program, the ominously named Central Monitoring System, which allows access to residents' telephone calls, texts, and online activities.
A number of European countries to which Edward Snowden applied for asylum have said they won’t consider his request unless he is on their territory or at their borders. They include Spain, Ireland, Poland, Austria, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands.
Senior German politicians, including European Parliament Martin Schulz and Green Party leader Jurgen Trittin, expressed sympathy Tuesday for Snowden's request for asylum. Germany is considering Snowden’s petition, according to the magazine Der Spiegel, while France and Switzerland say they haven’t received requests.
Although no European government is likely to risk American ire by granting Snowden's request for asylum, he enjoys high levels of public support among the citizens incensed at the level of US snooping revealed by the fugitive intelligence contractor.
Listeners to Ireland's Newstalk radio voted 61.9 percent in favor of Snowden's asylum request in an online poll Tuesday.
"Whether he goes down in history as a traitor, hero or snitch, and irrespective of his personal motivations, Edward Snowden has provided a valuable service with his decision to shed some light on the intricacies of intrusive government," Spanish commentator Jesus A. Nunez Villaverdere wrote in the daily El Pais.
However, Peter Knoope, Director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, a think-tank in The Hague, told a security conference in Brussels last week that a survey in the Netherlands showed 75 percent were supportive of the US PRISM surveillance program Snowden revealed. He did not provide more details of the poll, but added that Dutch citizens saw PRISM as a defense against terrorism.
Simeon Tegel in Lima, Peru, Paul Ames in Brussels, Belgium, and Jason Overdorf in New Delhi, India contributed to this report.