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Analysis: Ecuador and Venezuela seem to be tripping over each other to offer refuge to Snowden, the NSA leaker. That would really upset Washington. Exactly.
LIMA, Peru — Thought to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow's airport, US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden could really use tropical getaway. Leaders of several Latin American destinations seem to be tripping over each other to receive him.
He's charged in the United States with espionage and other offenses for leaking details of the NSA's surveillance programs and, if caught, faces decades behind bars.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama said his administration is "not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker." But there’s little doubt that catching up with Snowden is now a top US priority.
So, if Snowden — whose US passport has been revoked — is able to fly to a sympathetic Latin American country, how likely would he be to live out the rest of his life in his tropical bolt-hole, away from the clutches of US justice?
GlobalPost runs through the likely options.
The indigenous community of Pinan, in Ecuador's Cotacachi-Cayapas. Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images
The tiny South American country, which last year granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, appears the front-runner as a safe haven for Snowden.
Through WikiLeaks, Snowden let it be known that he had formally asked Ecuador President Rafael Correa for asylum. The logic is obvious. A fiery left-wing populist, Correa has reveled in repeatedly thumbing his nose at Washington, even booting out the American ambassador and closing down a US military base in Ecuador long before putting up Assange in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
So far, Correa’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, has been making some suitably antagonistic noises toward the US. Acknowledging that American officials had been in touch with Quito to insist that it refuse to receive Snowden, Patino said the verbal demand would need to be put in writing. That sounds ominously like diplomatic speak for “Talk to the hand.”
Yet, Ecuador has plenty to lose. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned he'd lead an effort to block renewal next month of Ecuador's preferential US trade deals. With the United States buying some 40 percent of the tiny Andean nation’s exports — worth an annual $9 billion — slapping tariffs on a range of national products would hurt.
The Correa administration’s response Thursday to that threat was to unilaterally renounce those trade benefits. That provocative move appears like writing on the wall for both the White House — and Snowden if he can find a way to Ecuador.
But welcoming Snowden could bring further scrutiny of the Ecuadorean government’s own abysmal repression of independent journalists. Under a new gag law signed by Correa last Friday, an Ecuadorean equivalent of Snowden’s PRISM revelations would not just have landed the whistleblower in jail but also any reporter covering them. Correa, however, appears ready to set all that aside in Snowden's case.
Madrizqui beach, Los Roques islands in Venezuela. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Hugo Chavez may be dead, but Caracas’ hostility toward Washington remains undimmed. His successor, President Nicolas Maduro, was unable to resist the temptation to wade into the NSA surveillance row this week, saying he would “consider” offering Snowden asylum if the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor requested it.
That kind of bravado is typical of Maduro, who regularly makes outlandish statements, including accusing the United States of deliberately infecting Chavez with the cancer that killed him — a medical impossibility, experts say.
And despite claiming to want to warm up relations with Washington, the Venezuelan leader irked the US again when authorities detained California filmmaker Timothy Tracy for more than a month, accusing him, on the basis of no public evidence, of being a US spy.
Is Maduro serious this time, or just looking to use Snowden to score a few rhetorical points? For the man believed to be deep in hiding in Moscow's airport, it’s impossible to be sure.
Varadero beach, Cuba. STR/AFP/Getty Images
America's old foe Cuba was supposedly Snowden’s initial destination in Latin America, via a direct Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana.
For half-a-century, Fidel Castro never missed a chance to poke the US government in the eye. Yet now that his “younger” brother Raul, 82, is running the show, things may be a little different. Raul Castro’s revolutionary credentials are not in doubt but, since taking over as president in 2008, he has allowed modest domestic reforms and overseen a mild thaw in relations with the US.
Havana might well have nothing to gain from accepting Snowden. But the same is also arguably true of its high-profile jailing of US internet contractor Alan Gross, allegedly for espionage, due to his importing communications gear as part of a USAID-funded democracy-building program.
Although, having Snowden could prove an alluring new bargaining chip for Cuba's leaders who for years have prodded Washington to release the "Cuban Five" intelligence agents serving long sentences in US federal prisons convicted of spying.
Yet Gross was, arguably, busy undermining the Castro regime right on Cuban soil. From Havana’s perspective, its hand may have been forced. The same is notably not true of Snowden, trapped in the swirling heart of an overseas storm that Cuba may decide not to buy into.