In a statement yesterday to human rights groups at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden announced his formal acceptance of all current and future offers of asylum:
As we have seen, however, some governments in Western European and North American states have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law, and this behavior persists today. This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there in accordance with our shared rights.
It’s worth taking some time to consider exactly why that is.
“At a certain point, someone mistakenly referred to Latin America as the United States’s backyard,” Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patiño, told RT on Wednesday. “In Latin America, this kind of era has come to an end, and we will never be anyone’s backyard”. The notion that Central and South America are the property of the US has been a key premise of US regional dominance since the Monroe Doctrine. The backyard analogy has been commonplace in “foreign policy circles”, but Patiño may have been specifically referring to a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry this past April in which he declared, “The western hemisphere is our back yard [sic]”.
While some colonial practices have fallen out of fashion among US elites, the arrogance of the colonial mindset is alive and well. As I’ve written previously, the revelations of mass surveillance leaked by Snowden have shed light on the US government’s unconstitutional (and yes, illegal) spying on Americans. But recent disclosures show that warrantless domestic surveillance is just one part of an unprecedented global spying network. As Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has so far published most of Snowden’s leaks, put it in an interview with Democracy Now,
the NSA is in the process, in total secrecy, with no accountability, of constructing a global, ubiquitous surveillance system that has as its goal the elimination of privacy worldwide, so that there can be no electronic communications – by telephone, Internet, email, chat – that is beyond the reach of the United States government.
For a great many Americans, the scandal uncovered by these leaks is that the NSA spies on them as indiscriminately as it spies on citizens of other countries. And while in the US, public opinion is turning against the Bush and Obama administrations’ assault on civil liberties, the backlash has been dwarfed by the outrage in Latin America, where according to Greenwald (who lives in Brazil), “most people had no idea that their electronic communications were being collected in bulk by this highly secretive US agency.”
Citing documents leaked by Snowden, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo revealed last week that the NSA has been collaborating with local telecoms to gather and store the phone and internet data of people in most Latin American nations as part of its “FAIRVIEW” program. The program targets not only countries with strained relationships to the US, such as Venezuela and Ecuador, but also the US’s most loyal lapdogs in the region (like Mexico and Colombia) – and everyone in between: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica.
As I’ve discussed in my posts on the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, the recent wave of more or less reformist governments in Latin America has seen the region as a whole move towards greater autonomy and away from subservience to US power. The O Globo report has triggered not only massive popular outcry, but also indignation on the part of those governments.
In Brazil, the administration of President Dilma Rousseff has promised to open a criminal investigation. If this sounds like an overreaction, consider that in 1964, a CIA-backed military coup left Brazil in the hands of a dictatorship for over two decades. Instrumental to the junta’s reign of terror was its practice of eavesdropping on the calls and reading the mail of anyone suspected of being a dissident.
The revelations have only compounded the fallout from the US’s heavy-handed attempts to make an example of Snowden. After Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia (all members of the Bolivarian Alliance or ALBA) indicated they would grant Snowden’s request for political asylum, the US had its lackeys in Western Europe force the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales to land – on suspicion that Morales, en route from a conference in Russia, had smuggled Snowden on board.
Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy all denied Morales’s plane permission to fly through their airspace, bouncing it back and forth until the pilot, unsure of how much fuel he had left, made an emergency request to land in Austria. Never mind that Morales’s plane didn’t even take off from the airport that Snowden is reportedly in. Needless to say, when the plane was finally searched, Snowden was nowhere to be found.
It should be fairly obvious that this attempt by the US to flex its muscles, besides endangering Morales’s life and those traveling with him, violates the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by all heads of state. Even if the US and the EU were at war with Bolivia (they’re not) or designated Bolivia a hostile nation (they don’t), it’s a precondition of national sovereignty that the President of Bolivia has no less of a right to move from one country to another than President Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yet the US saw fit to order its vassals to divert the plane of the Americas’ first indigenous head of state, and the Europeans saw fit to oblige. This action makes a mockery of Obama’s assurance that he won’t be “scrambling jets” to catch a “29-year-old hacker”; moreover, it makes a mockery of the very idea of diplomacy.
The fact that Snowden wasn’t on the plane doesn’t mean much in the end. After all, it’s the thought that counts. When Ecuador suggested it would consider Snowden’s asylum request, our cuddly, gaffe-prone Vice President Biden was quick to inform President Rafael Correa that aiding Snowden would cost Ecuador its trade benefits with the US. Let me repeat that: The Obama administration threatened to punish a poor South American nation with economic sanctions if it were to grant Snowden’s right under international law to freedom from political persecution. Is this “diplomacy”? If it is, it’s the kind of diplomacy that’s indistinguishable from extortion. The administration’s message is clear: Governments who dare to defy the US by granting asylum to people the US doesn’t like will be treated as criminals.
Of course, the US’s global surveillance system already treats virtually everyone in the world as a criminal, whose every communication must be stored for future use. Even before the most recent revelations, Latin American leaders closed ranks around Morales. The growing solidarity among these governments – and the social movements that brought them to power – was aptly expressed by Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: “I got chills down my spine when I went back to Bolivia and saw that a fellow president had been detained for 13 hours as though he were a thief…I got chills down my spine when we discovered that they are spying on all of us through their intelligence services”.
Meanwhile, the regime media in the US continue to report on these leaks as if they were just a plot device in a spy novel, as if the story were really about Snowden and not the crimes of the US government. If anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, I invite you to watch this breathtaking clip from MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner. Professional Obama apologist Joy Reid’s interview – no, interrogation – of WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson is as hostile as it is littered with irrelevant pop psychology, but the segment’s crown jewel is this strange tirade by Melissa Harris-Perry:
It seems clear to me that [Snowden’s] willingness to take refuge in countries whose own position on public information, on human rights, is in fact worse than that of the United States of America…is clearly simply to save his own skin. In this country, those who have decided to take a position of civil disobedience because they love and care about their country, and want to extend the Constitution, have always done so with a recognition that doing so also means standing for the consequences of breaking those laws. …But this going on the run thing, this is different. This is dangerous to our nation.
This rhetoric should sound familiar to everyone who pretended to find it objectionable during the Bush administration. If Snowden cares so much about principles, he should, on principle, refuse the aid and protection of any government willing to grant him asylum. Instead, he should do the patriotic thing and return to the US, which has a stellar human rights record, to face either life in prison or execution. Why? Because America, that’s why. Whatever the President calls our “national security interests” trump human rights and international law. There’s enough rabid nationalism in this alleged progressive intellectual’s “commentary” to make Joe McCarthy blush. And that’s a shame.