Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Snowden: Why Ecuador? Why Latin America?

While Edward Snowden did not follow through on a rumored trip to Ecuador via Cuba on Monday, this has not stopped many observers from offering commentary on the appropriateness of the former CIA contractor seeking refuge in these countries to avoid extradition to the United States.

The government of Ecuador, which claims it has received an asylum request from Snowden, has been quite vocal in implying support for his cause. At a press conference on Monday Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño compared Snowden’s case with the “persecution” of U.S. Private Bradley Manning. And though a final decision on the matter had not yet made, Patiño declared that Ecuador “will act on the basis of principles of human rights written in our constitution, not on the interests of others.” 

Almost as soon as it was confirmed, news of Ecuador’s openness to the asylum request was criticized in the U.S., largely by those who claimed it stands in stark contrast to a new media law passed in the country. The law criminalizes defamatory or libelous content, and has been condemned by free press advocacy groups. The Washington Post editorial board claimed that applying for asylum poses a moral challenge to Snowden, as the law includes restrictions on publishing material sensitive to state security. Other outlets have also characterized Ecuador taking in Snowden as hypocrisy, and many have pointed that it could cause the U.S. not to renew trade preferences with Ecuador, as the New York Times reports.

But not everyone has been so quick to criticize Ecuador. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told the Christian Science Monitor that allegations of media restriction are overstated. “I'm not defending everything Correa has done but there are criminal libel laws just as strict in France and Germany; if I accused France of trying to suppress dissent no one would take me seriously," he said.

In an op-ed for CNN, Latin America scholar Steve Striffler argues that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s popularity meant he had relatively little to gain from sheltering WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange last year, and Snowden now. He writes:
Correa's stance is best seen as a principled one. In broad terms, Correa's openness to Assange and Snowden, as well as his decision to close a U.S. military base in Ecuador, is part of an effort to deepen Ecuadorian sovereignty while strengthening Latin America's ability to limit the influence of the United States in the region. 
This is perfectly within the rights of an independent nation, even one that has historically followed the U.S. lead. More immediately, Correa's willingness to take on Snowden should be seen for what it is, as a refreshingly principled stand by a small country against a powerful nation engaged in what many see as the political persecution of one of its own citizens.
Some have even taken Ecuador’s willingness to harbor Snowden a step further, extending it to the entire region. Stephen Kinzer of The Guardian, argues:
In fact, not just a handful of leaders but huge populations in Latin America have decided that they wish for more independence from Washington. This is vital for Snowden because it reduces the chances that a sudden change of government could mean his extradition. If he can make it to Latin America, he will never lack for friends or supporters.
It is true that the region is becoming increasingly sovereign. And doubtless Assange’s recent advice for Snowden to “go to Latin America” is related to the fact that, according to a recent Open Society Institute study, it is the only region in the world where no country has participated in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. However, this does not mean that Latin American leaders are not taking their national interests into account in weighing their stance on the Snowden affair.

On The Havana Note blog, Anya Landau French suggests that one of the reasons Snowden didn’t make it to Cuba on Monday is the Cuban government’s recent attempts to improve relations with the United States. Granting Snowden safe passage would show a “break of faith” with recent assurances that Cuban authorities have given that they would no longer accept U.S. fugitives, even if their crimes were considered political. This implicit agreement was first cited in a 2006 State Department report on Cuba’s continued listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In all likelihood, officials in Venezuela are currently making the same calculation. Yesterday President Nicolas Maduro announced that his government “would evaulate” an asylum request from Snowden if he presented one, but doing so would likely undo whatever progress in bilateral relations has been made since a brief meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua earlier this month. 


News Briefs
  • After Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff opened up a dialogue on a plebliscite to reform the country’s constitution, it was met by criticism from opposition politicians, The Wall Street Journal reports. In response, her administration appears to have walked her statement back somewhat. Justice Minister  José Eduardo Cardoso told reporters yesterday that the president had only endorsed a constituent assembly “in general terms” and that she planned on implementing political reforms by way of a referendum, which under Brazilian law would have to take place by this October, a year ahead of the next election, according to Spain’s El Pais.  
  • It appears the protests in Brazil are having an immediate impact. A bill under discussion in Congress that would have limited federal prosecutors’ ability to carry out investigations, which had been specifically targeted by demonstrators last week, was taken off the table yesterday.
  • The AP looks at some of the young organizers in Brazil’s Free Fare Movement, a consensus-based horizontal organization. While representatives of the group are uncomfortable with taking credit for the demonstrations, this week will be a key test of their ability to make themselves stand for more than the bus fare hike.
  • Over three years after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, a new report by the Government Accountability Office claims that the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent just 31 percent -- $204 million -- of the money allocated in aid. Although UASAID initially planned on building 15,000 homes for 75,000 to 90,000 people, its latest target was lowered to 2,649 homes for up to 15,900 people. The GAO also cited a serious lack of available information for congressional oversight, as requirements on the State Department’s reporting of spending ended last September, the New York Times reports.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Haiti yesterday, after canceling a planned visit in April. At a joint press conference yesterday, Haitian President Michel Martelly told reporters that 94 percent of “the current infrastructure, agriculture and education projects are being done in Haiti are being done through the PetroCaribe fund,” according to the AP.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed overhaul of Mexico’s state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos and the rest of its energy sector has been challenged by center-left PRD party. Yesterday PRD chairman Jesus Zambrano presented an alternative to Peña Nieto’s plan, wchi would require changes to the country’s constitution. The party’s stance sits with the results of a recent CIDE poll, which found that 65 percent of Mexicans oppose foreign investment in PEMEX, according to Animal Politico.
  • On Tuesday the Mexican government weighed in on the immigration debate in the United States, saying that proposed spending on border fencing and other security measures would harm bilateral relations and reduce trade. El Universal reports that in a press conference, Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade told reporters: “Fences do not unite us. They are not the solution to the migratory phenomenon and are not consistent with a secure and modern border. They do not contribute to the development of a competitive region.”
  • Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, whose opponents presented the required number of signatures to trigger a special election to recall him in April, has welcomed a recall vote and will request it from electoral officials, RCN Radio reports. La Silla Vacia notes that this is an unusual 180 for the mayor, who just 20 days ago fought the recall initiative tooth and nail and accused its backers of fraud.
  • Ecuador is the latest country in Latin America to make progress on decriminalizing drug use. Although its 2008 constitution established that drug use is a public health issue, it did not specify the difference between amounts used for personal use and for trafficking, which contributed to one of the harshest anti-drug regimes in Latin America. El Diario and El Comercio reported last week that the Ministry of Justice implemented new regulations on drug possession, on the recommendation of the country’s drug council, CONSEP. In a recent interview with El Telegrafo, legal specialist Fernando Puedmag Castro discusses the importance of the move as it relates to prison overcrowding and stigmatization of drug users in the country.
  • In another trend on substance abuse regulation, Jamaica is set to become the latest country in the Caribbean to ban public smoking, following the initiative of the Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Suriname and Grenada.