Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Snowden Missed his Flight to Havana

On Monday, Russian daily Kommersant published a report alleging that former United States National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden had received a previously undisclosed amount of help from Russian authorities when he fled Hong Kong in June. As the Washington Post notes, the paper reported that Snowden celebrated his 30th birthday on June 21 at the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, which casts doubt on the Russian government’s claims that the intelligence leaker’s arrival in Moscow on June 23 came as a complete -- and unwelcome -- surprise.

Of particular interest to Latin America observers, however, was the Kommersant article’s claim that Snowden had initially planned on traveling to Havana via Moscow, and then on to Ecuador or one of the other Latin American nations which expressed a willingness to host him at the time. According to unnamed Russian officials cited by the paper, the former NSA contractor found himself stranded after the Cuban government decided to refuse Snowden entry under pressure from the Obama administration. This explains why Snowden did not use the one-way ticket to Havana booked in his name for June 24, much to the chagrin of journalists on board the flight.

At the very least, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Reuters cautioned that it could not immediately verify the report, and that the claim about Havana was corroborated by a source “close to the U.S. State Department,” a description so vague it makes the confirmation almost meaningless.

Even setting the accuracy of the article aside, there is plenty of room for skepticism. Chief among these is Cuba’s proven willingness to defy U.S. foreign policy, recently demonstrated by Panama’s interception of a shipment of outdated weaponry bound for North Korea.

At the same time, however, there are several reasons why Cuba might choose to cooperate with the U.S. on the issue. The two governments are currently undergoing something of a rapprochement, with restrictions on the movement of diplomats from each country becoming increasingly relaxed, and officials recently resuming bilateral talks on migration. By ceding to U.S. on the Snowden issue, the Cubans may have gained a more favorable position for themselves in back-channel dealings with the Obama administration.

Additionally, allowing Snowden’s entry would go against recent signals by the Cuban government that it is less willing to harbor high-profile U.S. fugitives, even for more “political” crimes. As Cuba policy expert Anya Landau French wrote for the Havana Note blog in June:
In the State Department's 2006 report detailing why it would continue to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it noted that Cuban authorities had given assurances they would no longer accept "new" U.S. fugitives (whether their crimes were considered political or not). Allowing Snowden to transit Cuba would be a break of faith from that assurance given. Allowing a fugitive to transit your territory is tantamount to giving refuge, as the fugitive wouldn't be able to reach their ultimate destination without the transit stop.
Landau French suggested that if Snowden were to arrive in Havana, there is a good chance he would be deported to the U.S., potentially as part of a bid to trade him for one or all four of the members of the “Cuban Five” spy ring still in prison. This no doubt remains an attractive possibility for Cuban officials, making it unlikely that Snowden will be traveling through Cuba -- and thus Latin America, in all practicality -- in the near future.


News Briefs
  • A diplomatic row between Bolivia and Brazil is heating up. Over the weekend, Bolivian press reported that opposition politician Roger Pinto (who is wanted on corruption charges but had been holed up in Brazil’s La Paz embassy since Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff granted him asylum in June 2012) had been successfully smuggled out of the country, and arrived in Brasilia on Friday. El Deber reported that Pinto had been aided by Brazilian officials. Diplomat Eduardo Saboia, who used his diplomatic immunity to sneak Pinto out of the embassy in an official vehicle, said he was acting to defend a victim of political persecution. The move was not without controversy, however. La Razon reported that Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca requested an immediate explanation from Brazil, and asserted that the move was in violation of international treaties. On Sunday, the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations released a statement promising it would launch a full investigation into the incident.
  • President Rousseff was also apparently displeased by the incident. Yesterday, her office released a statement saying that Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota had resigned from his post, and would be replaced by Luiz Alberto Figueiredo. The statement also said that Patriota had been offered a post at Brazil’s UN mission. According to O Globo, this decision came directly from Rousseff, who administration sources claim saw the operation as a “disaster,” and allegedly only found out about it after Pinto had already arrived in Brazil.   
  • Former Brazilian Environmental Minister Marina Silva, who according to recent opinion polls could pose a threat to Rousseff’s re-election bid next year, is in the early stages of launching a campaign. The AP reports that Silva has submitted a petition to Brazil’s Electoral Tribunal requesting the official recognition of her Sustainability Network party.  The petition requires 492,000 voter signatures to be validated by the court, and the party turned in some 637,000. The wire agency notes that a recent poll puts Rousseff’s favorability rating at 35 percent, compared to 26 percent for Silva.  
  • The Washington Post questions recent claims by U.S. politicians -- including Senator John McCain -- about the spread of Mexican organized crime groups in the country. Although in 2011 the National Drug Intelligence Center concluded that seven Mexican drug cartels were operating in over 1,000 U.S. cities, law enforcement officials and drug policy analysts interviewed by the Post believe this is figure is extremely exaggerated.
  • Juan Jimenez, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s cabinet chief, is meeting today with leaders of two opposition parties, El Comercio reports. The meeting is part of Humala’s strategy to build a better relationship with his opponents, a move some analysts see as necessary for him to avoid political isolation.
  • At least six people were killed and 22 were injured when a cargo train carrying several hundred Central American migrants on board derailed on Sunday in the Mexican state of Tabasco.  The BBC reports that the incident was blamed on local thieves, who had stolen nails in the tracks to sell them as scrap metal.
  • IPS has the latest on civil society opposition to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s controversial decision to open up the Yasuni rainforest reserve in the Amazon to oil drilling. Indigenous groups and environmental activists are in the process of gathering signatures for a referendum on the move, which would require them to submit a petition signed by 5 percent of the electorate, or 584,000 people.
  • After a U.S. court on Friday ruled that Argentina was obligated to pay $1.4 billion to holders of its defaulted debt, yesterday Argentine President Cristina Fernandez announced her government would offer new bonds to be paid in dollars in to debt holders in Buenos Aires. According to the AP, analysts are pessimistic about the outlook for this measure, as bondholders would be unlikely to settle debts in Argentina rather than appealing to courts in New York.
  • Tomorrow, Colombia’s Constitutional Court is set to issue a ruling on the country’s landmark transitional justice law, the Legal Framework for Peace. President Juan Manuel Santos is confident that it will be approved, according to Caracol Radio. Meanwhile, Vanguardia reports that Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, one of the law’s most vocal critics, has accused Santos of pressuring the court to approve the law by calling for a referendum on an eventual peace treaty with FARC rebels.
  • In what appears to be an abrupt about-face from his recent attempts to downplay the nationwide rural workers’ strike in Colombia, yesterday President Santos met with protest leaders in the central province of Boyaca, El Tiempo reports. Santos announced that he had set up teams to negotiate with the rural farmers’ associations which have organized the demonstrations, and Semana magazine claims the strike could end as soon as today.