Friday, September 6, 2013

Just How Big is the Fallout from the NSA Spying Revelations?

The news that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) monitored the private communications of presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico has fueled plenty of talk about heightened tensions between these countries and the U.S. Both Latin American governments have expressed concern over the revelations, and called on the U.S. ambassadors to their countries to explain them, just as they did when the NSA surveillance story first broke in July.

Beyond that, significant differences have emerged in the responses of the Rousseff and Peña Nieto administrations to the allegations. In Mexico, the president has not said much about them besides telling reporters he would ask U.S. President Barack Obama to look into the matter. In an interview published by the BBC yesterday, Peña Nieto said he spoke with Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Russia, who expressed a “commitment to a full investigation.” Interestingly, the Mexican president said that if the allegations turn out to be true, his government would “impose corresponding sanctions,” though he did not specify what those might be.

In Brazil, President Rousseff’s reaction has been much more confrontational.  The day after the news broke, O Globo reported that she held an emergency cabinet meeting, and Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo told the paper that the NSA’s activities represented an “unacceptable violation of sovereignty.” On Wednesday a senior administration official told Reuters that the president was “completely furious” about the matter, and that she was considering canceling a planned state visit to Washington next month. Yesterday, a Rousseff administration spokesperson announced that a preparatory delegation to the U.S. capital had been cancelled, and others in the government told reporters that the Brazilian president was waiting for an official explanation from Obama at the G20 summit. Today, Veja reports that Rousseff and Obama met yesterday, although it is unclear if she was satisfied by her U.S. counterpart’s response. According to O Globo, White House adviser Ben Rhodes confirmed the meeting, saying Obama had explained “the nature of intelligence efforts” to Rousseff.

Despite the heated rhetoric, some analysts say the reaction to the NSA’s work is overblown. Josh Froust, a freelance journalist who frequently covers security issues, argues that the outrage in Mexico and Brazil is “bizarre” and even “two-faced.” Because espionage is a normal part of international relations, and both countries have intelligence programs of their own, Froust claims that the reactions of Rousseff and Peña Nieto are unwarranted.

On Brazil, Latin America security analyst James Bosworth has a different take, arguing that it is highly unlikely that Rousseff will cancel the state visit. He maintains that Brazil has “foreign policy interests that go beyond the scandal of the week,” and the president knows that if she cancels the visit it is unlikely that another opportunity will come along any time soon. Bosworth is not alone in this. In an interview with Bloomberg News, former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. Rubens Barbosa claimed the most likely scenario would be for Rousseff to “end up going through with the trip and speak out against the espionage in Obama’s face.” This would fit with the awkward tone of the recent joint press conference held by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Brazilian foreign minister, in which the latter said NSA surveillance risked “casting a shadow of distrust” on U.S.-Brazil relations.

Barbosa also expressed confidence that any friction between the U.S. and Brazil would be temporary, saying, “At some point, this will be overcome, because it wasn’t just Brazil being spied on.”  However, the tension may not fade soon. Yesterday Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has worked to disseminate the information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, promised “an even bigger Brazil/NSA story coming Sunday.”


News Briefs
  • While the Brazilian government is criticizing the NSA’s surveillance operations through diplomatic channels, it is also attempting to circumvent them. Earlier this week, Brazilian Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo told Folha de São Paulo that the government was working with the postal agency, Correios do Brasil, to design an encrypted email system that would be inaccessible to outside monitoring. Now that the New York Times and Guardian have revealed that the U.S. intelligence agency is able to crack most encryption software, the effectiveness of this measure is unclear. However, Reuters reports that the government is unveiling plans to elude the NSA by purchasing a new satellite and building its own fiber optic cable to communicate with neighboring countries. Even still, many in Brazil are skeptical about their ability to successfully foil U.S. surveillance. As Brazilian Senator Ricardo Ferraco told the news agency: “Let's not kid ourselves. However much we do, it will never be enough to stop U.S. electronic surveillance, because today's technology is boundless.”
  • As Uruguay’s Senate prepares to take up debate on a marijuana regulation bill, lawmakers in Mexico are weighing the best model for a proposal to legalize marijuana in Mexico City. The AFP reports that legislators of the leftist PRD party, which support the initiative, attended a forum this week in the capital city in which the different models of marijuana legalization were discussed. Although many expressed support for Uruguay’s plan to regulate the production, distribution and sale of the drug, it is clear that Mexico’s proposal would center around membership clubs and cultivation for personal use.
  • Yesterday, thousands of education workers belonging to the dissident CNTE teachers’ union in Mexico City blocked the main roads to the city’s airport in protest of the recently-passed education reform bill. The Wall Street Journal reports that the union is demanding that the president veto the bill, and according to Animal Politico, CNTE leaders are currently sitting down with Interior Ministry officials to negotiate demands.
  • While most of the attention around marijuana legalization in Mexico has focused on Mexico City, local governments in other parts of the country appear to be in favor of relaxing marijuana laws as well. Milenio reports that the central Mexican state of Morelos hosted a conference on marijuana decriminalization this week, sponsored by the state’s governor, Graco Ramirez Garrido Abreu. It was attended by high-profile political figures like Spanish jurist Baltazar Garzón Real and former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda.
  • The family of Victor Jara, the popular Chilean protest singer who was killed in the aftermath of the 1973 military coup that brought the Pinochet regime to power, has filed a suit in a Florida court against a man they say is responsible for his murder. The accused, a former military officer named Pedro Pablo Barrientos, left for Florida in 1989 and obtained U.S. citizenship. According to the NYT, witnesses say Barrientos fired the shot that killed Jara, and was in charge of forces at the stadium where he and other dissidents were taken.   
  • The Jara case comes as the country prepares for the 40th anniversary of Pinochet’s coup. On Wednesday, Chile’s National Association of Magistrates of the Judiciary marked the anniversary by publishing a public apology for its members’ actions during the military dictatorship. La Tercera reports that the statement laments the association’s failures to address the rights violations of thousands of individuals under military rule, and requests forgiveness from “the victims, their relatives and Chilean society.” The BBC notes that the statement comes after the head of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party, Hernan Larrain, apologized for its actions during the Pinochet regime.
  • The Miami Herald reports that Bolivia’s top anti-corruption official, National Police Colonel Mario Fabricio Ormachea Aliaga, has been arrested by the FBI on charges that he attempted to extort a Miami businessman. He faces a preliminary hearing today. According to La Razon, Ormachea  has admitted to wrongdoing, and was stripped of his position this week.
  • In the wake of the recent major blackout that affected 70% of Venezuela, both President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition have deeply politicized the incident. Maduro has accused the opposition of sabotaging the electric grid in order to orchestrate an “electric coup,” and unveiled a new initiative to guard and improve power coverage in the country.  The opposition, meanwhile, has cast the outage as a clear demonstration of the failure of the ruling PSUV party’s economic policies.
  • Venezuelan human rights organization PROVEA (an acronym for the Venezuela Program for Education and Action in Human Rights) has released its monthly report for August. The organization takes a balanced approach to human rights developments in the country, praising an anti-torture law passed in July as a “valuable tool” to address abuse by security forces while also criticizing the continuing politicization of Venezuela’s judicial branch. PROVEA cites a recent study which found that the Supreme Court only decides in favor of the petitioners in 7 percent of all cases involving complaints against senior government officials.  In cases which involve complaints against the National Assembly, the prosecutor general or the president, the Court has yet to rule in favor of any petitioners.
  •  The AP has published an in-depth investigation into money laundering in Peru, which the wire agency claims is “more profitable than cocaine.” According to the U.S. Secret Service, Peru has overtaken Colombia in the past two years as the primary source of counterfeit U.S. dollars, and local authorities say it also exports fake money to criminal networks in Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador.