Snowden affair chills US-Latin American ties

Monday - 7/15/2013, 4:24am EDT

DEB RIECHMANN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- America is pivoting to Asia, focused on the Mideast, yet the "backyard," as Secretary of State John Kerry once referred to Latin America, is sprouting angry weeds as the scandal involving intelligence leaker Edward Snowden lays bare already thorny U.S. relations with Latin America.

Taking the opportunity to snub their noses at the U.S., Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have already said they'd be willing to grant asylum for Snowden, who is wanted on espionage charges in the United States for revealing the scope of National Security Agency surveillance programs that spy on Americans and foreigners. Ecuador has said it would consider any request from him.

Relations between the US and these countries were already testy, but the Snowden affair also stunned the Obama administration's effort to improve ties with friendlier nations in the region like Mexico and Brazil.

Snowden hasn't been the only recent setback. Leaders in the region harshly criticized the U.S. earlier this week when a newspaper in Brazil, which was privy to some documents released by Snowden, reported that a U.S. spy program was widely targeting data in emails and telephone calls across Latin America. That revelation came just days after an uproar in Latin America over the rerouting of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane over Europe amid suspicions, later proven untrue, that Snowden was aboard.

And all this comes right after President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Kerry have all made recent treks to the region to bolster U.S. engagement in Latin America.

"What the Snowden affair has done to the reinvigorated effort to re-engage with Latin America is to dump a pail of cold water on it," said Carl Meacham, a former senior Latin America adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It won't stop trade deals, cooperation on energy, but it's going to be harder for the president to portray the image that 'We are here to work with you.' It's a step back."

The U.S. has sought to downplay the fallout from the disclosure of information about its intelligence activities. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged that the United States does gather foreign intelligence just like other nations.

"I can tell you that we have spoken with Brazilian officials regarding these allegations," she said this week. "We plan to continue our dialogue with the Brazilians through normal diplomatic channels, but those are conversations that, of course, we would keep private."

Psaki has also said that any country granting asylum to Snowden would create "grave difficulties in our bilateral relationship."

While other nations may spy on their friends, the allegations have fueled anti-American sentiment already simmering in the region. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador are led by populist leaders who have balked at any dominance by the U.S. in the Americas and pursued policies that often run counter to Washington's wishes. Venezuela refers to the United States simply as "The Empire."

"What they're saying is 'See, the U.S. hasn't changed. It doesn't matter who is in the White House, the U.S. is the same. The U.S. is the big imperial power ... they are not treating us as equals. Look, they are even spying on us,'" said Meacham, who directs the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The flap over the rerouting of the Bolivian president's plane prompted a special session Tuesday of the Organization of American States' permanent council. Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero delivered blistering remarks about the incident, calling it an "act of aggression" conducted "at the behest of the United States.

Countries like Ecuador, which has cozied up to U.S. rivals Iran and China, joined the verbal slugfest against the U.S. Ecuador has sheltered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its embassy in London for more than a year and has given mixed signals about offering Snowden asylum.

Latin America wants international standing and chafes at any attempt by the United States to downplay its stature, hence the ruffled feathers when Kerry referred to the region as "America's backyard." Latin America is now home to 600 million people. The U.S. looks to the region for oil and is heavily vested in bilateral trade agreements.

Together, Mexico and Brazil are responsible for 65 percent of Latin America's production, and some experts suggest that they are destined to jump into fourth and fifth place on the list of the world's biggest economies, behind the U.S., India and China. Last year alone, trade between the U.S. and Mexico totaled nearly $500 billion, making it the United States' second-largest trading partner and Mexico could eventually overtake Canada for the No. 1 spot.