The most recent reports have Edward Snowden—the contractor who blew the whistle on widespread National Security Agency surveillance of US citizens—requesting asylum in Ecuador. That contradicts earlier reports that he was headed to Venezuela. It is clear that he left Hong Kong for Moscow. And it is said that he will spend the night there and be on his way tomorrow to Havana and then Caracas or Quito. He is said to be advised and accompanied by lawyers from Wikileaks, whose founder Julian Assange has been granted asylum by Ecuador but has not been granted safe passage to leave the United Kingdom.
If Snowden were to seek asylum in Venezuela it would certainly complicate its warming relations with the United States. The US has said it will request collaboration from any country where Snowden might seek refuge and has asked Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador not to receive him.
Already there are people calling this Snowden’s “Axis of Evil Tour” and portraying Ecuador and Venezuela as a safe haven from the international community. However in the case of Venezuela, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
In recent years Venezuela has deported dozens of drug traffickers to Colombia, the US and Europe. And in 2011, they deported four members of guerrilla groups to Colombia. The latter happened as part of a warming of relations with Colombia and was carried out with some cost–indeed deportation of Rodrigo Granda generated serious criticism from the left of the Chávez coalition. In that sense it is a little odd that Snowden would seek refuge in Venezuela.
However, it is important to realize that this is a quite different case from drug traffickers and non-state armed actors. Snowden’s leaks have generated an important debate regarding the narrow definition of what falls under the protection of the Whistleblower’s Act, the US government’s overused of the Espionage Act, and the problem of “over-classification,” i.e. the sweeping classification as secret, of documents that can in any way be construed as addressing issues of national security. Both the Open Society Foundations and Human Rights Watch have suggested that the US government needs to make a clear case how the harm done by these leaks outweighs the public’s right to know.
Of course, there is no uncertain irony in Snowden’s seeking asylum in a country that itself has serious shortcomings in the freedom of expression. In April Venezuela arrested jailed a US filmmaker Timothy Tracy on evidence-free accusations of espionage, and over the past year has detained several Twitter users for their statements.
Ecuador probably makes more sense as a place for Snowden to seek asylum as Correa is domestically in a much stronger position than Maduro and there is already precedent. And the US and Ecuador have diplomatic relations which if not exactly warm, are less fragile than relations between the US and Venezuela.
Ecuador threw out the US Ambassador to Ecuador in April 2011 after a cable leaked by Wikileaks had her suggesting that Correa had ignored the corruption of the police chief. A year later the countries exchanged ambassadors and their renewed diplomatic relations survived Ecuador’s concession of asylum to Assange.
Here as well there is irony in Ecuador being a destination for international freedom of information advocates as the Correa government itself has seriously violated international norms on freedom of expression.
But this perhaps is the attraction of granting such asylum for countries like Venezuela and Ecuador. They are frequently criticized as not respecting the freedom of expression by the US or US based multilateral and human rights agencies. These asylum cases provide opportunities to steer discussion towards the US’s own shortcomings.