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WASHINGTON — 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 U.S. and these countries were already testy, but the Snowden affair also has acted as a stun gun to 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 America 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.
The Snowden affair is not likely to unravel these strong U.S. connections to the region, but it is a roadblock to efforts to improve cooperation, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western hemisphere affairs.
“I don’t think it’s going to paralyze relations,” Shifter said. “But I think it’s a setback overall — even with countries that have been friendly.”
Obama got off to a slow start with Latin America. The president spent little time on the region during his first term and uttered few, if any, words about the area during his re-election campaign, though he took more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning a second term. In May, he went south to Mexico and also traveled to Costa Rica to meet with Central American leaders.
Passing immigration reform would remove a major irritant in U.S.-Mexico relations and could prevent the U.S. from becoming more isolated in the region, but the U.S. was facing problems in the area before the Snowden affair.
In Bolivia, Morales on May 1 acted on a long-time threat and expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development, saying it was trying to undermine the government — allegations the State Department said were baseless. Morales said Washington “still has a mentality of domination and submission” in the region, and he also harangued Kerry for offending the region when, in congressional testimony in April, he said the “Western Hemisphere is our backyard.”
Cuba — a possible transit stop for Snowden if he is granted asylum in a Latin American country — has a history of conflict with the United States. Fidel Castro’s brother Raul, who now leads the government, has recently explored new diplomatic entrees with Washington. At the same time, he earlier this year assumed the rotating presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in what was a demonstration of regional unity against U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government through a 50-year-old economic embargo.
In Brazil, which wields the most influence in Latin America, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, lent support to the Iranian government and also backed Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, who ranted against U.S.-style capitalism and formed alliances with Russia, China and Iran. The new president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, appears more moderate. Biden visited Brazil in May, saying stronger trade ties and closer cooperation in education, science and other fields should usher in a new era of U.S.-Brazil relations.
During his visit, Biden announced that Obama was hosting Rousseff at the first official state dinner of his second term. The October dinner is a sign of respect and Brazilian officials say the spying allegations won’t taint it, yet Rousseff herself has said that any such data collection infringed on the nation’s sovereignty and that Brazil would raise the issue at the United Nations.
U.S. relations with Venezuela have been a lot thornier.
While Nicolas Maduro, appears to be more pragmatic than his predecessor, he has loudly voiced his own anti-American rhetoric since taking office — even alleging that the U.S. had a hand in Chavez’ death from cancer. Maduro expelled two U.S. Air Force attaches in Caracas, accusing them of trying to foment instability. The Obama administration responded by expelling two Venezuelan diplomats from Washington.
In a gesture that could have signaled a thaw in relations, Venezuela released an American documentary filmmaker who had been jailed for alleged espionage in the country. Timothy Tracy, 35, was released just hours before Kerry met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Guatemala. Kerry said the two agreed to take steps to change the dialogue between the two countries and hopefully, quickly move to appoint ambassadors, which haven’t been in either capital since 2010.