Latin America’s Double Standard on Spying

While Americans let off a 300-million strong sigh over last month’s revelation that the US government has a massive communications monitoring program, and Europeans feign indignation, Latin Americans are calling for investigations.

In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff took a break from watching her poll numbers fall to call a cabinet meeting and “ask for clarification” from the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia over the nature of the intercepted communications. Her government is currently forming a “working group” to investigate the depth of the spying and find scapegoats.

Meanwhile, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Evo Morales of Bolivia have rolled out the red carpet for Edward Snowden. Conveniently, these modern day Wizards of Oz haven’t shown him where the yellow brick road is.

And today, the Organization of American States (OAS) is holding hearings for Latin American representatives to air their grievances with the revelations and protest the forced grounding of Bolivian President Morales’s plane in Europe, on suspicions that Snowden was stowing away on board. I’m still not sure what the OAS does after all these years, but they’re mad about it.

But as Latin American leaders huff and puff over American spying (that they knew all along was happening), many governments are busy doing the same thing to their people. Shadier still, governments with friendlier relations with the U.S. are using American spy power to further their own internal agendas.

In a fascinating piece in the San Antonio Express News, Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America sums up nicely how the NSA reports are throwing salt in old wounds across Latin America:

“Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance at home and abroad come as no surprise to Latin America. These disclosures only confirm what the region already knows — America is listening.”

The article goes into further detail about the NSA’s Latin America-focused operations based out of San Antonio, revealing how the office came to life and how its role is expected to broaden in coming years. But while it might be easy to pin blame on an obsessive American security apparatus for this increased surveillance in the region, local governments might be as much to blame.

Andrew Selee, the director of the venerable Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said in the same article:

“There’s tension with the United States because these countries want the information that the Americans may have obtained from electronic surveillance, but they fear how that information could be used”.

And earlier this year, American intelligence put the kibosh on President Peña Nieto’s first choice for defense minister, as the New York Times reported in February:

Drug Enforcement Administration’s suspicion that he had links to drug traffickers and the Pentagon’s anxiety that he had misused military supplies and skimmed money from multimillion-dollar defense contracts.

Certainly, American ties with Mexico are far stronger than any other country in the Latin America, and perhaps this is the reason why Mexico has remained conspicuously quiet on the issue given more cantankerous regional counterparts.

Bogotá has been quiet too, although it did issue a meek demand for an explanation. I imagine few Colombians inside and outside of government doubt the role of America’s spy programs in weakening FARC to its atrophied state today.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, ever using international affairs to domestic political ends, proposed a vague pan-Latin criticism of the spy programs, adding:

the “press wanted to whip up a small frenzy” to criticize a fictitious Argentine government soy program. “Now”, she continued, “the fact that we’re being spied on from up north they’re not saying anything. I guess the CIA is much cooler than an Argentine police officer”.

Much more entertaining, however, was her dramatic, Cher-like tweeting during Evo Morales’s European odyssey.

This is by no means an endorsement of the obsessive American quest to surreptitiously collect and analyze online communications around the world, without any real regard for the legal or ethical ramifications. But with Mexico and Colombia’s complicit stance on American spying, combined with countries like Argentina upping their military intelligence budget to historic highs and Venezuela arresting purported spies from Colombia, can Latin American governments truly be indignant or surprised by PRISM? And would they not ask the U.S. for sneak peeks at that same information on places like China if they had better relationships, much in the way Europe is “in bed with” the NSA?

For governments that have built up credibility on Yankee-bashing, this is more fuel for their small fires. And for Brazil, this distraction couldn’t come at a better time. I’m convinced the investigations, the hearings and the declarations are more political theater than true anger. For many Latin American governments, shedding too much light on PRISM might well be a looking glass into their own spooky practices.

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2 responses to “Latin America’s Double Standard on Spying

  1. Comparing LA spying to the US’s is a joke. What I don’t get is if the world knows that we all spy on each other, then why is the US so gun ho on getting this fella.

    • Good point on US vs. LatAm spying, but the thrust of my criticism was more directed towards the double standard of going out of their way to criticize when many explicitly and implicitly benefit from the range of US activities. By no means does LatAm activity reach the level or justify what the US does. Thanks for reading.

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