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Snowden, the NSA, and Latin America: Beyond the Headlines

This is part of our special coverage Snowden: The US is Watching You

If you were to read only the headlines of US news covering the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA’s surveillance in Latin America over the last two weeks, it would be easy to think that Latin America was a single bloc of nations that almost always acted in unity against the United States.

Debates in social media, however, have pushed beyond the familiar headlines in English language news.

Headlines like “Latin American leaders, on first-name basis, unite against critics”, “Rerouted Morales plane has South American leaders irate” and “Evo Morales’ Plane Grounding Causes Uproar Throughout Latin America” published in the days following the grounded plane of Bolivian president Evo Morales, pushed forth the image of a united bloc of nations that in reality maintain very distinct relations with the US, Europe, and other nations in the region.

Reunión de la UNASUR el 4 de julio, 2013, en respuesta el incidente del avión de Evo Morales en Europa. Foto compartida por Presidencia de la República de Ecuador en Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

UNASUR meeting after Evo Morales’ plane was rerouted in Europe. Photo shared by Presidencia de la República de Ecuador on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Media commentators have warned too of an “axis of Evo” or “circus of Evo” [es] that could control regional bodies like the UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations). This, even while UNASUR’s inability to unite all 12 of its signatory nations in the emergency summit held in Cochabamba, Bolivia (immediately after Morales’ plane detention in Europe) and MERCOSUR’s continuing debate on the return of Paraguay to its bloc – demonstrate notable regional divisions.

This is something well recognized by the US government, which in a 2011 report for the US Congress, underscored the strong relations of exchange maintained with Colombia, Chile and Peru — for whom the US exists as the primary partner for imports and exports, and with whom the new free trade agreements with the US have been implemented. The same report specifies that there exists considerably “less dependency” on the US in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

But one week after the controversy surrounding Morales’ plane detention in Europe, a broad diversity of national debates that have been sparked by the same incident offer an opportunity to see the diversity of foreign relations sustained in the region — which collectively demonstrate the unlikelihood that any single nation could “control” the regional debate.

The conversation on Twitter

Twitter streams reflect the strong activity of regional activists who have worked to ensure that debates don’t only focus on the roles and attention-grabbing public personas of Evo Morales or Edward Snowden.

In Brazil, the tweets of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (@GlennGreenwald), the first newspaper reporter to uncover the quantity of emails and phone calls that the NSA had collected from Latin America, globally recirculated the revelations published in O Globo — about which Greenwald first tweeted on July 6:

@ggreenwald: NEW: The US is spying on millions of calls & emails of Brazilians: my article in the Sunday edition of @JornalOGlobo http://oglobo.globo.com

Greenwald’s multiple articles helped pushed Brazil’s government to launch an investigation into the collaboration of Brazilian businesses with US surveillance. His articles also helped prompt international coverage that quickly emerged around the issue in sources from the New York Times, to The Guardian, and the Associated Press.

In Ecuador, digital rights activists like Rafael Bonifaz (@RBonifaz) [es] use Twitter and blogs [es] to distribute key information around the massive NSA spy program collecting emails and phone calls, not only in Brazil, but across Latin America more generally. Underscoring the gravity of the latest news on the extensive regional spy campaign, Bonifaz tweeted on July 10th:

@rbonifaz: América Latina indignada por espionaje. Ahora sí de verdad http://www.elcomercio.com/mundo/Americalatina-EEUU-Snowden-espionaje-Ecuador-asilo_0_953304835.html … Lo que escribí hace unas semanas http://rafael.bonifaz.ec/blog/2013/06/indignacion-en-america-latina/ …

@rbonifaz: Latin America is outraged about the spying. Now it's serious. http://www.elcomercio.com/mundo/Americalatina-EEUU-Snowden-espionaje-Ecuador-asilo_0_953304835.html … What I wrote a few weeks ago: http://rafael.bonifaz.ec/blog/2013/06/indignacion-en-america-latina/ …

In Bolivia, bloggers like filmmaker Violeta Ayala have questioned how the US can provide refuge to sought criminals in Bolivia (including former ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and 2 of his ministers, who are accused of killing dozens of citizens), while at the same time, it continues to pressure other governments to extradite Snowden.

Meanwhile, open technology activists like Mario Duran (@mrduranch) [es], have organized online events to educate local publics about the PRISM electronic surveillence program. Around the latest event, to be held online tonight (July 15th) starting at 9:30P (GMT-4), Durán tweeted on July 11:

@mrduranch: Software Libre, Criptografía y Privacidad para gobiernos e individuos, enterate + https://www.facebook.com/events/342717335858232/ … lunes 15 julio 2130 (GMT-4) #fb

@mrduranch: Open Software, Cryptography and Privacy for governments and individuals, find out more https://www.facebook.com/events/342717335858232/ … Monday, July 15 21:30 (GMT-4) #fb

And in Colombia, typically considered one of the US’s strongest regional allies, pointed reactions quickly surfaced after revelations that it was among the top three nations spied on by the NSA in Latin America.

Journalist Carolina Botero Cabrera, whose weekly column in El Espectador focuses on digital rights, wrote that the case of PRISM should push citizens to question more than their habits on information sharing online, and and should push them to ask too what price in human and civil rights they’re willing to pay to continue to “fight against terrorism and maintain security” [es]?

As the PanAmerican Post (@PanAmericanPost) tweeted on July 10:

@PanAmericanPost: When even #Colombia formally asks for clarification on NSA surveillance activities, it's a sure sign that the US has really ticked off LatAm.

The shared regional concerns surrounding the NSA, notwithstanding, there’s a long and substantial historical record that demonstrate that the headlines simplifying regional politics into a single bloc simply don't suffice to represent the region. This, surely will be something interesting to observe as analysis on the latest Mercosur Summit [es] that began July 13 begins to surface.

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