BOGOTA, Colombia - The leaders of several South American nations on Friday strongly affirmed their right to grant political asylum, just as the former American intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, announced that he was seeking temporary refuge in Russia before intending to travel to Latin America and a new life where he would be safe from the U.S. justice system.
"We repudiate any action aimed at undermining the authority of countries to grant and fully implement the right of asylum," a statement issued in Montevideo, Uruguay, by the Mercosur group of countries, said. The group had met to discuss allegations that the National Security Agency has been carrying out broad-scale electronic spying in the region.
The Mercosur group, whose members include Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay, also called for "solidarity with the governments of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela," the three countries that have said they would offer Snowden asylum in the face of pressure from the Obama administration to reject the American's request for sanctuary.
Earlier in the day, at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, where Snowden has been trapped since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23, Snowden made it "crystal clear" to human rights activists that his long-range plan was to make it to Latin America, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Human Rights Watch Americas division. The group's Russia program director, Tatyana Lokshina, was among the rights activists and lawyers who had met with Snowden.
"He was crystal clear in the meeting with us that his plan is now to apply for temporary asylum benefits in Russia and then be able to calculate what would be the right place in Latin America to go," Vivanco said by phone from the United States. "He has not abandoned at all the idea of permanently establishing himself in Latin America."
This region has been at the center of the Snowden saga since Ecuador's government expressed strong interest in helping the former NSA contractor, with President Rafael Correa and other high officials praising him in June for having publicly released reams of intelligence documents about U.S. surveillance operations inside the United States and abroad. Ecuador later toned down its declarations and explained it would consider granting asylum only if Snowden makes it onto Ecuadorian territory. Soon after, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua said they would give him refuge.
Their offers of asylum to the 30-year-old computer expert came after as many as four European countries on July 2 closed off their airspace to Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane as he traveled home after having attended an energy conference in Moscow. Latin American leaders have angrily asserted that the ensuing diversion of his jet to the Vienna airport was orchestrated under pressure from the United States in the mistaken belief that Snowden was aboard.
Then early last week came news reports from Brazil that the NSA had been secretly collecting data on phone calls and e-mail traffic across much of Latin America without governments in the region knowing. The revelation, which has not been publicly explained by the United States, prompted the Mercosur group to issue a statement calling the interception of telecommunications data "a violation of human rights and citizens' right to privacy and information."
"Any act of espionage that violates human rights, above all the basic right to privacy, and undermines the sovereignty of nations, deserves to be condemned by any country that calls itself democratic," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told reporters at the Mercosur meeting, according to Reuters.
In spite of Human Rights Watch's position that Snowden has a serious asylum claim that should be considered fairly by any government, the organization has been critical of the rights situations in the Latin American countries that have supported Snowden. Venezuela and Ecuador, for instance, have both approved legislation to more tightly rein in the media.
But Vivanco said that his organization also recognizes that an asylum-seeker, like Snowden, "usually does not have the luxury of selecting the ideal country that is fully consistent with his or her values."
For the countries that have expressed interest in helping Snowden, among them Bolivia and Nicaragua, both of which say they would give him asylum, it remained unclear what they would hope to gain aside from a rhetorical victory over the United States.
Michael Shifter, the president of the Washington policy analysis group Inter-American Dialogue, said he thought that the close trade ties that those countries maintain with the United States could suffer should they receive Snowden.
"For all the rhetorical defiance of the United States," said Shifter, "at the end of the day, they don't want to put these economic relations at risk, and there's a real streak of pragmatism."