NEW YORK — Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have offered asylum to Edward Snowden. That’s a surprise to almost no one — except, perhaps, the US State Department officials who failed to immediately revoke the US intelligence leaker’s passport.
As Snowden languishes — now passportless — in the spartan transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the nonchalant approach publicly espoused by President Barack Obama, who dismissed the idea of “scrambling jets over a 29-year-old hacker,” has worn paper thin.
So far the United States has stayed mute on just where several European countries got the idea last week that Snowden had been spirited aboard Bolivian President Evo Morales' official aircraft of as it flew from Moscow back to Bolivia.
Perhaps it was just a hunch. Perhaps it was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services — a friendly tip, tee hee hee — that caused deep embarrassment among American allies in Europe.
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Or perhaps, as some US officials have suggested, Latin American leaders knew such a flight would be too tempting a prize for Western intelligence agencies to pass up.
Perhaps they wanted to expose the Europeans as the American running dogs that Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader, always said they were. The forced landing of the Bolivian leader’s aircraft, this thinking goes, would make nonsense of all the French and Spanish and German public outrage over the US National Security Agency eavesdropping programs exposed by Snowden. It was, after all, European countries that denied their airspace to the Morales, not the United States.
Whatever the case, it’s very hard at this point to square Obama’s nonchalance with the downing of a plane carrying a head of state.
The gift this represents to America’s critics in Latin America — let’s call them The Axis of Evo — is hard to underestimate. As US Sen. Robert Menendez, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, rightly noted Sunday, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua “like sticking it to the United States.”
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Together with Cuba and Ecuador, which are also apparently on Snowden's refugee wish list, these nations are all governed by politicians who find the United States to be a perfect foil and a tremendous excuse for much that goes wrong inside their own borders.
It’s an old game, and it has deep roots in the Cold War frictions between the United States and left-leaning governments in its “backyard.” Many Latin Americans retain long memories of the repeated US interventions — covert and otherwise — in their domestic politics during the 20th century.
The Cuban system started by Fidel Castro arguably has remained in power over these many decades in large part because the inflexible US economic embargo provided the perfect excuse for the failure of Cuban communism’s economic policies.
Castro’s primary protege, the late Chavez, also pursued this line of argument, expertly exploiting the foreign policy missteps of George W. Bush’s administration while keeping his population on a near-constant state of alert against what he insisted was an imminent American invasion. Even American allies could not resist a chuckle when, at the United Nations in 2006, Chavez followed a Bush speech by remarking, “It smells of sulfur here.”
Ecuador, of course, has provided shelter in its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. And Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, was Ronald Reagan’s bete noir and has lost little of his disdain for the United States over the years.
The long history of US-Nicaraguan friction is particularly relevant here. Indeed, the effort to ensnare Snowden by forcing an aircraft to land on a US ally's soil recalls a more successful operation led by a man well known to Ortega: Col. Oliver North.
Before the Iran-Contra affair unglued his career, North served as a Reagan administration national security aide. One day in 1985, as he later explained to Iran-Contra investigators, North learned that Egypt was concealing the location of Abu Abbas, a Palestinian guerrilla leader best known for hijacking the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1983 and throwing a wheelchair bound Jewish passenger named Leon Klinghoffer to his death in the Mediterranean.
North remembered that, in 1943, the United States had dealt a severe blow to the Japanese Imperial Navy when radio intercepts revealed the travel plans of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of Pearl Harbor and commander of Japan's powerful fleet. The United States, still reeling from early losses in the Pacific, scrambled fighters and shot Yamamoto's plane out of the sky.
North won permission to “pull a Yamamoto,” as he put it, on Abbas and organized the scrambling of US Navy interceptors to force the Egypt Air 737 carrying Abbas to land at a NATO air base in Sicily. Abbas was handed over to Italian authorities for prosecution.
But even this effort went awry. Finding insufficient evidence that he had carried out the attacks, the Italian court released Abbas, who quickly fled to the bosom of one Saddam Hussein, himself soon to be the subject of an American dragnet of sorts. Abbas was apprehended by US troops in 2003 as they swept through Baghdad. He died a year later in US custody.
This may seem like ancient history to those transfixed by an intelligence leak focused on Big Data and involving NSA programs that North could only have dreamed of. But with a cast of characters that includes a former Sandinista rebel leader (Ortega), a former KGB agent (Vladimir Putin), a Venezuelan leader (Nicolas Maduro) who trained as a trade union organization in Cuba, and the president of the country (Bolivia) where Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara was finally hunted down and killed, “ancient” is a relative term.
Michael Moran is an author and political risk analyst based in New York.
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