There’s a good reason Edward Snowden reached out to a Brazilian audience with an open letter offering to help Brazil investigate spying by the National Security Agency.
In the US, people have reacted to the NSA spying revelations with a mixture of anger, support, and a lot of apathy. In Brazil, people were plain mad.
“You have to keep in mind that the Brazilians have a long history of human rights violations under the military, and therefore naturally are much more aggressive and reactionary against any kind of violations of human rights … especially from a foreign country like the US,” says Ed Gomez, a senior lecturer with King’s College London.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff devoted a third of her speech at the recent UN general assembly meeting talking about how troubling the NSA revelations were. She also postponed a state visit to Washington, DC, in protest.
Gomez says Snowden knows he has a receptive audience in Brazil. And Tuesday’s letter from Snowden is designed to show Brazilians that he’s committed to their cause, and can further help if the country grants him asylum.
But a decision to grant asylum wouldn’t be made in a foreign policy vacuum.
Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, says President Rousseff has a simple choice to make: “Snowden or Obama.”
Sotero says that’s a no-brainer — it’s in the best interest of both the US and Brazil to move past the Snowden leaks and work on strengthening ties.
And right now with Brazil’s under-performing economy, Brazil needs American help more than the US needs Brazil.
“It is very important that the government of Brazil produces the right messages in terms of being on good terms with the United States for investors," says Sotero. That would be American investors in Brazil.
And make no mistake, says John French at Duke University, there would be a strong reaction from Washington if Brazil grants Snowden asylum.
“The US expects deference from groups according to their relative importance to the US,” says French, a modern Latin American historian and Brazil specialist. “This is the way it is. And the idea that there aren’t consequences … diplomacy is all about the consequences that flow from positions that you take.”
It’s one thing for Russia to stick it to the US by letting Snowden remain temporarily on its soil, but it would be another thing entirely for Brazil to do that.
“Russia is sufficiently powerful, sufficiently large, to have taken that risk, especially given the context of difficult relations with the US," says French. "The relative blow to their relationship is much smaller than it would be for countries in Latin America.”
Given all this, French doesn’t expect Snowden to be granted asylum in Brazil, or perhaps anywhere.
“It would be a daring thing to do, it would be an admirable thing to do,” says French. “But whether it’s a realistic thing to do, it’s not.”