Amid growing spying scandal, US allies in region join chorus of discontent



A growing number of Latin American nations are asking the United States to come clean about an alleged spying program that reputedly soaked up security and economic information from the region.

Chile, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and others have demanded answers from Washington, in the latest fallout from NSA-leaker Edward Snowden.

“We reject acts of espionage that violate the right to privacy and international telecommunications agreements,” Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Chile said it “firmly and categorically condemned spying, regardless of its origins, nature or objectives.” And Mexico said it expected answers.

Such strong rebukes from some of the United States’ closest allies in the region are sign that “this is a crisis,” even if the allegations prove to be untrue, said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In countries like Argentina, Chile and Brazil “that made the transition from military dictatorships to democracy, the issue of wiretapping, spying and intelligence activities strike a very raw nerve,” she said. “The whole thing is very troubling in the region because of the weight of the historical legacy, particularly during the Cold War.”

The tensions come after Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported that the United States had been engaged in mass surveillance of telephone and Internet communications throughout the hemisphere.

Citing National Security Agency documents, the newspaper also said that the U.S. operated surveillance bases, at least through 2002, in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Panama and Mexico.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has said she will ask the United Nations to investigate the allegations, and Argentine President Christina Fernández said she will bring up the issue at the meeting of the Mercosur later this month.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Michael McKinley said he could not comment publically on the allegations but that U.S. officials would be meeting with regional governments.

“We have the obligation — and we’re going to fulfill it — to respond through diplomatic channels to our partners and allies in the Americas and other places,” he told RCN radio. “Among the countries that are closest to us is Colombia.”

The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá referred questions to the State Department.

The allegations give more credibility and ammunition to U.S. antagonists in the region — but they’re unlikely to upset longstanding regional ties, said Alvaro Duque, a political analyst at Colombia’s Rosario University.

“We have a long history of U.S. scandals in the region,” he said, citing other incidences of U.S. spying in Colombia and the secret diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. “I don’t think the relationship is going to get much worse than it is.”

A sign of the region’s disdain came late Tuesday when the Organization of American States passed a resolution condemning Italy, France, Spain and Portugal for closing off their airspace to Bolivian President Evo Morales amid suspicions that Snowden might be on the presidential aircraft.

Bolivia and others accused the nations of being lackeys and putting Morales’ life at risk to serve U.S. interests. In the resolution, the OAS asked the four countries to explain what happened and apologize to Bolivia. The United States and Canada were the only two countries not to sign.

Snowden, the 30-year-old former CIA employee and NSA contractor, had already tested U.S. relations with its European allies, with his revelations about mass surveillance programs on that continent. This week it has been Latin America’s turn, as Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the Snowden story, began writing a series of stories for O Globo.

Snowden has been in Moscow for more than two weeks as he tries to elude U.S. authorities who want him on criminal espionage charges. Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered him asylum, but it’s unclear how he might travel to Latin America without being detained by the U.S. or its allies.

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