Some brief thoughts on Snowden in historical perspective

I’d just like to point out a few parallels and contrasts between the current case of whistleblowing CIA hacker Edward Snowden and some examples from my milieu of research, mid-C20 Mexico. Snowden is currently attempting to find a state which will offer him political asylum having had his passport suspended by the U.S. government following his leaking of revelations about the NSA’s spying activities (both domestic and foreign).

Snowden had, among his initial flurry of asylum applications, included Russia. Like many other examples from the list, this was curious since his asylum is a result of his (apparent) commitment to open, popular scrutiny of government, something Russia has very little of. Understandable, though – he is backed into a corner and cannot afford to be choosy at this point. This application was withdrawn by Snowden, however, when Vladimir Putin stipulated that his asylum would be dependent on his cessation of human rights-based campaigning. Incidentally, Henrik Hertzberg has written here about the brilliance of Putin’s multi-layered statement on the matter.

This condition of exile naturally brought to my mind that placed upon (first) Leon Trotsky and (later) Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War in Mexico. In both cases, those negotiating on behalf of the asylum seeker conceded that they would not partake in political activity in their place of exile. This meant domestic political activity – for example, when Pablo Neruda arrived in post-WWII Mexico he was free to criticise the Chilean government. Similarly, Trotsky continued his life as an international revolutionary, but practically-speaking his international map suddenly had a Mexico-shaped hole in it. Hence, when his initial closest allies the LCI called for sabotage and direct action against businesses to protest against the high cost of living in 1937, Trotsky disowned them, describing their methods as “stupid”. (Note that this debate has barely evolved since 1937 and lives on in the Trotskyist and anarchist divergence in current methods to oppose the coalition government in the UK). Nor could Trotsky comment on the manner in which the railroads were (in all likelihood) handed over to workers’ control deliberately in order to fail in 1938.

When the Spanish exiles began to arrive fleeing the Francoist advance, they too were obliged to keep to non-Mexican affairs in their political discussion. In the case of the Republican government in exile this was not too taxing since they spent much of their time engaged in bitter personal recriminations. For those lower down the political hierarchy, though, the safety and opportunity Mexico afforded meant having to put their passions and energies into (usually) cultural – rather than political – affairs. When many of their children became involved in the 1968 student movement and more generalised opposition, the first generation of immigrants panicked, fearful that the political ‘sins’ of the children would be revisited upon them and all would find themselves once again without a home.

I suppose what I am trying to convey is that asylum is a tool for the state which offers it too. It can be used as a fig leaf for domestic authoritarianism, as it was in post-Revolutionary Mexico and (rather honestly, it seems) would have been in Putin’s Russia. Just as the Mexican government could trumpet its fraternal attitude to the Republican refugees while muting them politically, it would later proudly boast of a revolutionary brotherhood with Cuba while providing the U.S. government with lists of passengers travelling there from Mexico and supposedly allowing the C.I.A. to use the Mexican embassy in Havana as a listening post. While we ought to be appalled at the actions of the United States government in twisting arms across the globe to deny Snowden political asylum, we must not forget that states which receive exiles do so for their own politically-expedient reasons – even if they are nominally left-wing.

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Published in: on July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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