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Political Asylum Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be


As Edward Snowden, the young American accused of blowing the whistle on NSA surveillance tactics, continues his search for a fresh start in a new country in order to avoid extradition and perhaps a lengthy prison term in a U.S. prison, he needs to ask himself a couple of things.

First, can he speak Spanish? According to the latest reports, the two countries most likely to offer him asylum (after the Russians more or less made it clear they didn’t want him) are Venezuela and Bolivia, both of which speak Spanish. Granted, if Snowden has the faculty for picking up a foreign language, he’ll eventually get the hang of it, but until he does, it’s going to be real drag walking around sounding like—and being treated as—a Yankee tourist.

Also, he needs to bear in mind that, as an acknowledged fink (even one motivated by highly defensible ethical reasons), he will never be trusted again, not by anyone. He needs to know that. Because he’s an acknowledged fink, he will never be entirely trusted by friends, casual acquaintances, future girlfriends, or future employers. He also needs to know that the reason Venezuela or Bolivia offered him asylum wasn’t because they coveted him. They largely did it to thumb their nose at the U.S.

Which raises another question. What sort of job does Snowden expect to get, once he relocates? While it’s very likely the country providing asylum will, for the time being at least, provide him with a monthly stipend on which to live, they will eventually expect him to get off his duff and find work.

What kind of career does he plan to have? There is no way in hell anyone’s going to give him a job where he has access to computers or sensitive information. (“Here, Ed, take this stack of documents and file them under Confidential.”) As an American, not only will he always be considered an “outsider,” he has, unfortunately, established a track record as someone who’s willing to take matters into his own hands if he feels there’s a moral or legal justification for doing so. It’s going to be a tough road for this young man.

It was different for actual “defectors,” which Snowden clearly is not. Cold War defectors were a breed unto themselves. Take men like the legendary British spy Kim Philby, who, after years of feeding classified information to the KGB, fled England to live in the USSR where he was treated almost as a national hero. His defection was tantamount to a religious conversion. So enamored was Philby with Soviet-style socialism, he was willing to risk arrest, pack it all in, and betray his own country for it.

But that’s not Snowden. He didn’t blow the whistle on his fellow Americans because he admired Venezuela’s political ideology. Young Snowden just desperately wanted to do the “right thing,” which, in my opinion, he did. Alas, he’s going to be paying for that decision the rest of his life. Que lastima (as they say in Venezuela).

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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