By Malena Castaldi
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - South American leaders planned to send a tough message to Washington on Friday over allegations of U.S. spying in the region and to defend their right to offer asylum to fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Capping two weeks of strained North-South relations over the Snowden saga, presidents from the Mercosur bloc of nations were meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay. Complaints against the United States were high on the agenda.
"Any act of espionage that violates human rights, above all the basic right to privacy, and undermines the sovereignty of nations, deserves to be condemned by any country that calls itself democratic," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told reporters on arrival at the meeting.
Rousseff, who was imprisoned and tortured under military rule in Brazil in the early 1970's, said the rights issue was particularly important for South American countries that lived under dictatorships for years and are now democracies.
The Mercosur bloc comprises Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The meeting began as reports emerged that Snowden plans to eventually travel to Latin America after seeking temporary asylum in Russia. Leftist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered him asylum.
Leaders throughout the region are furious over reports that the U.S. National Security Agency targeted most Latin American countries with spying programs that monitored Internet traffic, especially in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.
Colombia, Washington's closest military ally in Latin America, and Mexico, it's top business partner, joined the chorus of governments seeking answers after the allegations were published by a leading Brazilian newspaper on Tuesday.
COSTS TO LATIN AMERICA
Washington is demanding Snowden's arrest on espionage charges after he divulged extensive, secret U.S. surveillance programs. Stuck in the transit area of Moscow's international airport since late June, he has been seeking asylum in various countries.
The U.S. has been pressuring countries not to accept the fugitive on their territory, Snowden told human rights groups in a letter posted on the Facebook page of the New-York based Human Rights Watch on Friday. And U.S. President Barack Obama has warned of serious costs to any country who takes him in.
Despite their public offers of asylum and fiery rhetoric, few in Latin America seem particularly keen to welcome Snowden and risk damaging trade and economic ties with Washington.
Cuba and Venezuela are both in a cautious rapprochement with the U.S., which could be jeopardized if they helped Snowden.
Still, leaders recalled that many of their own citizens sought asylum abroad during the military dictatorships of the Cold War era.
"If there is one thing that was born in our countries, it is the right to asylum," said Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman. "All Latin American countries have recognized the right to asylum and they have exercised that right on numerous occasions ... of our own history," he said.
South American leaders rallied in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales last week after he was denied access to the airspace of several European countries on suspicion the 30-year-old Snowden might be on board his plane as Morales flew home from a visit to Russia.
Leftist leaders from Ecuador to Argentina denounced the incident at a meeting last week, saying it showed a "neo-colonialist" attitude on the part of Europe and the United States.
"These are issues that will show Mercosur's unity," Timerman said.
Bolivia is an associate member of Mercosur and Morales is scheduled to attend Friday's meeting.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Louise Egan; Editing by David Storey)