Why didn't Snowden board the flight to Cuba?

Cuba might be trying to keep its word to the US.

Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS
A plane en route to Cuba takes off from Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, June 24, 2013. There was no sign that former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was onboard a Russian plane bound for Cuba as it prepared to take off on Monday, a Reuters correspondent on the plane said. A flight attendant said Snowden was not on the plane and the seat he had been expected to occupy was taken by another passenger.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor on the run who leaked information about top secret surveillance activities at the NSA, didn't board the Aeroflot plane headed for Havana this morning.

Mr. Snowden, who flew from Hong Kong to Moscow last weekend, was expected to transit Havana next, en route to either Venezuela or Ecuador (and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is considered likely to accept him – afterall, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after more than a year now).

Snowden's transit through Havana seemed obvious to many, given the decades-long tensions between the US, which is seeking Snowden's return and has charged him with espionage. And Havana has accepted US fugitives since the 1960's – the most notorious of whom has recently been added to the FBI's most wanted list, Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther member who killed a New Jersey State Trooper. Many of these fugitives remain on the island today and their status is expected to be addressed in the course of any normalization of relations. So imagine the world's surprise when Snowden didn't turn up for the Havana-bound flight for which he was reportedly booked.

But perhaps not everyone was surprised that Snowden didn't board that flight. In the State Department's 2006 report detailing why it would continue to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it noted that Cuban authorities had given assurances they would no longer accept "new" US fugitives (whether their crimes were considered political or not). Allowing Snowden to transit Cuba would be a break of faith from that assurance given. Allowing a fugitive to transit your territory is tantamount to giving refuge, as the fugitive wouldn't be able to reach their ultimate destination without the transit stop.

My guess is that the message somehow got to Snowden that if he traveled through Cuba he would be detained and possibly even returned to the United States (I suppose an immediate return wouldn't be certain; he would be the highest value fugitive to pass through in quite some time, for sure, and I imagine the Cubans might be tempted to consider whether they could trade him for one or all of their remaining Cuban Five. But such a strategy might backfire, of course).

Perhaps I'll be proven wrong in the days ahead, but I doubt we'll see Edward Snowden turn up in Havana any time soon.

– Anya Landau French is the editor of and a frequent contributor to the blog The Havana Note.

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