Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offered asylum to the fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, setting up a potential diplomatic showdown between the U.S. and South America’s biggest oil exporter.
“We decided to grant Snowden, this figure of international human rights, protection from persecution from the most powerful empire of the world,” Maduro said yesterday in a speech at a parade commemorating Venezuela’s July 5 independence day.
Venezuela’s offer was matched by Bolivia and Nicaragua, which opened their doors to the 30-year-old behind leaks on top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect telephone and Internet data. The U.S. pursuit of Snowden has roiled international relations.
“We will give asylum to this North American, who is persecuted by his compatriots, if he asks us. We are not afraid,” Bolivian President Evo Morales was quoted as saying by the Bolivian state news agency in Chipaya, Oruro today.
Morales said the offer is “justified protest” against four European countries that denied him flyover permission on U.S-fed suspicion that his plane carried Snowden from Moscow on July 2.
Venezuela Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said his government has had no contact with Snowden.
“We are waiting until Monday to know if, first of all, he shows disposition to take asylum in Venezuela,” Jaua said Trinidad in comments broadcast on Venezuela state television today. “Secondly, we have to contact the government of Russia to get their opinion on the matter.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said yesterday he would receive Snowden “circumstances permitting,” in comments broadcast on Venezuelan state television. Maduro, Ortega and Morales didn’t say if they would issue travel documents to him.
“These leaders have made their point. They are clearly taking the plane incident seriously,” Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Latin America analyst at consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said by phone from London today. “There are going to be consequences, but they are willing to take that risk.”
Snowden remains in limbo at an airport in Moscow after withdrawing his request for asylum in Russia. He has instead sought refuge in 26 other countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, according to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Snowden, whose U.S. passport was revoked, can’t leave the Moscow airport transit zone without a new travel document. He dropped his request for asylum in Russia after President Vladimir Putin said July 1 that the American must stop hurting U.S. interests if he wants to remain there.
Traveling through Cuba would be Snowden’s most likely route to Venezuela, Boliva or Nicaragua, said Daniel Sachs, Central America and Caribbean analyst at Control Risks, a consulting company.
“I don’t see Cuba obstructing Snowden’s passage on behalf of the U.S. if Russia did do a transfer deal with Venezuela or another Latin American country,” Sachs said in a telephone interview from Mexico City today. “Like Russia, I think Cuba would let him use the transit area of the airport, avoiding the antagonistic move of letting him through it’s actual territory.”
Russia’s state-controlled Aeroflot airline flies directly to Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic in Latin America. A press official at the Cuban embassy in Caracas, who asked not to be named because of government policy, declined to comment about Snowden’s possible use of Cuba as a transit point.
Prosecutors in the U.S. are seeking Snowden’s return and have filed theft and espionage charges against the former employee of McLean, Virginia-based government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp.
Snowden’s requests for asylum were spurned earlier this week by nations from Switzerland to India. U.S. officials have been contacting countries Snowden might approach for asylum or pass through on the way to a third country to provide “reasons why Mr. Snowden should be returned to the United States and face charges,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on July 2 in Washington.
The State Department declined to comment today on offers of asylum to Snowden.
WikiLeaks, which has been advising Snowden, said in a message on its Twitter feed today it “applauds” the offer of asylum by Bolivia. “All states should stand in solidarity with Morales,” the anti-secrecy group said. Yesterday, WikiLeaks said on Twitter Snowden had applied for asylum in 27 nations, without naming the countries on concern the U.S. would seek to disrupt the petitions.
The governments of Morales, Maduro and Ortega all have strained ties with the U.S. and the leaders frequently criticize U.S. policy.
Morales said speculation that he was helping Snowden flee Russia on his plane after a Moscow conference led European countries to deny him permission to stop and refuel on July 2. The leader never spoke with Snowden in Russia and the former NSA contractor is not on Bolivian territory, he said.
The plane incident has changed the Latin American nations’ posture on Snowden, Gregory Weeks, director of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
“Now Maduro feels he has a chance to establish himself as a leader who responds when U.S. imperialism exerts itself over the region,” Weeks said. “For Maduro the best case scenario would be if Snowden never comes. That way he can say that he is fighting the U.S. without actually having to do it.”
Presidents from Argentina, Ecuador, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela met with Morales on July 4 to demand Spain, France, Portugal and Italy apologize and explain why they denied the Bolivian leader flyover permission. Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said yesterday his government was told Snowden was aboard.
Morales, 53, threatened to close the U.S. embassy at the meeting. “We don’t need them, we’ve got other allies,” he said.
In a joint statement after the meeting, the South American leaders promised to meet on July 12 in Montevideo, Uruguay, to discuss further retaliation against the European countries for the “flagrant violation” of international law. Leaders from Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia didn’t attend the event.
In Venezuela, Maduro is struggling to contain soaring inflation and rising shortages of everything from toilet paper to chicken while economic growth slumps. Annual inflation soared to 35 percent in May, the highest since at least 2008.
“Asylum will not solve the economic disaster, record inflation, another devaluation that’s coming, growing insecurity and product shortages,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski said yesterday in a message on his Twitter account.
Venezuela, which holds the largest oil reserves in the world, and the U.S. have gone without ambassadors since 2010. The two countries maintain close energy ties, with Venezuela exporting about a million barrels a day of oil to the U.S. in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company, owns Houston-based fuel refiner and distributor Citgo Petroleum Corp.
If Maduro “were in a stronger position politically at home, he’d be less inclined to these kinds of rhetorical statements, because he’d have the solid base of support of his coalition, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said yesterday in a telephone interview.