President Nicolas Maduro publicly offered political asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden yesterday, during Venezuela’s July 5 Independence Day celebrations
This was quite a change from two weeks ago when it first appeared like Snowden was coming to Venezuela. That day the Venezuelan government was curiously silent; Maduro did not speak out on Snowden until it seemed like he was going to Ecuador.
Indeed the Snowden case puts Maduro is in a tough position. On the one hand receiving Snowden fits very well into his own leftist, anti-imperialist ideological core and and would burnish his credentials as Chavez’s successor. On the other hand, facing political and economic challenges at home, Maduro has sought rapprochement with the US, an initiative that almost certainly will be jeopardized by Venezuela’s stance. (Washington conservatives have already started a Twitter campaign to get Venezuelan Chargé d’Affairres Calixto Ortega expulsed).
My assumption is that Maduro’s ideal would be to have it both ways: offer asylum to Snowden but maintain good relations with the US.
The best way of doing that, of course, is to offer asylum but have Snowden go elsehwere. Maduro seemed to have achieved that through his ambivalent stances in the first couple of days. As late as Thursday Maduro made multi-valent statements, suggesting that before demanding extradition of Snowden the US should extradite convicted hijacker Luis Posada Capriles. While those statements were framed as a criticism of the US they also made it look like Snowden could be used as a bargaining chip.
So why is Maduro now stepping forward and making clear statements that he would give asylum to Snowden?
Maduro is forced by his own statements. In the ten days after Snowden’s potential asylum in Latin America became news, Maduro made some strong statements—some of the strongest of any world leader. Since then Ecuador and and most other countries have backed away from Snowden, essentially throwing Maduro a hot potato he can catch but not throw elsewhere. He seems to have no way to step back without losing face.
This is an opportunity to show regional leadership. For Maduro, Rafael Correa’s backing away from Snowden gives him the opportunity to be the regional anti-imperialist leader. Analysts had suggested that Correa was becoming Chavez’s true successor. Confronting the US and doing what many presidents would like to if they could, projects Maduro as a regional leader.
Rapprochement with the US is less important than it was month ago. Venezuela sought rapprochement with the US on the heels of Henrique Capriles’ meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and the latter’s announced intention to to seek increased collaboration with NATO. Since then Capriles’ international strategy seems to have stalled. Not only did Mexican President Peña Nieto refused to meet with Capriles, the release of the Maria Corina Machado recording exposing opposition strategies to seek US involvement would make a meeting between Capriles and a high level US official ineffective. The Maduro government would simply use it to reinforce the idea that the opposition is seeking foreign intervention. Thus the political reason for rapprochement with US is no longer as strong.
Denying airspace to Evo Morales changed perceptions. Forcing Evo Morales to land in Austria consolidated perceptions of the Snowden affair as an issue of Latin American independence. Many Latin Americans, and especially Latin American presidents, felt insulted by the treatment of Evo Morales in Europe. In his statement yesterday Maduro said that countries that are independent have to show it with their actions which appeared to be a swipe at European countries for caving in to US influence. The optics of the Snowden case already were not good for the US. The Evo Morales incident adds the perception that the US is a bully that doesn’t respect other nations sovereignty.