The fate of the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, remains unclear, and it is complicating US-Latin America relations, building to a potential boiling point.
Meanwhile, some Latin American states like Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have offered him asylum. Should Snowden actually manage to fly to, and remain in, one of these states, we could see a further deterioration of Washington relations with one, or more, of these ALBA nations.
Edward Snowden confirmed today in Moscow that he is seeking temporary asylum in Rusia until he can close a deal with a Latin American country.
During a meeting at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, he told a group of human rights activists that he has no regrets over leaking the US electronic spying networks.
“I announce today my formal acceptance of all offers of support or asylum I have been extended and all others that may be offered in the future. With, for example, the grant of asylum provided by Venezuela’s President Maduro, my asylee status is now formal, and no state has a basis by which to limit or interfere with my right to enjoy that asylum. As we have seen, however, some governments in Western European and North American states have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law, and this behavior persists today. This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there in accordance with our shared rights.”
ALBA’s cost-benefit analyses
When it comes to decision-making processes, governments are expected to carry out rational cost-benefit analyses.
Hence, Latin American scholars have been baffled by the willingness of the aforementioned countries to offer asylum to a U.S. fugitive. In real politik terms, there is little that the governments of Bolivia,NicaraguaorVenezuelacan gain from having Snowden reside in their nations.
At best, Snowden can be used to showcase how the leadership of these countries is not afraid of “el Imperio.”
A photograph of Snowden next to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, with a portrait of the late Hugo Chavez in the background would certain bring about extensive media attention.
Furthermore, having a U.S. citizen, and an ex-NSA consultant at that, praise the Venezuelan government and condemn the U.S. would also convey a positive image for Maduro at the international level.
Challenging Washington by accepting Snowden would help the new Venezuelan president solidify his stance as the next ALBA leader. But these are arguably short term benefits – harboring Snowden would not give any host nation long-term benefits.
U.S.-ALBA relations in a Snowden scenario
For the sake argument let us assume that, in the near future, Snowden manages to fly to one of the three ALBA nations that have offered him asylum.
We will leave Ecuador out of this discussion, as it appears that President Rafael Correa has had a change of heart regarding granting Snowden asylum.
Nicaragua is the country that has the most to lose from aggravating relations with the U.S. Although President Daniel Ortega was Washington’s Central American nemesis during the Cold War, modern day Managua-Washington relations have not been particularly bad.
In spite of occasional tensions, the U.S. has continued to provide security-related aid to Nicaragua, especially law enforcement cooperation to combat drug trafficking. Moreover, in June, SOUTHCOM donated parachutes to the Nicaraguan Army’s Special Forces.
Given Nicaragua’s security needs and fragile economy, Ortega cannot afford to burn diplomatic bridges, even with countries that he was essentially at war with three decades ago.
Meanwhile, the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela have not been particularly concerned with strengthening relations with the U.S. In the case of La Paz, President Evo Morales may have offered asylum to the NSA employee as a gesture of revenge because of the embarrassment the Bolivian leader recently suffered (His presidential planewas forced to land in Austria, as the U.S. believed that he had somehow smuggled Snowden into his aircraft while he was in Moscow).
But, Morales has slowly been severing ties with the U.S. even before Snowden came into the spotlight. For example, in 2008 Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg, as well as the DEA. More recently, the Bolivian government closed down the regional offices of USAID.
As for Venezuela, much has been written on the tensions between Caracas and Washington while President Chavez was alive. A glimmer of hope appeared with Chavez’s passing, and there was speculation of an opportunity to reboot bilateral relations.
This perception was aided by a recent encounter between,Secretary of State John Kerrywith Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Elias Jaua during an OAS meeting in Guatemala. Nevertheless, there has been no “reset” of Washington-Caracas relations. If Snowden ends up in Venezuela, this would only impede the potential for diplomatic progress.
In the hypothetical scenario that Snowden does end up in Bolivia or Venezuela, how would Washington react? Secretary Kerry has warned of “consequences” for governments that help the U.S. fugitive, but what could these be?
Some kind of diplomatic or economic sanctions are a possibility. But both Morales and Maduro act as if they care little about diplomatic relations with the U.S. so the withdrawal of charge d’affaires or mid-level attaches would be an empty threat.
As for economic sanctions, the Venezuelan economy remains in a very sensitive situation and is firmly dependent upon exporting its oil.
However U.S. imports of Venezuelan crudeoil have been steadily decreasingover the past decade, so it is debatable how much this development would affect Venezuelan economy (certainly it would have negative effects, but how detrimental they would be is dubious).
As previously mentioned, Nicaragua is a country that could economically suffer from trade sanctions if Washington decides to suspend Nicaragua from the CAFTA-DR.
Finally, if Washington does impose some kind of trade sanctions on, for example, Venezuela, this will only serve to have fellow ALBA nations rally against the U.S. We already witnessed that during the affair of Morales’ plane, which prompted ALBA and UNASUR nations to rally around the Bolivian leader while Washington faced yet another diplomatic embarrassment.
Snowden and Western Hemisphere Geopolitics
Perhaps the most difficult thing about dealing with international affairs is trying to predict how unrelated incidents can affect inter-state relations.
When the Snowden saga began and the NSA whistleblower flew to Hong Kong, it would have been difficult to predict that we would now be discussing how he will affect U.S. relations with Latin America, especially ALBA nations.
If Snowden does eventually end up in Managua, La Paz or more likely, Caracas, this will have a negative effect on Washington’s relations with ALBA nations. But considering that Washington-ALBA relations have been tense for the past years, Snowden’s arrival will be more of “business as usual.”