Why Does Venezuela Want Snowden So Badly?

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro publicly offered U.S. leaker Edward Snowden political asylum last week. This came after a slew of Latin American governments — chiefly, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia — hinted they would consider the request if it was formally petitioned. Of all the left-leaning governments in the region, however, none have been as enthusiastic about the possibility ...

MAXIM SHEMETOV/AFP/Getty Images
MAXIM SHEMETOV/AFP/Getty Images
MAXIM SHEMETOV/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro publicly offered U.S. leaker Edward Snowden political asylum last week. This came after a slew of Latin American governments -- chiefly, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia -- hinted they would consider the request if it was formally petitioned. Of all the left-leaning governments in the region, however, none have been as enthusiastic about the possibility of offering Snowden asylum as Venezuela.

The reasons have to do with Venezuela's standing in the global economy and its internal politics.

Thanks to its oil wealth, Venezuela is protected from the economic pressures its neighbors face to accede to the wishes of countries like the United States. Few governments in the world are willing to place tariffs on this particular import -- such a move would be tantamount to political suicide at home. It is possible that Venezuela could face sanctions if it offers Snowden a permanent home, but it's not likely the United States will go that far.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro publicly offered U.S. leaker Edward Snowden political asylum last week. This came after a slew of Latin American governments — chiefly, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia — hinted they would consider the request if it was formally petitioned. Of all the left-leaning governments in the region, however, none have been as enthusiastic about the possibility of offering Snowden asylum as Venezuela.

The reasons have to do with Venezuela’s standing in the global economy and its internal politics.

Thanks to its oil wealth, Venezuela is protected from the economic pressures its neighbors face to accede to the wishes of countries like the United States. Few governments in the world are willing to place tariffs on this particular import — such a move would be tantamount to political suicide at home. It is possible that Venezuela could face sanctions if it offers Snowden a permanent home, but it’s not likely the United States will go that far.

Smaller countries in the region don’t have the luxury of such politically valuable commodities. Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia all rely on their access to the U.S. market. In spite of the heated rhetoric of President Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s $1.5 billion trade surplus with the United States is not something it will want to risk in order to make a statement. Ecuador also enjoys trade preferences with the United States and is an oil exporter, but its diversified economy makes it more vulnerable. While Ecuador’s government has said it will unilaterally withdraw from its preferential treatment status to prevent "blackmail" over the Snowden decision, it is still too early to tell whether the country is bluffing or not. It’s noteworthy that there was an immediate drop in enthusiasm after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ecudaor President Rafael Correa last week. 

It also appears that Snowden has not seriously considered Bolivia as an option, particularly after a confusing incident regarding President Evo Morales and his plane last week. Several European countries closed off their air space under the suspicion that Snowden was on board, forcing Morales to make an unplanned stop at Vienna’s airport for 12 hours. The incident underscored just how weak Bolivia is in the international stage, which has undoubtedly dimmed its appeal as a place of refuge for Snowden.

Venezuela is an altogether different beast. It has more weight in international diplomatic circles than any of the three other countries, its economy is the fifth largest in Latin America, and with a population of 30 million people, Snowden might find it a bit easier to blend in there than in the other countries.

Apart from Venezuela having the political strength to fend off international pressure, offering Snowden a home will help bolster President Maduro’s leftist credentials at home. Maduro sits atop a fragile coalition of radical leftists, nationalist military men, and pragmatic business people benefitting from the country’s byzantine regulations and controls. The Snowden affair helps Maduro protect his "radical" flank as he pursues a more pragmatic agenda.

This week, the government changed the rules through which Venezuelans buy foreign currency by instituting foreign exchange auctions. In these auctions, Venezuelans will be allowed to buy as many dollars as they want, with the price determined by the market. By instituting a dual exchange rate system, Maduro is showing his pragmatic side, something he needs to do in order to deal with acute shortages of imported goods.

The need to appease the radicals within chavismo is a major factor in Venezuela’s approach to foreign relations, particularly with respect to the United States. According to Amherst Professor Javier Corrales, author of U.S.-Venezuela Relations Since the 1990s, the Venezuelan government has actively worked to forge an "anti-imperialist" identity as a way of increasing cohesion within its own coalition. Corrales notes that "[t]he most important identity that Venezuela has been working to create is of radical anti-Americanism, or at least, an image of courageously standing up to U.S. objectives. It is thus reasonable for Chávez to expand and cultivate ties with those states that have the greatest reasons to feel especially anti-American."

Snowden seems to be the perfect tool in Maduro’s continued search for a leftist identity. Hosting the leaker puts Maduro in the front pages of every newspaper in the world, and bolsters his leftist credentials at home.

A few weeks ago, the Venezuelan foreign minister met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and many consequently expected a thaw in the icy relations between the two countries. If the Snowden asylum goes through, the reconstruction of relations will suffer a severe blow. Perhaps Maduro has decided that maintaining a hard stance against the United States is better for his credibility, or perhaps Maduro will use Snowden later as a bargaining chip with the United States. Some government figures have openly hinted [in Spanish] that they would gladly trade Snowden for exiled Cuban dissident Luis Posada Carriles, charged with bombing a Cuban airliner that took off from Venezuela in 1976 and currently living in the United States.

As we wait for the outcome of this high stakes game, Snowden remains holed up in Moscow’s airport. One thing seems certain — if he decides to come to Venezuela, he will not go quietly into the dark Caracas night. We will be hearing a lot more from him once he feels safe and protected.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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