|

Venezuela’s Maduro attempts to make his mark with Snowden affair

by Juan Forero

The Washington Post

Fugitive Edward Snowden’s diminishing possibilities of remaining free to continue releasing information about secret U.S. surveillance programs increasingly appear to hinge on Venezuela, which Monday awaited word on whether the former National Security Agency contractor would accept its offer of asylum.

Bolivia and Nicaragua also say they could give refuge to Snowden, who is on the run from American officials and is believed to be marooned in the vast transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. And Raul Castro, the president of communist Cuba, on Sunday expressed support for Latin American allies that might take in the 30-year-old computer expert, opening the possibility that Snowden could fly through Havana as a first leg on his flight to asylum.

Among those offering sanctuary to Snowden, oil-rich and anti-imperialist Venezuela stands out: a country with an intense antipathy toward the United States and just enough muscle to make Snowden’s escape from American law enforcement a possibility. It also appears that Russian officials, eager to end the diplomatic fallout of having Snowden in Moscow, see their close ally, Venezuela, as offering the clearest solution.

“The situation with Snowden is creating additional tension in relations with Washington that are as complex as they are,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia’s lower house of Parliament, told the newspaper Kommersant on Monday.

Pushkov, whose comments dependably reflect the Kremlin’s position on foreign affairs, said the Snowden saga needs to be settled before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in September to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “And judging by the way things are unfolding,” Pushkov told the newspaper, “this is how it’s going to be.”

Over the weekend, Pushkov had also said that giving asylum to Snowden in Venezuela could not damage President Nicolas Maduro, since his government’s relations with Washington are already in tatters. “It can’t get worse,” Pushkov said in a Twitter message.

Newly elected and facing staggering economic problems at home despite the country’s oil wealth, Maduro appears to have made a high-pitched, openly hostile position against the Obama administration a cornerstone of his government’s foreign policy. He took his most provocative stand Friday when he announced in a speech that Venezuela will take in Snowden.

Maduro has accused the United States of fomenting protests against his government after his disputed April 14 election victory, which gave him the presidency his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, had held for 14 turbulent years until his death from cancer.

The Snowden saga — a young American revealing secrets the U.S. government wants to contain — provided the perfect opportunity for Maduro to take on the Obama administration, said Eduardo Semtei, a former Venezuelan government official.

“To figure internationally, to show that he is a player among big powers, he offered asylum to Snowden,” said Semtei, who had been close to Chavez’s brother, Adan, a leading ideologue in the late president’s radical movement. “This grabs headlines, and it shows that he’s a strong president, one with character, and that he’s capable of challenging the United States.”

Maduro and Venezuela came late to the Snowden saga, as tiny Ecuador, an ally also committed to opposing American initiatives, heaped praise on Snowden and expressed a willingness to help him after he had flown from Hong Kong to Moscow on June 23 to avoid American justice. When Ecuador backed away from its initial enthusiasm over Snowden, Venezuela stepped in last week as Maduro arrived in Moscow for an energy summit.

The 50-year-old Maduro, who found his political calling as a socialist activist with close ties to Cuba, took a sharply anti-imperialist stand in embracing Snowden. He said the U.S. had “created an evil system, half Orwellian, that intends to control the communications of the world,” and characterized Snowden as an anti-war activist and hero who had unmasked the dastardly plans of America’s ruling elite.

Political analysts say the opportunity to take sides against Washington was simply irresistible for a government that has for years characterized itself as a moral force speaking out for the weak against “the empire,” as the United States is known in Caracas. And the fact that the secrets Snowden divulged were embarrassing to the Obama administration only gave more fuel to Venezuela, former Venezuelan diplomats and political analysts in Caracas said.

“Edward Snowden became the symbol for the anti-imperialist rhetoric, for progressivism, for international radicalism,” said Carlos Romero, an analyst and author who closely tracks Venezuela’s international diplomacy.

Venezuela helped channel the fury of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Suriname after Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was apparently refused entry into the airspace of as many as four European countries last Tuesday because of the belief that Snowden was hiding aboard. And on Monday, Venezuela’s state media apparatus seemed to take more offense than the Brazilian government over revelations that the NSA had collected data on countless telephone and email conversations in Brazil.

Myles Frechette, a retired American diplomat who served in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, said Maduro is using a tried-and-true strategy: loudly oppose the United States to distract from domestic problems.

“It plays very well,” said Frechette. “It’s the card to play. It’s what you’ve always got in your drawer. You open your drawer and play to your most radical elements.”