For NSA leaker Snowden, Venezuela or elsewhere?

Passengers boarding Tuesday's Moscow-Havana Aeroflot flight, the route fugitive NSA leader Edward Snowden is likely to take if he accepts an asylum offer from Venezuela. It remained unclear days after Snowden was offered refuge in several Latin American countries where he would go or how any plane carrying him could avoid travel through U.S. or allied air space.
(Ivan Sekretarev / Associated Press)

As fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden weighs his asylum options, he should be familiar with the name Luis Posada Carriles.

Both Venezuela and Cuba want to get their hands on the 85-year-old Posada, accused of orchestrating the 1976 terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner in which all 73 on board died.

The U.S. government has for years refused a Venezuelan extradition request for Posada, a Cuban-born Venezuelan citizen who lives in the supportive Cuban exile community of South Florida that applauds his longtime mission to kill former Cuban President Fidel Castro.


U.S. administrations back to the Nixon era have turned a blind eye to — and at times encouraged — Posada’s anti-communist militancy, partly to court the Cuban exile constituency that can sway swing-state Florida in presidential elections.

But faced with the prospect of bringing former NSA contractor Snowden to justice and putting an end to the embarrassing disclosures of U.S. government surveillance, President Obama could make the political calculus that delivering Posada to Caracas would be a fair exchange.

Even if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro fulfills his offer to protect Snowden, analysts point out that Maduro won’t be in power forever. And Snowden, 30, is almost certain to outlive the leftists’ shaky grip on the leadership in politically turbulent Venezuela.

Maduro is one of three Latin American leaders to offer Snowden asylum and an escape from the diplomatic no-man’s land in which he has been living for 18 days at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have also said Snowden would be welcome to shelter in their countries.

Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of the revolutionary leader that Posada has targeted for decades, has made sympathetic noises about Snowden’s plight. But Havana has stopped short of offering a haven for Snowden, who is accused of leaking classified information.

Like Venezuela, Cuba has unresolved diplomatic issues with the United States. Four of five Cubans convicted of espionage in 2001 remain in U.S. prisons serving long terms for spying on anti-Castro exile groups like those aligned with Posada. Getting back the “Five Heroes,” as they are known in Cuba, has been a cause celebre for the Castro regime. Also, the Cuban government holds U.S. citizen Alan Gross, convicted two years ago of illegally importing and installing telecommunications equipment in Cuba without government approval.

Although the possibility of trading the four remaining spies for Gross has presumably been considered, the White House might be more keen to get Snowden, whose leaks have continued since he outted himself as the source of revelations that the NSA gathers data on billions of phone calls, emails and texts worldwide.

Experts familiar with the thorny relationships between Washington and leftist-ruled Latin American countries see Snowden’s security in Venezuela as potentially short-lived.

“The first thing he has to ask himself about any country he’s considering for asylum is what do they want from the United States and what leverage does the United States have over them,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst on Latin America at the National Security Archive, an independent documentation research center in Washington.

Venezuela wants Posada extradited, said Kornbluh, who has extensively researched the Posada case. “But on the other hand, coming to a deal with the United States for a swap like that would undermine the nationalist credentials of a country that stood up and agreed on principle to let him come.”

The open question, Kornbluh said, is how much Maduro wants to move toward the political center and court better U.S. ties to shore up an economy in crisis despite enviable oil wealth.

Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela who is president of the Institute of the Americas, says he takes the Latin American leaders at “face value” in their offers of asylum. What is more perplexing, he said, is how Snowden could travel from Moscow to Caracas without the plane entering U.S. or allied airspace.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the Obama administration has conveyed “to every country that might be considered a destination for Snowden” that he should attempt to travel nowhere other than to the United States.

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College, sees little prospect of Maduro swapping Snowden for Posada. But he points out that Maduro won a narrow victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in an April election to succeed President Hugo Chavez, who died in March. And opposition leaders have vowed to organize a recall of Maduro within three years, opening the possibility of regime change in the near future.

Snowden would be better served taking asylum in Bolivia, Tinker Salas said, as Morales appears more firmly in power and less susceptible to U.S. pressure than the other Latin American leaders who have put out the welcome mat.

Snowden was offered asylum by Morales on Saturday as the Bolivian president vented his outrage over an incident last week in which four European countries denied his plane entry into their airspace because of rumors that Snowden was on board.

“That was a slap in the face of everybody in Latin America” that has spurred a fresh anti-imperialist frenzy in the region, said Daniel Hellinger, an international relations professor at Webster University in Missouri.

“There is little doubt that it will set back relations between Venezuela and the United States, which had been showing signs of improvement,” Hellinger said. “I do not think Maduro will use Snowden as a pawn at all. More dangerous for Snowden is the prospect, given the close election in April, that Maduro might be recalled within a few years.”


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.