Nicaragua can breathe a slight sigh of relief. It appears the country will not have to make good on President Daniel Ortega’s oracular promise to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the U.S. whistleblower who is allegedly holed up in a broom closet at Moscow’s international airport writing letters to foreign embassies.
According to media reports, Snowden has allegedly accepted the asylum offer from Venezuela, which three days earlier granted him sanctuary in a preemptive move that appeared to be a bit of coordinated political theater with Nicaragua. Fellow traveler Evo Morales, the Bolivian president whose airplane got forcibly rerouted last week amid rumors that he was smuggling Snowden to South America, has also offered asylum, giving the fugitive itinerant a rich ALBA offering of places to become an expat (asylum in the asylum, as it were).
But of the three ALBA countries that turned on their porch lights, Nicaragua was the only one that was on Snowden’s original wish list of 26 possible sanctuaries. The former National Security Agency contractor didn’t initially request asylum in Venezuela or Bolivia, leading some to think he might actually end up in Nicaragua—or, at the very least, inside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Moscow.
Ultimately, Venezuela seems to have won out over Nicaragua, which recently made political hay by extraditing U.S. fugitive Eric Toth. The question now is whether Ortega putting the door key under the welcome mat for Snowden was enough to set back Nicaragua’s improving reputation.
The timing of Ortega’s controversial invitation was lousy. Nicaragua is in the process of lobbying Washington for the annual property waiver and an extension of its free-trade Tariff Preference Levels, which has led to tens of thousands of free-zone jobs. Nicaragua is also spending millions of dollars to promote itself as a serious destination for tourism and foreign investment, and is working with big name partners to try to drum up international support for the chimerical inter-oceanic canal.
Rolling out the red carpet for the U.S. bête noire doesn’t further any of the country’s strategic objectives, as the private sector has pointed out. Ortega’s unexpected announcement at last Friday’s Repliegue Táctico political rally prompted an almost audible slapping sound that reverberated around the country as the entire business class simultaneously threw their palms to their foreheads in disbelief. The country’s two largest business chambers—COSEP and AMCHAM—both came out with strong statements against the asylum offer, warning that the decision could have serious consequences for the economy, the improving investment climate and the country in general. COSEP president José Adán Aguerri likened the asylum offer to “self-imposed economic sanctions” that would set back the country 25 years. Diego Vargas, president of AMCHAM, reminded President Ortega that he said he would only give asylum to Snowden “if circumstances permit.”
“We believe, precisely, that circumstances do not permit,” he said.
A hero to some and a villain to others, Snowden would arguably be far less of a pernicious presence in Nicaragua than many other dodgy expats who skulk about the country and loiter near schoolyards. Snowden is hardly a monster, and if his whistle-blowing was truly motivated by a moral conviction against government abuse and overreach, his presence in Nicaragua would certainly be interesting—and ultimately uncomfortable for the Sandinista regime. In short, Snowden would be a fascinating addition to the U.S. expat community, not to mention a lively presence at the annual Fourth of July picnic.
But none of that matters to most Nicaraguans. The issue here is that Nicaragua, after taking important steps to evolve from economic basket case and regional backwater into an exciting up-and-comer, is once again showing its tendency to trip over politics just as the country finds its economic stride. Ortega had nothing to gain and much to lose by offering Snowden sanctuary. Yes, the gesture of solidarity with Morales is noble (if not myopic) and the concept of an open and tolerant country is nice, if slightly misleading (rights activist Carlos Ariñez, who was deported illegally last month, might disagree with that claim).
But one must question Ortega’s motives, which were likely influenced by anti-U.S. political sentiments more than a genuine concern for the yanqui whistleblower.
It appears that Ortega’s offer of asylum was coordinated with Venezuela. If that’s the case, Ortega was probably hoping that Snowden would end up in Venezuela rather than Nicaragua. But that’s a reckless political gamble to take with Nicaragua’s economic future.
The government argues that Nicaragua is a sovereign nation that has the right to make its own decisions. That’s true. But when a person or nation’s decision-making logic is influenced by a defiant attempt to prove free will, what may follow is a sophomoric or self-destructive decision. Drunks use the same type of no-one-can-tell-me-what-to-do logic before waking up the gutter with no shoes on.
Nicaragua has made a lot of progress over the past decade—and much of the country’s maturation, while still in its nonage, has happened under the Sandinista government’s watch. Politically, however, the country is moving in the other direction, as democracy weakens, institutions are undermined, and power is consolidated in the hands of two under the banner of revolutionary change. The Snowden case, which may go no further for Nicaragua, should serve as an early warning bell to the rest of the country that Nicaragua’s political project could soon become a major drag on its economic and developmental advances.
Nicaragua may have dodged a bullet if Snowden has in fact accepted Venezuela’s offer, but the country might want to reflect on whether their government should continue to put politics first—even when it could harm the country’s economic integration, development, and international reputation.
As for Snowden, his presence here would have brought a youthful energy and audacity to the aging expat crowd. He will be missed.