Nicaragua’s invite to Snowden: putting politics first


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.



  • Carlos Briones

    Ortega’s motives are easily ascertained as sheer stupidity, utter ignorance of world affairs, and economic gain from his mentor in Venezuela. In Nicaragua, Ortega fits the four corners of a sapo, a person who will play to your tune, regardless how macabre it may be, such that later he asks for a favor.

    With respect to Venezuela, unless Snowden has made arrangements to have his plane refuel in mid-air, I doubt he will be able to reach the host country. There have been reports that his alternate route would be through Cuba, but I doubt the cubans will risk their ongoing efforts to lift the embargo over this traitor.

    The russians, am sure, can’t wait for this hot-potato leave their territory. China won’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, and the europeans don’t want him anywhere near their continent.

  • Randy Higgins

    Great editorial. I, too, was anxious to see how Mr. Snowden would fit into Nicaragua.

  • Ken

    You know, though, when you look at the facts Ortega does seem to have been intentionally slow to offer asylum and then to weasel-word the offer. I think he didn’t expect Snowden to accept and purposely didn’t encourage him to. Instead, he was appealing to his global political base by extending the offer while carefully minimizing the risk that Snowden would actually show up.

    You call this a “reckless political gamble,” but that’s what Ortega does and is good at. Gosh, look at the canal and the Rio San Juan before that. Ortega is always gambling politically, but I’m not sure he is reckless about it. He calculates the odds carefully and gambles strategically.

    Besides this, out of curiosity, does Ortega have the constitutional right to offer asylum? I know he has before, and other heads of state seem to have that authority, but isn’t or shouldn’t offers of asylum be decisions made by a court?

    • GringoLoco

      Danny-boy IS the Constitution. Whatever he wants to do, he WILL do; nothing and no one to stop him!

      The rule of law is but a distant memory in NicaLandia.

  • peter

    who wrote this article most americans look at snowden as a hero and has no problems with nicaragua offer help, the crooks who should be in jail is the people in the american goverment who broke the constitution.

  • Benito Carmona

    Hi TIm,

    Where did you get your education? yea!!! in a country that also gives political refuge, you are one pathetic news writer… the worse of it’s kind.. I really wonder what you are really doing in Nicaragua..

    • Jose Chung

      Benito, as long as we’re putting our cards on the table, why don’t you tell us where you were educated? At whichever prestigious institution you attended you certainly never learned to construct an argument.

  • Benito Carmona

    Jose Chung, I was educated by the intervention of Ronald Reagan and the ridiculous government of the Sandinista rationalized with bread and oil, I from time to time get a little sensitive about a gringo stepping in with he’s point of view of my home’s politics, however, I do agree with the beloved gringo, he’s the type of people we need in that country and I take back what I said, understand that things come out of emotion sometimes when you have been the chicken in the middle of a nonsense fight over power.

  • Roberto

    “Ortega fits the four corners of a sapo, a person who will play to your tune, regardless how macabre it may be, such that later he asks for a favor.”-In other words he is like Barack Obama in the United States another slimeball and human rights violator.

    “The russians, am sure, can’t wait for this hot-potato leave their territory. China won’t touch him with a te.”
    -Yes look how that turned out, the Russians now have him.

    However, Nicaragua offering Snowden asylum would have benefitted the country. Remember it’s a country where hundreds of human violations occurred under its dictatorships. Political theater or not, it would have helped.

    Economically it probably wouldn’t have changed matters. The average Nicaraguan lives below the poverty line and will continue to. The rich money from the Sandinasta empire will never trickle down. What Nicaragua really needs is change, change that isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.