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Looking South: Weighing Snowden’s Options

By Robert Valencia

“NSA [National Security Agency] whistleblower Edward Snowden has asylum offers in Venezuela, Nicaragua. and Bolivia. Or as Snowden put it, ‘Prison it is!’” quipped American comedian Jimmy Fallon on Twitter about informant Edward Snowden’s apparently not-so-good asylum choices.

Since Snowden fled the United States after leaking details of U.S. and British top-secret mass surveillance programs during the time he worked as a technical contractor for the NSA, he has spent roughly half his exile at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where he continues to await a response from Russia whether he can stay there and tries to figure out a way to travel from Russia to Latin America without flying over countries who are unwilling to open up their airspace. In light of the more than 20 rejected asylum petitions and Ecuador’s backpedaling on its original offer, Snowden is very likely to go to one of the only three countries willing to welcome him. Now the question remains: In the event that he travels south, which one of the Latin American countries is the best option based on quality of life and economic prosperity?

Venezuela might be the least appealing of the bunch. During the Hugo Chávez administration, Venezuela suffered from a shortage of goods that ranged from rice to toothpaste to consecrated wine for Roman Catholic masses. Most recently, Venezuela made news worldwide last month when toilet paper was scarce. This sparked not only a swath of jokes by local and international comedians, but it brought the opposition and the Nicolás Maduro administration into another absurd fight. Maduro accused former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski and private entrepreneurs of destabilizing the country by controlling the production of toilet paper and other goods, and claimed that, “Venezuelans are eating too much, hence the scarcity of toilet paper.”  The country’s high dependence on oil revenues and tight controls on currency exchange—which in turn does not allow entrepreneurs to purchase and export raw materials for internal production—has left Venezuela with a supply shortage in the face of increasing demand.

Bolivia and Nicaragua are not much better. As the only other two countries that have expressed interest in granting asylum to Snowden they rank among Latin America’s poorest. Both nations have, however, experienced steady growth in the last couple of years. Most of Bolivia’s revenue comes from the oil and mining industry, while Nicaragua keeps its economy afloat thanks to tourism and American retirees who heavily invest in real estate. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega now also seeks to maintain an active economy with controversial construction agreements that could pose a threat to the Caribbean Sea’s ecosystem, such as the building of a canal that would directly compete with Panama’s, as well as offshore oil exploration talks with Spain’s oil company Repsol.

With these profiles in mind, where should Edward Snowden go? Some media experts have claimed that Nicaragua is the best choice, since Nicaragua is less authoritative than Venezuela and Bolivia. Furthermore, it is easier to create business in Nicaragua than the aforementioned countries. According to the report “Doing Business 2013,” released by the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, Venezuela is the worst country to start and operate a local firm in Latin America, while Bolivia ranks as Latin America’s fourth worst country to create a business. Though Nicaragua is on the bottom tier of this list, it fares better than Bolivia and Venezuela and ranks even higher than Argentina and Brazil, two of Latin America’s largest economies. For now Snowden is laying low in Russia, but soon he will have to make a choice, and Snowden seems to want to escape Russia (and its airport).

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Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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