CARACAS – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offered asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden late Friday, giving a possible escape route to the fugitive whose revelations rocked the US government and security establishment.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega also gave the 30-year-old computer expert another glimmer of hope, saying that “if circumstances permit”, his government would be willing to shelter the man who has been in limbo in a Moscow airport since June 23.
How Snowden, whose passport has been revoked, could travel to either country remains unclear.
Snowden has been scrambling to evade espionage charges after disclosing a vast US electronic surveillance program to collect phone and Internet data.
WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website aiding Snowden, revealed on Tuesday a list of 21 nations where he applied for asylum, including Venezuela and Nicaragua.
On Friday it said he was seeking shelter in six more countries, writing on Twitter the countries “will not be named at this time due to attempted US interference.”
Several European countries, along with India and Brazil, have already turned down the requests, but leftist Latin American leaders have voiced sympathy for the bespectacled fugitive.
“As head of state of the Bolivarian republic of Venezuela, I have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to the young Snowden … to protect this young man from the persecution launched by the most powerful empire in the world,” Maduro said at an independence day event.
“I announced to the friendly governments of the world that we have decided to offer this international human right to protect this young man,” said Maduro, who had previously suggested he would consider offering Snowden asylum.
Ortega, also at a public event, said his government had received an asylum application at its embassy in Moscow.
“We are open, respectful of the right to asylum, and it is clear that, if circumstances permit it, we would receive Snowden with pleasure and give him asylum here in Nicaragua,” the leftist leader said.
Ecuador had been seen as the American’s best hope when he arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport from Hong Kong, but the leftist government in Quito has yet to consider his application.
Maduro said Tuesday in Moscow, where he was on an official visit, that his government had not yet received an asylum request.
A Venezuelan foreign ministry official told AFP on Friday that the government had still not received an asylum request.
Maduro, however, has plenty of problems at home. He was elected to office in a controversial April 14 election by a razor-thin 1.5-percent margin, and his opponent, Henrique Capriles, claims the elections were stolen.
Venezuela’s involvement in the Snowden affair, according to Capriles, is just a way for Maduro to distract attention from the country’s many problems.
Asylum for Snowden “does not solve the economic disaster, the record-breaking inflation rate, the new devaluation that is coming, the growing insecurity,” and the lack of certain types of food and products, Capriles said in a Twitter message.
Welcoming Snowden would also be a blow to the rapprochement with the United States: Washington and Caracas have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, and efforts began in June to improve ties.
Snowden’s flight from justice has embarrassed the administration of US President Barack Obama and created tensions between European and Latin American nations after an incident involving the Bolivian president’s airplane.
Bolivia accused France, Portugal, Italy and Spain of denying Morales flyover rights because they believed Snowden was aboard as he returned home from Russia late Tuesday.
Leftist South American leaders, including Maduro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, rallied around Morales at a special summit Thursday and demanded an apology from the European nations.
The Bolivian leader, who suggested that Washington pressured the Europeans to close their airspace to him, threatened to shut the US embassy.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said his government was told that Snowden was aboard Morales’ flight, but he denied that Madrid had refused overfly rights to the Bolivian president’s aircraft and did not identify who provided the apparently faulty intelligence.
“I work with the information they give me. They told us that it was clear that he was inside,” the foreign minister said in an interview with Spanish public television.
France apologized for temporarily refusing entry to Morales’s jet, with President Francois Hollande saying there was “conflicting information” about the passengers.