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Snowden Saga: By Employing Big Stick, Obama Has Emboldened Latin Left

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What a difference a few days can make. As recently as this past Tuesday, NSA leaker Edward Snowden's bid to acquire diplomatic asylum outside of the U.S. was looking awfully bleak. Rebuffed by Ecuador, a country which had previously suggested it might harbor the fugitive, Snowden's options seemed to be dwindling. Then, on Wednesday, a bizarre diplomatic incident involving Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane caused an international fracas. As Morales was returning to La Paz from Moscow, his plane was blocked from French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese airspace. It seems likely that Washington suspected that Snowden was on board Morales' plane and pressured European nations to force the Bolivian president's plane to briefly divert course and stop off in Vienna.

If Obama's underlying objective was to intimidate Latin American nations over the Snowden affair, his strategy has colossally backfired. Indeed, much to the chagrin of the White House, Latin nations have rallied to Snowden's defense, with Venezuela and Bolivia now offering diplomatic asylum to the NSA leaker. Nicaragua has followed suit and is willing to provide asylum as long as "circumstances permit." While it's unclear whether Snowden will be able to travel to Latin America, the entire episode has strengthened the ALBA or Bolivian Alliance of the Americas, which dates back to the Chávez years.

WikiLeaks and U.S. Pressure on the Chávez-Ortega Axis

The White House must surely view such defiance with dismay. According to sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. has sought to undermine the Venezuela-Nicaragua alliance for years. Correspondence suggests the State Department was furious that Ortega, a Sandinista revolutionary who had previously served as President of Nicaragua from 1985-1990 at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra War, dared to pursue an independent foreign policy. Once Ortega was re-elected in 2006, diplomats resorted to threats and intimidation to head off the Managua-Caracas axis. Indeed, after Ortega announced that he would seek to ink a trade agreement with Venezuela, one U.S. diplomat told the Nicaraguan President sternly that "Chávez knows what he has to do to improve relations. He is the author of the present confrontation."

If that was not clear enough, U.S. diplomats later warned the incoming Ortega administration that Washington would respect Nicaraguan sovereignty, but "if the FSLN [Sandinista] government were, for example, to recruit hundreds of Venezuelans to man its ministries, we would be concerned." The main purpose of such advisers, noted the U.S. ambassador to his superiors, would be "to indoctrinate Nicaraguans against the United States and democracy." Later, the U.S. ambassador wrote Washington that he would issue a warning to Managua's more moderate faction, emphasizing that "we and other embassies are monitoring investor relations closely, a message they can use to push back against party radicals urging Ortega to strengthen alliances with Venezuela."

Snowden Ricochet Effect

If the Bush and Obama administrations hoped to forestall the Chávez-Ortega axis through such diplomatic maneuvers, they would shortly be very disappointed. Indeed, Venezuela has provided Nicaragua with billions in petrodollars since 2007. The impoverished Central American nation has used ALBA oil proceeds to fund everything from zinc roofing materials to micro-credit loans, agricultural assistance, scholarships and public transportation. Furthermore, Nicaragua has signed on to the so-called Sucre initiative, a Venezuelan "virtual currency" used in commercial transactions and designed to counteract the pervasive influence of the U.S. dollar.

Since coming to power, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has continued to shore up the ALBA alliance with Ortega. Venezuela and Nicaragua have in fact agreed to beef up trade, particularly of milk and agricultural goods. Moreover, in light of Colombia's recent announcement that it wanted to join NATO, Ortega and Maduro have stated that they will consolidate the previous military ties dating back to the Chávez administration.

Despite all of the diplomatic back and forth, Maduro lacks the dynamic charisma of his predecessor and some may have openly wondered about the future viability of the ALBA alliance. Whether the leftist bloc of Latin nations has much staying power remains to be seen, but ironically the Obama administration may have given ALBA some political breathing space. Indeed, through its clumsy handling of the Snowden affair and bullying of ALBA members, Washington seems to have rallied the anti-imperialist left once again.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.