Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offered asylum to the fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, setting up a potential diplomatic showdown between the U.S. and South America's biggest oil exporter.

"We decided to grant Snowden, this figure of international human rights, protection from persecution from the most powerful empire of the world," Maduro said yesterday in a speech at a parade commemorating Venezuela's July 5 independence day.

Earlier in the day, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he would receive Snowden "circumstances permitting," according to comments broadcast on Venezuelan state television. Neither Maduro nor Ortega said whether they would issue travel documents to him.

Snowden, 30, remains in limbo at an airport in Moscow after withdrawing his request for asylum in Russia. He has instead sought refuge in 26 other countries, including Venezuela and Nicaragua, according to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The U.S. pursuit of Snowden, who revealed himself last month as the source of leaks on top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect telephone and Internet data, has roiled international relations. Bolivian President Evo Morales blamed the disruption of his return flight from Russia on U.S.-fed speculation that Snowden was aboard.

Snowden, whose U.S. passport was revoked, can't leave the Moscow airport transit zone without a new travel document. He dropped his request for asylum in Russia after President Vladimir Putin said July 1 that the American must stop hurting U.S. interests if he wants to remain there.


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U.S. Pursuit

Venezuela's "offer is lacking in substance as long as Edward Snowden remains in the Moscow airport," Gregory Weeks, director of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It is possible that it will be a tempest in the teapot."

Prosecutors in the U.S. are seeking Snowden's return and have filed theft and espionage charges against the former employee of McLean, Virginia-based government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp.

Snowden's requests for asylum were spurned earlier this week by nations from Switzerland to India. U.S. officials have been contacting countries Snowden might approach for asylum or pass through on the way to a third country to provide "reasons why Mr. Snowden should be returned to the United States and face charges," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on July 2 in Washington.

The State Department declined to comment last night.

Six Countries

WikiLeaks, which has been advising Snowden, said in a message on its Twitter feed yesterday that he has applied for asylum with six more countries beyond the initial 21. The group didn't name the countries, citing concerns that the U.S. would seek to disrupt any attempt by Snowden to seek refuge.

Late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who often maintained a combative relationship with the U.S., hand-picked Maduro as his successor before he died of cancer in March. Maduro, 50, won office in an April election, defeating opposition challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski by about 1.5 percentage points, and has pledged to deepen Chavez's self-professed socialist revolution.

Ortega, the 67-year-old leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which toppled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, has had a tenuous relationship with the U.S. since former President Ronald Reagan ordered a trade blockade and funded the Contras rebel group to overthrow him in the 1980s. Reagan called Ortega "the little dictator" after he nationalized thousands of homes and farms in Nicaragua while asserting state control over large parts of the economy.

'Circumstances Permitting'

"Snowden's request was sent to the Nicaraguan Embassy in Moscow," Ortega, who was elected president in 2006, said yesterday. "Circumstances permitting, we will receive Snowden with great pleasure and give him asylum here."

Morales said speculation that he was helping Snowden flee Russia on his plane after a Moscow conference led European countries to deny him permission to stop and refuel. The leader never spoke with Snowden while he was in Russia and the former NSA contractor is not on Bolivian territory, he said.

The July 2 incident led the plane to make an emergency landing in Vienna after a fuel gauge stopped working correctly, Morales said. The president was able to fly back to South America after winning a promise that his plane would not be searched in Spain's Canary Islands while refueling, said Ricardo Martinez, a Bolivian diplomat in Austria.

'Changed' Environment

"The environment had changed since Evo's plane accident," Weeks said. "Now Maduro feels he has a chance to establish himself as a leader who responds when U.S. imperialism exerts itself over the region. For Maduro the best case scenario would be if Snowden never comes. That way he can say that he is fighting the U.S. without actually having to do it."

Presidents from Argentina, Ecuador, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela met with Morales on July 4 to demand Spain, France, Portugal and Italy apologize and explain why they denied the Bolivian leader's plane permission to fly through their airspace. Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said yesterday his government was told Snowden was aboard.

The group called for a new meeting of South American presidents on July 12 in Montevideo, Uruguay to discuss further retaliation against the European countries for the "flagrant violation" of international law, according to a statement read by Bolivia's Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca at the end of the meeting. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chile's Sebastian Pinera, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Peru's Ollanta Humala skipped the July 4 summit.

Maduro's Challenges

In Venezuela, Maduro is struggling to contain soaring inflation and rising shortages of everything from toilet paper to chicken while economic growth slumps. Annual inflation soared to 35 percent in May, the highest since at least 2008.

"Asylum will not solve the economic disaster, record inflation, another devaluation that's coming, growing insecurity and product shortages," opposition leader Capriles said yesterday in a message on his Twitter account.

Venezuela, which holds the largest oil reserves in the world, and the U.S. have gone without ambassadors since 2010. The two countries maintain close energy ties, with Venezuela exporting about a million barrels a day of oil to the U.S. in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company, owns Houston- based fuel refiner and distributor Citgo Petroleum Corp.

If Maduro "were in a stronger position politically at home, he'd be less inclined to these kinds of rhetorical statements, because he'd have the solid base of support of his coalition, but I don't think that's the case," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said yesterday in a telephone interview.

"He's not Chavez and he's somebody who has to demonstrate that he's committed to the Bolivarian Revolution," Shifter said. "That's why he needs to take a strong stand on Snowden and try to needle the United States."