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Snowden, Evo and the Presidential Plane: a Massive Own-Goal

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On the evening of July 2nd, President Evo Morales was on his way back to Bolivia from a meeting of gas-producing countries in Moscow when his plane was denied entry into the airspace of France, Portugal, Spain and Italy, apparently under pressure from the United States which had (wrongly) presumed US whistle-blower Edward Snowden to be aboard.  On the morning of the 2nd, Morales had stated in a TV interview that he would be ‘willing to consider’ a request for asylum by Snowden if one were received.  At that time the Bolivian government had received no request for asylum from Snowden.  The original flight plan of the presidential plane included refuelling stops in Lisbon and Guyana.  Instead, the plane made a diversion to Vienna where it remained for 13 hours before continuing on to Bolivia via Spain and Brazil. 

The decision to deny the presidential plane passage through European airspace has caused deep offence, not just in Bolivia but throughout Latin America.  Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca called the incident “an act of aggression”, and the Bolivian foreign ministry has officially denounced the countries involved for breaching international conventions.   In calling on the United Nations to condemn this, Sacha Llorenti, Bolivia’s ambassador at the United Nations, said he had “no doubt” that the order had come from the White House.  

Protests against the French move started no sooner that it had been announced that Morales had been diverted to Vienna having been barred entry by Paris.  Flags of both France and the European Union were burnt outside the French embassy in La Paz.  The demonstrations continued on both July 3rd and 4th.   Demonstrations have also taken place outside the US embassy in La Paz which, perhaps prudently, cancelled its July 4th Independence Day celebrations.

Bolivia, along with Venezuela, received a pre-emptive request for the extradition of Edward Snowden to the USA on July 4th. The request was declined. Both countries, along with Nicaragua, have now offered Snowden asylum should he wish to take it up.

UNASUR declaration and OAS resolution condemning the incident

Meeting for an emergency session on July 4th, the countries of UNASUR (those of South America) condemned the way in which President Morales had been treated by the four European countries that had blocked his return journey from Moscow.  The UNASUR meeting, which was held in Cochabamba, was attended by the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela, as well as by Morales.  It was also attended by a delegates from several other countries including Brazil.

The Cochabamba Declaration, announced at the end of the meeting, demanded an apology from the countries that had barred Morales from their airspace:  “We demand that the governments of France, Portugal, Italy and Spain make a public apology with respect to the grave events that have taken place”.  The document also denounced the violation of international law and demanded explanations for the reasons why access was blocked.

The countries that make up Mercosur – Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (Paraguay is still suspended) – also issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the treatment given to Morales. This spoke of these countries’ “indignation” and “firm rejection” of the refusals by European countries, labelling these as “unfriendly and unjustifiable acts” that were “incompatible with international law”.  Bolivia is currently applying for full membership on Mercosur.

The Organization of American States issued a resolution on the evening of July 9th condemning the presidential plane incident and expressing solidarity with Bolivia, as well as demanding that the European countries involved provide explanations and apologies.  Secretary General of the OAS Jose Miguel Insulza declared his ‘great indignation and immense solidarity’ for the ‘serious offense to a democratic President’.

Outside Latin America, a number of left-of-centre members of the European parliament signed a communique on July 4th expressing their solidarity with Evo Morales and criticising the governments of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal for their action in blocking Morales’ flight.  Eleven MEPs signed the document which attacked the various governments for their “condescension towards the United States”.  They included members of the Spanish United Left as well as German and Scandinavian Greens.  

Morales threatens to close the US embassy

Speaking at a rally of social movements in Cochabamba the day after his return, Evo Morales said he was considering closing the US embassy in La Paz.  He said that Bolivia was better off “politically and economically” not having relations with the United States.  He accused Washington for having pressured the four European states to block access to their airspace.  He also said that European countries should liberate themselves from their dependence on Washington.   Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca later added that the Bolivian government would be ‘cautious’ in considering whether to close the US embassy.  The USA has not had an ambassador in Bolivia since 2008, when Philip Goldberg was ejected following accusations of collaboration with the opposition.  The Bolivian government also expelled USAID earlier this year (see previous BIF news briefing).

 US State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki would neither confirm nor deny US involvement in the decision to close airspace, and said that questions about the plane diversion should be directed to the individual countries involved.  However, Austrian officials apparently told newspaper Die Presse that they had received phone calls from the USambassador to Austria with the intelligence that Snowden was on the presidential plane. This has not been confirmed.

Red faces across Europe

The French government apologised to Bolivia for refusing Morales entry into French airspace, saying that it had responded to “contradictory information”.  Speaking in Berlin on July 3rd, President Francois Hollande claimed that authorisation was issued as soon as it was made clear that President Morales was on board the flight and Snowden was not.  Previously, it had been stated that Morales’ plane was already in French airspace when forced to return to Vienna, and that the French authorities were well aware that Morales was on board. 

The Portuguese government proffered “technical reasons” for refusing to let the presidential plane land in Lisbon for refuelling.  The Spanish foreign minister refused to apologise for the incident for some time, before eventually climbing down and saying that he “owed an apology if there had been some kind of misunderstanding”.  The Italian representative to the Organisation of American States denied any involvement.

Following a demand for answers over the reasons behind the forced deviation of the presidential plane, the French, Italian and Spanish ambassadors and Portuguese consul met with the Bolivian foreign minister on Monday, July 8th.

Implications

The incident has several implications in Bolivia and abroad:

First it reveals the lengths to which the US administration has been prepared to go to in pursuing this case.  Huge pressure has been brought to bear on countries that were considered likely to grant asylum to Snowden.  Ecuador was one such country, but was quickly forced to backtrack.  The same pressure appears to have been applied to other potential Latin American recipients, including Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.  However, if – as seems to be the case here – France, Italy, Spain and Portugal were all obliged to deny their airspace to the Bolivian presidential plane, then the diplomatic effort behind the scenes must have been enormous.  Only days beforehand, French President Francois Hollande had been a vocal critic of the US surveillance allegations perpetrated in Europe.

Second, it shows the strength of Latin American solidarity in the face of what seemed a highly disrespectful (if not illegal) act.  UNASUR, the grouping of South American nations was quick to respond, calling the emergency meeting of member states in Cochabamba.    For Latin American countries the whole issue was seen as typical of a high-handed US stance that ignores diplomatic and political sensibilities throughout the region.  Even the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), of which the United States is the main funder, has strongly condemned the treatment given to the president of a member state.

Third, the issue triggered an immediate reaction in Bolivia, meeting condemnation from all quarters including the opposition.  Few moves could have been better calculated to boost the domestic popularity of Evo Morales in a pre-election year than to make him the personal victim of this sort of intimidation.  Anti-imperialist sympathies tend to be deeply embedded among Bolivians, accustomed to seeing their country treated as a second or third-rank nation.  As one writer at the satirical magazine La Mala Palabra remarked wryly, ‘If there was any doubt that Evo would win the 2014 election, then thank the USA, sponsors of the MAS in power’.

This Special Briefing is a digest of the events of the last week at Bolivia Information Forum. For up-to-the-minute details of events and news relating to Bolivia, please follow or visit our Twitter account, @BoliviaInfo

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