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18 July 2013
Earlier this month Latin American nations rallied in response to the extraordinary spectacle of the grounding of a head of state’s personal aircraft by the authorities of several European countries, presumed to have been following orders from the USA (see box below for details). Support from Morales from leaders and public figures across Latin America was immediate and resounding. Representatives from ten UNASUR countries, including six presidents, met the next afternoon in Cochabamba and emitted a declaration condemning the grounding of the presidential plane and demanding answers from the countries concerned.
This was followed up by a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States, whose Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, made several scathing comments about the breach of diplomatic protocol involved in grounding a sovereign aircraft carrying a head of state. The OAS passed a resolution condemning the incident with near unanimity, with the USA and Canada being the only states not to sign. In South America too support came from unlikely sources, ranging from conservative Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to the Bolivian opposition parties.
While the plane incident was still unfolding, the Bolivian government received a request from Washington for the extradition of Edward Snowden. This was declined, for the obvious reason that Edward Snowden was not in Bolivia. It is notable that the US enthusiasm for extradition requests does not work the other way around: former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who fled after ordering the army to fire on unarmed protesters in 2003, killing several dozen people, has been living unmolested in the USA ever since, despite several attempts to get him back to Bolivia to face charges.
As a rule, there is little love lost between Washington and the Bolivian government. The US ambassador to Bolivia was asked to leave in 2008 amid rumours that he had been involved in an attempted coup d’état, and the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since. The US anti-drug task force was ejected soon after – and it is interesting to note that cocaine production has diminished noticeably since its expulsion. Earlier this year USAID was expelled from Bolivia, where it has operated for several decades. The aid agency was accused of being a tool for political interference.
Stringent visa restrictions also apply to US nationals visiting Bolivia. However, even in the context of diplomatic relations which have been strained for several years, closing the US embassy in La Paz as a political gesture would have significant negative repercussions: the many US citizens who visit Bolivia for tourism, volunteering, research or other work would face great difficulty in finding funding or insurance, for example. The USA continues to be an important trade partner for Bolivia, too, and commercial relations would be put at risk.
The fallout from the presidential plane incident has yet to be seen in full, but some of the initial effects are already clear. Firstly, Evo Morales, whose political persona and discourse depend heavily on the rhetoric of resistance to imperialism and persecution, has been handed, gift-wrapped, an example of foreign bullying which is likely to guarantee his victory in next year’s elections. Secondly, in the days following the incident, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia all offered asylum to Edward Snowden, who has thanked them for their integrity in the face of intimidation and expressed the wish to travel to each country to thank them in person in the future. Thirdly, diplomats and government officials across the Americas (and not a few in Europe) are newly wary of their neighbours in Washington, while expressing sympathy for Morales. Latin America has rarely been so united.
Box – the Snowden affair
On July 2nd, Wikileaks released a list of what, they claimed, were the 21 countries to which US security agency whistleblower Edward Snowden had applied for asylum. Snowden was at the time resident in a Moscow airport. Bolivia, among several other Latin American nations such as Venezuela and Cuba, featured on the list, although the Bolivian authorities claimed not to have received any official petition for asylum from Snowden (and still have not, to date). On the morning of July 2nd, Evo Morales, who was in Moscow for a summit of gas-producing countries, told Russian TV that if Edward Snowden applied for asylum in Bolivia, he would be ‘willing to consider’ the application.
What happened next gripped the attention of the global press. After plotting a flight path across Europe featuring two refuelling stops Morales’s presidential jet was refused passage through the airspace of France, Portugal, Spain and Italy, obliging the pilot to make a precautionary landing in Vienna. Although reluctant to admit it at the time, it has since been confirmed that some of these countries were responding to rumours that Edward Snowden was on board the aircraft. These rumours proved to be false. After 13 hours waiting in Vienna airport, Morales continued on to Bolivia, thanking the Austrian authorities for their solidarity and support. He was met with a hero’s welcome in El Alto, and gave the first of many speeches condemning the ‘intimidation’ and telling the world that Bolivians would not be threatened in this way, as they were a ‘dignified and sovereign people’. Amid popular protests in La Paz, Morales and his foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, spoke of the possibility of closing the US embassy in Bolivia.