Latin leaders react to blocking of Bolivian flight

In a bizarre and largely unexplained incident, on July 2 several Western European countries denied the use of their airspace to a Bolivian plane carrying the country’s president, Evo Morales, home from a gas exporting countries forum in Moscow. The Bolivians made an unscheduled landing in Vienna, where Austrian authorities reportedly inspected the plane with President Morales’ permission. After a 13-hour stopover in Vienna, the flight was cleared with the Western European countries and proceeded to La Paz, where it landed late July 3.

The decision to block the plane from leaving Europe was apparently based on a rumor that former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden was on board. Snowden, who is wanted by the US for stealing and publishing classified documents, is reportedly in a Moscow airport applying for asylum from a number of countries. According to Bolivian authorities, France, Portugal, Spain and Italy all denied Morales’ plane the use of their airspace, presumably at the request of the US. (Le Monde, Paris, July 3, some from AFP, Reuters; El País, Madrid, July 5)

The incident came less than two days after a June 30 report in the British daily The Guardian that documents obtained by Snowden showed the US had been spying on diplomatic representatives of 38 countries, including France, Italy, Greece and Mexico, one of the closest US allies in Latin America. The article didn’t indicate which Mexican mission was subject to US espionage. (La Jornada, Mexico, July 1, from AFP, Reuters, The Independent, UK)

On the evening of July 3 the French government partially apologized to Bolivia. “The foreign affairs minister [Laurent Fabius] has telephoned his Bolivian counterpart to inform him of France’s regrets following the mishap [contretemps] caused to President Morales by the delays in the confirmation of authorization for the overflight of the [national] territory by the president’s plane,” a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson said. (Le Monde, July 3, some from AFP, Reuters) Spanish foreign affairs minister José Manuel García-Margallo refused to make a similar gesture. “Spain doesn’t need to apologize,” he said on Spanish television, “because the airspace was never closed and the original stopover [for refueling] was never cancelled.” García-Margallo claimed that Spain had instead offered to mediate with the other countries. Bolivian authorities continued to blame Spain.

While US government has remained silent on the issue, it issued extradition requests to Bolivia and Venezuela for Snowden at about the same time as the incident. (El País, July 5) President Morales and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro both rejected the request. Maduro announced the rejection on July 4 and released the text of the request Venezuela had received. Dated July 3, the request called for “Snowden’s provisional arrest should Snowden seek to travel to or transit through Venezuela. Snowden is a flight risk because of the substantial charges he is facing and his current and active attempts to remain a fugitive.” Maduro also reaffirmed Venezuela’s 2005 extradition request for former CIA “asset” Luis Posada Carriles, a Miami resident who is wanted for allegedly masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian flight out of Caracas in which 73 people died. The US has ignored the request. (TeleSUR, July 4; The Guardian, UK, July 6, from correspondent and unidentified wire services)

The blocking of Morales’ plane quickly brought condemnation from most Latin American countries, including some US allies. Even before Morales had landed in La Paz on July 3, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela had all rejected the European countries’ actions. Mexico’s government issued a statement regretting the incident and calling for respect for diplomatic norms, such as the immunity traditionally enjoyed by heads of state. An editorial in the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada noted the irony that “the Latin American countries rise in defense of international law, while the authorities of European countries, which pride themselves on defending freedoms and the rule of law, show signs of an attitude of backwardness, submissiveness and political dependency in relation to the superpower.” (LJ, July 4)

The incident also seemed to encourage some Latin American governments to more open defiance of the US. On July 5 Nicaragua and Venezuela offered Snowden asylum; Bolivia made a similar offer shortly afterwards. (The Guardian, July 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 7.