The Bolivian leader's flight was diverted to Austria on suspicion that Edward Snowden was aboard.
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who came forward last month as the source of leaks on American surveillance, has already caused a major rift in the transatlantic relationship. He has once again pushed tensions to a new high – but this time between Europe and Latin America.
After a plane carrying Bolivia’s President Evo Morales back from Russia was diverted to Austria Tuesday, under apparent suspicion that Mr. Snowden was on board, Bolivia’s vice president declared to the world that his leader has been “kidnapped in Europe.”
“We want to say to Bolivia, we want to say to the world, that President Evo Morales, our president, the president of Bolivians, is today kidnapped in Europe; we want to tell the people of the world that our president has been kidnapped by imperialism and is being held in Europe,” said Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera at a late night conference in La Paz.
Snowden, who leaked information on US surveillance practices from Hong Kong before heading to Russia, where he remains in legal limbo in the Moscow airport, has sought asylum from nearly two dozen countries. Many of those bids, including many from Europe, have been shut, while a slew of Latin American countries remain open.
President Morales said on Russian TV, before the diversion of his flight, that he was considering the American’s asylum bid.
But the plane that was flying Morales home from Moscow was forced to land in Austria, as France and Portugal refused permission for the aircraft to cross their airspace or land, Bolivian authorities claimed. Bolivia’s foreign minister railed against both European nations for putting Morales’ life at risk and said Snowden was not on the plane, which Austrian authorities have also said.
According to the news network Al Jazeera, Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra said the US State Department could be behind the diplomatic incident. "We have the suspicion that they [the two European governments] were used by a foreign power, in this case the United States, as a way of intimidating the Bolivian state and President Evo Morales," he said.
Latin America, particularly the leftist leaders who have long criticized the “imperialism” of the US, quickly rallied around Morales. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner took to her Twitter account, saying, “Mother of God! What a world.”
She writes that President Jose Mujica of Uruguay is also “indignant” and that “he’s right. This is very humiliating.”
Her last tweet of yesterday says that Peruvian President Humala Ollanta is going to call a meeting of Latin American defense ministers within the regional body UNASUR. “Tomorrow is going to be a long and difficult day.”
Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, meanwhile, says the next hours are “decisive” for UNASUR.
“Either we graduated from the colonies, or we claim our independence, sovereignty and dignity. We are all Bolivia!” he writes.
It’s unclear how deserved the claims from Latin America are – or on which side many countries in Europe actually sit in a case that has deeply embarrassed the Obama administration.
First, there are conflicting reports about how and why Morales’ plane ended up in Vienna and how long it will be grounded there.
According to a live blog running on the Guardian, Austria says it had no fears that Snowden had been on board. “Austria did not close its airspace and the plane could of course land although many other countries apparently feared that Snowden was on board too. Austria did not do that, which means there is no fear here.”
Meanwhile, French officials from the foreign minister and prime minister’s office said, when contacted for comment by reporters, that they were unaware of the incident, according to various media outlets.
And Europe has thus far reacted to the Snowden affair with fury against the US, after German and British newspapers leaked over the weekend that the US systematically spies on its allies in Europe.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said on French radio: "I was always sure that dictatorships, some authoritarian systems, tried to listen ... but that measures like that are now practiced by an ally, by a friend, that is shocking, in the case that it is true."
Jean-Luc Mélanchon, leader of France’s Left Party, said on French radio Sunday that “Edward Snowden ... has done us a good service,” writes France24. “It’s thanks to him that we know we have been spied on. It is not acceptable that we allow a situation whereby he wanders uncertainly around the planet. He is a defender of all our freedoms.”
Snowden’s bid for asylum, however, has thus far faltered in Europe. As the AFP writes:
Germany, The Netherlands and Poland rejected Mr Snowden's asylum bid; an Indian foreign ministry said there was “no reason to accede to the request”; and Brazil said it was “not going to respond.”
Austria, Finland, Iceland and Norway each said Mr Snowden's request was invalid because it was not filed from inside their respective countries. Ireland and Spain issued similar statements.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said they knew nothing about a bid apart from media reports.
France and Switzerland said they had not yet received an application, while Italy said it was “contemplating” the request.