Above: President Evo Morales of Bolivia talking to the media in Austria
The European rerouting of the Bolivian presidential plane over suspicions that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was aboard ignited outrage Wednesday among Latin American leaders who called it a stunning violation of national sovereignty and disrespect for the region.
But as President Evo Morales headed home after an unplanned 14-hour layover in Vienna, there was no immediate sign that Latin America anger would translate into a rush to bring Snowden to the region that had been seen as likeliest to defy the U.S. and give him asylum.
Snowden was still believed to be in the transit area of Moscow’s international airport. As his case grinds on, it appears to illustrate the strength of U.S. influence, despite the initial sense that the Obama administration lost control of the situation when China allowed Snowden to flee Hong Kong.
Morales originally planned to fly home from a Moscow summit via Western Europe, stopping in Lisbon, Portugal and Guyana to refuel. His plane was diverted to Vienna Tuesday night after his government said France, Spain and Portugal all refused to let it through their airspace because they suspected Snowden was on board. Spain’s ambassador to Austria even tried to make his way onto the plane on the pretext of having a coffee to check that Snowden wasn’t there, Morales said.
Morales had sparked speculation that he might try to help Snowden get out during a visit to Russia after he said that his country would be willing to consider granting him asylum. Austrian officials said Morales’ plane was searched early Wednesday by Austrian border police after Morales gave permission. Bolivian and Austrian officials both said Snowden was not on board.
Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sacha Llorenti, said “the orders came from the United States.”
“They want to frighten and intimidate me but they won’t scare me,” Morales said before finally taking off to Spain’s Canary Islands and on to Brazil and then home. “We’re not in colonial or imperial times … this is an aggression against Latin America.”
Throughout Latin America there was a sense of deep injustice and offense at what was widely believed to be U.S.-prompted interference with Bolivia’s equivalent of Air Force One.
“This is a humiliation for a sister nation and for the South American continent,” said Cristina Fernandez, the leftist president of Argentina, describing the plane’s rerouting as a “vestige of the colonialism that we thought we had completely overcome.”
She said Morales’ “total and indisputable” immunity as head of state had been violated when he was “illegally detained in old Europe.”
Preventing the passage of a presidential jet and even searching it is legal under international law but unprecedented in recent memory, aviation experts said.
“It is extraordinary to prohibit passage through one’s state air space en route to another state,” said Ken Quinn, former chief counsel at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and head of the aviation practice at the Washington-based law firm Pillsbury Winthrop. “From a diplomacy standpoint, one does not normally interfere with diplomats and high-ranking public officials in transit.”
The U.S. refused to comment on whether it was involved in any decision to close European airspace, saying only that “US officials have been in touch with a broad range of countries over the course of the last 10 days,” about the Snowden case.
“The message has been communicated both publicly and privately,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “He should be returned to the United States.”
European responses shifted throughout the day.
Spain explicitly denied Bolivian charges that it had closed its airspace to Morales.
After initial hedging from France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius issued a statement Wednesday night acknowledging that Morales’ plane was initially refused and saying he called his Bolivian counterpart to apologize. The statement didn’t explain why.
Fabius “expressed France’s regrets following the temporary problems that occurred for President Morales because of delays in confirming authorization to fly over (French) territory.”
“There was naturally never any intention to refuse access to our airspace to President Morales, who is always welcome in our country,” Fabius said.
Portugal said it had granted permission for the plane to fly through its air space but declined Bolivia’s request for a refueling stop in Lisbon due to unspecified technical reasons.
Shades of outrage were felt across Latin America in countries with long experience on the sharp end of U.S. power, even those whose governments did not take sides with leftist Bolivia.
“What happened to Bolivia’s president is upsetting and dangerous,” said Carlos Acosta, a Panama City clothing salesman, as he read about the case in his local paper. “Not letting your president cross a country’s airspace, it’s like a slap in the face.”
Across the continent, however, outrage didn’t lead to immediate action.
President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, one of the U.S.’s toughest critics in the region, said from the Moscow summit Tuesday that while “Snowden deserves the protection of international humanitarian law, as a young man who has spoken a great truth,” he said later that Venezuela will wait for “the reaction of the world,” to give its final opinion on the matter, and wasn’t considering any asylum request from Snowden.
“Despite the anger, governments have other strategic interests in the region and nobody is jumping in to say ‘yes we will offer him asylum.’ Venezuela could, Ecuador could, Bolivia could, but there is clearly a price to be paid for that and they are thinking carefully whether they are willing to pay that price,” said Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
Ecuador, another country that had been expected to host Snowden, appeared to back away from that prospect last week after U.S. tariff benefits for flower exporters and other key industries were thrown into question.
“Beyond the speeches and the protests …, this isn’t going to become more than another diplomatic incident, taking into account that Bolivia is a state with little power and international influence,” said Ivan Garzan Vallejo, director of the social sciences program at the University of La Sabana in Bogota, Colombia.
Cuba called Morales’ treatment “unacceptable, baseless and arbitrary, and offensive to all of Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador and Chile condemned European nations’ handling of the case, with Brazil expressing “indignation and condemnation of the restrictions imposed on President Evo Morales by some European countries.” Mexico’s federal government issued a statement saying it lamented the way Morales was treated and urged countries to adhere to “good diplomatic practices.”
UNASUR, the union of South American nations, said it had learned of the situation “with the greatest concern.”
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said the presidents of Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Surinam and possibly Uruguay will attend a UNASUR meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on Thursday to discuss the matter. Bolivia said earlier it also would summon the French and Italian ambassadors and the Portuguese consul to demand explanations.
But even in Bolivia, there was little evidence of wider public outrage. About 50 members of the Aymara indigenous group, which has close ties to Morales, burned French and European flags outside the French Embassy in the capital, La Paz. One threw a rock that broke a window. There were no reports of further damage.
Morales said he never saw Snowden and that Bolivia has not received a formal request for asylum for him. The country would consider a request if it receives one, Morales said.
Leaks by Snowden, a former NSA systems analyst, have revealed the NSA’s sweeping data collection of U.S. phone records and some Internet traffic, though U.S. intelligence officials have said the programs target foreigners and terrorist suspects mostly overseas.
According to WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling website that has been advising him, Snowden has applied for asylum in Venezuela, Bolivia and 18 other countries. Many European countries on the list — including Austria, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland — said he would have to make his request on their soil.
Michael Weissenstein reported from Mexico City. Charlton reported from Paris. Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, Carla Salazar in Lima, Peru, Luis Andres Henao and Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, Olga Rodriguez in Mexico City, Peter Orsi in Havana, Cuba, Juan Zamorano in Panama City, Matthew Lee in Washington, Pablo Fernandez in Montevideo, Uruguay, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Ciaran Giles and Alan Clendenning in Madrid, George Jahn in Vienna, John Heilprin in Geneva, Raf Casert in Brussels and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.