Snowden Situation Leads to New Conflict Between U.S. and LatAm

PHOTO: Bolivian President Evo Morales holds a press conference at the Vienna International Airport on July 3, 2013.Patrick Domingo/AFP/Getty Images
Bolivian President Evo Morales holds a press conference at the Vienna International Airport on July 3, 2013. Morales angrily denied any wrongdoing on Wednesday after his plane was diverted to Vienna over suspicion fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was on board.

Edward Snowden's travels have caused yet another incident between the U.S. and part of Latin America.

On Tuesday, while traveling from Moscow to La Paz, Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to make an unplanned landing in Austria after France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain reportedly denied Morales use of their airspace on suspicions that he was smuggling the N.S.A leaker.

In what Bolivian authorities described as a "kidnapping" of their president, Morales' plane was stranded for nearly 14 hours in Vienna's airport. After Morales agreed to a voluntary inspection of his plane, Austrian police walked through the aircraft and confirmed Snowden was not there. (According to Bolivia, the claims that he was on board were "baseless.")

Bolivian officials pointed out that Morales was travelling from Moscow from an international summit of gas-exporting countries. They said that France, Portugal and Spain had no valid excuse under international law treaties to block Morales' plane from flying over their airspace and claimed that the United States was behind the "hostile" action taken by these European nations.

There has been no confirmation by the U.S. government of this request. But on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, acknowledged that the U.S. had been "in contact," with "a range of countries," over which Snowden could fly if he left Russia. Psaki refused to name the countries that the State Department had contacted.

Several Latin American leaders suspect U.S. involvement. Some expressed their anger on Tuesday night over what they view as yet another example of U.S. "imperialism."

"I spoke to Pepe (Mújica, president of Uruguay). He is outraged. He is right," Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tweeted. "It's all very humiliating."

"[These] are decisive hours for UNASUR," Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also tweeted on Tuesday night. "Either we graduate as colonies, or we vindicate our independence, sovereignty and dignity. We are all Bolivia!"

In South America, presidents called for an emergency meeting of UNASUR, a regional defense organization, to discuss how they will respond to the Morales incident, though few details have emerged on what kind of measures UNASUR could take. (Most likely they will issue a statement protesting Morales' treatment.)

"This incident is viewed as yet another example of the kind of imperialism that the region as a whole had moved beyond in recent years," said Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. "Regardless of what you think of the Snowden case, this is not how the situation should have been treated."

For analysts like Youngers, the way Morales was treated reflects the kind of U.S. arrogance that has outraged the Latin American left for decades and includes historical incidents such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, and U.S. involvement in coups in Guatemala, Chile and beyond.

Of course, to this moment U.S. involvement in the affair remains unclear. But analysts rightly point out, that the affront against Morales is one which the U.S. would not have dared against other more powerful countries.

"Can you imagine Angela Merkel's plane being rerouted? It's unthinkable," Youngers said.

Experts say that, as a whole, it's unlikely that U.S. relations with Latin America will be seriously affected by this incident. However, they say it wouldn't be surprising if UNASUR issued a strong statement. This club of nations includes countries, which are generally perceived as U.S. allies such as Brazil, Peru and Chile, as well as political rivals like Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia.

What happened to Morales might also have another seemingly contradictory effect.

Some analysts point out that the U.S. could have been trying to send a message to the world, by asking European nations to force Morales' plane to the ground. Though that might have a chilling effect for most countries that were considering granting Snowden asylum, in Latin America, as Youngers points out, the result could be the opposite.

"This could actually help Snowden," Youngers said. "The outrage might work in his favor, and Bolivia, from his point of view, is a very good choice [for asylum], since it doesn't have much to lose [in terms of trade deals with the U.S.] and the situation is more politically stable than in Venezuela."

As far as we know, Snowden is still at the international arrivals terminal of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. In recent days, he sent asylum requests to at least 19 countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Most have already rejected his petition, but Bolivia and Venezuela, still haven't said their final word on it.