Forced to land in Vienna, left waiting on the tarmac for and only allowed to leave after half a day – the treatment of Evo Morales has stirred up fury in Latin America, a region that has long bristled at the bullying of the US and double standards of its former colonial masters in Europe.
Bolivia has denounced what it calls a “kidnap” operation of its president by imperial powers that violates the Vienna convention and its national sovereignty. Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay have joined in the condemnation. Angry headlines have been splashed on newspapers across the region.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño Aroca, said his country would stand with Bolivia. “We will not allow this affront against a Latin American leader,” he tweeted.
The secretary general of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza, expressed his “profound displeasure” with the countries who refused to allow Morales’s plane through their airspace.
“Nothing justifies an action as disrespectful to the highest authority of a country,” Insulza said in a statement.
Peru reportedly called for an emergency meetingon Wednesday of another regional grouping, the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).
“Tomorrow is going to be a long and difficult day,” tweeted the Argentinian president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, on Tuesday night, saying the level of impunity for Morales’ treatment was unprecedented. Venezuela is furious and the Uruguayan president, José Mujica, is said to be indignant.
The United States has yet to comment, but the longer it remains silent, the stronger suspicions will be that it leaned on France, Spain, Portugal and Italy to deny permission for Morales’s plane to fly through their airspace, in effect putting the hunt for US whistleblower Edward Snowden above international law and the rights of a president of a sovereign nation.
Politicians and commentators in the region are already adding the action to a long list of interventions, invasions and “policing actions” by Latin America’s giant northern neighbour, alongside the Monroe Doctrine, the annexation of half of Mexico, the Bay of Pigs invasion, support for Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and other dictators and the ousting of democratically elected leftist governments in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and elsewhere.
Europe has been accused of reopening historical scars by abetting in the detention of Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
“Just as they did 500 years ago, foreign powers have once again mistreated and assaulted the Bolivian people,” the country’s vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, said.
Ecuador was expected to provide further evidence of intrusiveness and interference at a press conference later on Wednesday, when the foreign minister said he would provide evidence of a bug that was discovered at its London embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been taking refuge for a year.
Ecuador had also looked a likely destination for Snowden, though its president, Rafael Correa, appears to have cooled on the idea in recent days. Many attribute his change of tone to a phonecall from the US vice-president, Joe Biden, which reportedly included a reminder that Ecuador uses the US dollar as its currency. For some commentators, this was a veiled threat.
Conscious of the growing importance of the Latino vote in the US, the president, Barack Obama, has tried to bolster his reputation in the region by making immigration reform one of the priorities of his second term.
But his secretary of state, John Kerry, upset many in Latin America earlier this year, when he referred to the region as the US “backyard” – a term that has long been seen as a sign of US imperialistic tendencies. In response, Bolivia expelled USAid, a development agency.
Spain, France, Portugal and Italy reportedly denied permission for Morales’s plane to fly through their airspace, in effect forcing it to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna, where Austrian authorities inspected the plane.