Bolivian Fugitive’s Flight Topples Brazil’s Foreign Minister

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff replaced her foreign minister after a diplomat acknowledged helping an outspoken opponent of Bolivia’s president flee the country, where he’s wanted on corruption charges, following a 13-month standoff.

Antonio Patriota, a career diplomat, resigned after a meeting with Rousseff to discuss the incident, which has strained relations between Latin America’s largest economy and one of the region’s poorest nations. He was replaced by Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, who is currently Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

Patriota came under fire after Senator Roger Pinto over the weekend abandoned Brazil’s Embassy in La Paz, where he took refuge in May 2012 to escape what he said were death threats for denouncing alleged ties between drug traffickers and Evo Morales’ government. He was shuttled to the border in an embassy vehicle by a Brazilian diplomat who said he acted without his superiors’ consent out of humanitarian concerns.

“If Patriota had been in command this wouldn’t have happened,” David Fleischer, a Brasilia-based political scientist, said in a phone interview, adding that the foreign minister had been advised several times about Pinto’s worsening health without responding. “Instead he stuck his head in the sand like an ostrich.”

Humanitarian Motive

Rousseff, like most Brazilians, was only informed that Pinto had left the embassy in La Paz once Pinto crossed the border following a nearly 24-hour road journey from the Bolivian capital in the Andes.

While Brazil granted Pinto asylum over a year ago, his safe passage out of the country was being blocked by Morales’ government, which argued he was trying to evade prosecution on corruption charges stemming from his time as governor of Pando state.

“I deeply regret that someone granted asylum by Brazil was exposed to such danger,” Rousseff told reporters today in Brasilia.

Brazil’s charge d’affaires in La Paz, Eduardo Saboia, said he acted to save Pinto’s life as he watched how the lawmaker’s 455-day isolation took its toll on his physical and mental health. Repeated pleas for help to his superiors in Brasilia went unanswered, he said.

“I chose to protect a person, someone who is being persecuted politically, just like President Rousseff was persecuted,” Saboia said yesterday in Brasilia, referring to the Brazilian leader’s jailing by the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Rousseff’s Response

A visibly angered Rousseff today rejected the comparison.

“I was in the DOI-CODI, I know what it was like,” said Rousseff, referring to the dungeon-like jail where she and other political prisoners were held in Sao Paulo during the dictatorship. “I can assure you that it’s as different from the Brazilian Embassy in La Paz as heaven is from hell.”

Bolivian authorities said yesterday they’ll continue to seek his arrest and extradition. Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca also demanded Brazil explain how he was allowed to leave the embassy under diplomatic cover, though he stopped short of saying the incident would damage relations.

“What happened is serious, which is why we’re demanding explanations from Brazil,” Choquehuanca said at a news conference in La Paz.

Honduran Redux?

The standoff over Pinto recalled another diplomatic quagmire Brazil faced in 2009 when former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was holed up for five months in the country’s embassy in Tegucigalpa, while trying to regain power following his removal in a military coup.

Zelaya eventually left the embassy, and took exile in the Dominican Republic as part of a deal negotiated with his elected successor, Porfirio Lobo.

Patriota had tried to quell the dispute by recalling Saboia and vowing to take any necessary disciplinary action. His efforts were to no avail, and despite having served as Brazil’s chief diplomat since Rousseff took office in 2011, his lack of a close relationship with the president made him expendable, said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

As part of the Foreign Ministry shakeup, Patriota will continue representing Brazil by taking over Figueiredo’s job at Brazil’s mission to the UN. Figueiredo, who has also served in Paris and Washington, last year helped Rousseff organize the Rio + 20 environmental conference, the biggest gathering in the UN’s history.

“Patriota is a well-trained diplomat, he’s a talented guy, but he was never part of Dilma’s inner circle,” Sotero said by telephone from Sao Paulo. “Figueiredo has the most important thing that Patriota lacks, which is the confidence of his boss.”