Morales, Snowden and Europe's Conquistadores

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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The decisions by France, Spain and Portugal to interrupt Bolivian President Evo Morales's flight home, apparently on the hunch that he was smuggling Edward Snowden out of Russia, have proved embarrassing for Europe. Even unfortunate.

The episode has made these European states appear beholden to U.S. political pressure. It also made them look silly, once Austrian airport police had searched the Bolivian president's aircraft and found no leaker of U.S. National Security Agency secrets on board. Asked to explain why they did what they did, French officials in particular seemed speechless.

In Latin America, though, fallout from the high-handed treatment of Morales is proving more than unfortunate. It is a diplomatic pratfall that plays into deeply rooted Latin American narratives of U.S. and European colonialist attitudes, stretching back to the eras of Spanish and Portuguese conquest, and of U.S. gunboat diplomacy.

After Morales' plane rerouted to Vienna, Bolivia's Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera claimed, somewhat hyperbolically, that the president had been "kidnapped by imperialism" and his life placed at risk. Blogger @isabelcafecito asked the obvious question in response, in a Twitter post: "Evo kidnapped? How much and what did kidnappers demand for his return?"

Morales' political allies in the region have run with this Bolivian story line. Argentinian President Cristina Fernandeztook toTwitter to denounce what she called a "humiliating" experience. Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro called it "dangerous aggression." Ecuador's President Rafael Correacalled for an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations customs union, better known as UNASUR, to discuss the matter. And even Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, not one of the usual suspects, said the episode "affected not only Bolivia but all of Latin America," and would undermine trade talks with the EU.

On Twitter, Morales's sympathizers vented through hash tags #evosecuestrado (or #evowaskidnapped) and #atentadoAEvo (#attemptAgainstEvo). In La Paz, the Bolivian capital, they burned French and European Union flags and hurled stones at the French embassy.

The silence in Europe and the U.S. as to exactly what happened and why has helped Morales to make the story his own. As he touched Bolivian soil again at 11:30 pm Bolivian time on July 3, Morales enjoyed a hero's welcome. He spoke in a televised address about "attempts to intimidate the people seeking liberty."

As an attempt to link the causes of Snowden and Latin America through a fight for liberty, this seems a stretch. Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-profit that measures the scope for individual liberty in different countries rates neither Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil nor Argentina as free, let alone Venezuela. The U.S., France, Spain and Portugal all are, with or without the NSA's Prism program. Still, as a comment on state bullying, Morales surely has a point. Spain's El País newspaperdeemed the incident "intolerable treatment" of Bolivia's president. A picket sign held-up by one Morales supporter at his return was pithier -- it read: "Yankee assassins."

The Morales flight fiasco looks like it will run for a while. When the U.S. yesterday formally asked Bolivia to extradite Snowden, should he somehow arrive in Bolivia and ask for asylum, the Morales administration said it wouldn't and called the hypothetical U.S. request "strange, illegal and unfounded."

As for the precise whereabouts of Edward Snowden, we remain after all this, none the wiser.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net