The president’s plane was forced to land in Geneva, Switzerland, where Swiss security officials subjected it to a thorough search for a possible stowaway; none was found. The incident caused international outrage, and raised the prospects of some Latin American countries severing diplomatic ties with the United States.
At the centre of the furore is Mr Edward J. Snowden, a fugitive American intelligence contractor, who the United States accused of treason and has revoked his passport.
Snowden had used his security clearance to obtain sensitive intelligence from the U.S. secret database, including the fact that the U.S. government routinely spied on China and many Western countries, including allies Germany and France.
Some of the highly sensitive materials were given to the Washington Post, London’s The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel newspapers, all of which published excerpts of them. A few days after, Snowden, fleeing the United States, turned up at Moscow airport via Hong Kong, apparently on transit to a South American country willing to offer him asylum. Snowden faces a possible death penalty if he is ever returned to the United States.
Tension has grown between the United States and the two major powers Mr Snowden has fled to, China and Russia, over their refusal to detain him and turn him over to the American authorities. Snowden first took refuge in Hong Kong, where the authorities, citing some non-compliance by the U.S. with some extradition requirement, allowed him to proceed to Moscow, clearly with a nod from China.
But what has caused much disquiet in this saga is the implication of the forced grounding of Mr Morales’ presidential plane for international aviation safety and proper diplomatic conduct.
Spanish officials said that the United States ambassador to Spain had suggested that in the early days of Mr Snowden’s appearance at Moscow airport, he could have stowed away in the Bolivian president’s plane which, by coincidence, had made a stop-over at Moscow airport.
The geopolitical storm that the incident churned quickly spread as Latin American leaders roundly condemned the refusal to let Bolivia’s president fly over several European nations, rallying to his side after Bolivian officials said the president’s plane had been thwarted because of suspicions that Mr Snowden was on board.
Calling it a grave offense to their entire region, Latin American officials held an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) restating their stand. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina said the episode had “vestiges of a colonialism that we thought was completely overcome,” describing it as a humiliating act that affected all of South America.
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said in a post on Twitter that the situation was “extremely serious” and called it an “affront”. The Ecuadorian embassy has been playing host to another whistleblower, Mr Julian Assange, holed up there for over a year now, fearing possible extradition to the U.S. Mr Assange is founder of the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks; another American, Bradley Manning, is currently undergoing trial for ‘aiding the enemy’ to steal thousands of pages of diplomatic cables that exposed U.S. spying and war methods in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. Here we are, the U.S., the espouser and defender of free speech, would threaten aviation safety and trample on diplomatic etiquette in blind bid to silence those who want to advance that basic principle.
Given the very undiplomatic comments that American officials of foreign leaders who they believe would give Mr Snowden sanctuary, it can only be guessed what strong arm tactics they employed in persuading European governments to buck aviation rules and deny Morales’ plane from flying over their air space.
This precedence foreshadows what could happen to any country with which a powerful country like the U.S. is in adversary with, and smacks of skyjacking with all the hallmarks of a terrorist act.
Some European countries have issued apologies to Morales, but it is the U.S. that is the guilty party here, and should be called to account for this gross violation of international rules of conduct among nations.