In its eagerness to capture the fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has taken a step that will resound through Latin American history.
On July 2, in a still unclear sequence of events, an airplane carrying President Evo Morales of Bolivia was diverted from its flight path and forced to land in Austria. Morales was on his way home from a visit to Moscow, during which he had suggested that Bolivia might grant Snowden asylum.
Someone – almost certainly in Washington – arranged for France, Italy, and Portugal to deny his plane use of their airspace. It was forced to land for refueling in Austria, and was allowed to proceed only after Austrian security officers determined that Snowden was not aboard.
Such an act would have stirred anger if it had been aimed at any president, but in Latin America, it has a special resonance. Conflict with the United States is one of the overwhelming facts of Latin American history. Morales is one of several regional leaders who have won elections by promising to pull their countries out of Washington’s orbit.
Some of those leaders reacted angrily to the downing of Morales’s plane. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador called it an “affront to all America”. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina condemned it as a relic of “colonialism that we thought was completely overcome”.
If it becomes clear that the United States was behind this action – it has not yet admitted responsibility – this incident will go down in history as the defining episode of US-Latin America relations during the Obama administration. It suggests that the United States still considers Latin American countries less than fully sovereign. Nothing angers people in those countries more. It is what they call “Plattismo”.
That is a reference to the Platt Amendment of 1901, which recognized Cuba as an independent country but required that it enter into no treaty and incur no foreign debts without permission from Washington, and also that it recognize the right of the United States to intervene in Cuba at will.
The Platt Amendment was abrogated in 1934, but in the eyes of many Latin Americans, it still seems to define Washington’s understanding of their continent. That view was immeasurably strengthened this week.
In Washington, the attempt to capture Snowden by forcing down Morales’s plane may have been seen as nothing more than a clever gamble. Latin Americans take it far more seriously. To them, it is a brutally humiliating blow that recalls memories of a century and a half of intervention.
This episode has greatly strengthened Morales and other Latin American leaders who are critical of the United States. It makes their anti-Yanqui rhetoric seem newly credible. It has even, ironically, made Snowden a Latin American hero. Any president who offers him asylum will bathe in a wave of continent-wide admiration.
That will have to be weighed, however, against the reaction from Washington. A few days ago, after President Correa suggested that he might accept Snowden in Ecuador, Vice-President Joseph Biden called him. They reportedly spoke for half an hour. Afterward, Correa’s enthusiasm for accepting Snowden declined palpably. That is not surprising. The United States has means to wound Latin American countries deeply, chiefly by altering trade policies to cut imports in ways that would throw thousands out of work.
The Biden phone call, followed by the action against Morales’s plane, are clear signals of how seriously the Obama administration views Snowden’s leaks. Some in Washington seem to consider him a cyber-enemy whose crimes against the United States are nearly equivalent to those of Osama bin-Laden.
By elevating Snowden to this level, the United States has made clear that any country accepting him will be made to suffer. It also, however, provides a tempting opportunity to Latin American leaders. Whoever welcomes Snowden will instantly join the revered pantheon of rebels who dared to defy what José Martí called “the eagle with larcenous claws”.
Whether any is willing to accept the harsh punishment that Washington would likely impose may soon become clear.
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