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Butch Cassidy and the Snowden Kid: Evo Morales’s Plane and the Latin American Left

- July 6, 2013

EVO MORALES AT VIENNA AIRPORTWe welcome back Texas A&M political scientist Diego von Vacano  with the following guest post:


In one of the most unusual incidents involving international outlaws and Bolivia since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, suspicion that Edward Snowden was on Evo Morales’s presidential plane led to a major diplomatic row. Putting aside the legitimacy of Snowden’s revelations and the United States’ case against him, the plane’s diversion will have major repercussions in Latin America. They are comparable to the collateral damage and the friendly fire that are visible at the end of George Hill’s superb 1969 movie about American cowboys in South America.

First, collateral damage: in its tunnel-vision pursuit of Snowden, it appears that the United States put pressure on European allies to stop Morales’s plane. We may never know the full truth about who was behind the decision to land near Vienna, but the effects are clear. Assuming that it was pressure by the US, the fixation on Snowden as a target has led to unintended consequences of the utmost gravity. Fundamentally, within Bolivian domestic politics, the incident practically guarantees that Morales will be re-elected once again, despite longstanding claims by the opposition that at third term is unconstitutional. The popularity of Morales has soared across the Bolivian nation as a result of what his Vice President Alvaro García Linera has called an “imperialist kidnapping” of the President. Morales was first elected democratically in 2005 with 54% of the vote. A new Constitution was approved in 2009, allowing for only one re-election of the President. However, new elections were called that same year, with Morales receiving 64% of the vote. A Constitutional Court ruling in April 2013 declared that Morales could run again for re-election in 2014, stating that a new constitution meant that the electoral clock was reset because Bolivia was now a “plurinational state,” and not merely a “republic.” Samuel Doria Medina, Manfred Reyes, Rubén Costas, and other opposition politicians have decried the ruling as illegitimate and undemocratic since the court is pro-Morales. But with the plane diversion incident, it is likely that Morales’s popularity among regular people and his political supporters will increase drastically. In its dogged pursuit of Snowden, the US has unintentionally consolidated the political power and charismatic monopoly of Morales. As a consequence, it has severely undermined the opposition, which in theory is always necessary for a robust democracy.

Second, friendly fire: France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy are now the objects of South American vitriol. Moreover, even South American countries that have relatively friendly relations with the US have been filled with ire. Despite rumors that the only evidence linking the diversion to European governments has been traced back to Morales’s own government (implying that it was self-sabotage), recent responses by the governments of France and Spain (pointing to ‘’regrets’’ and “surprise” respectively) appear to substantiate the claim that someone other than Morales decided to land near Vienna. South American countries with moderate governments, such as Brazil and Peru, have already sided with Morales’s account of the story. Nations with center-left regimes such as Uruguay and Argentina came out with repimands of the European states. And left-wing states, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, were among the most vociferous. Yesterday in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, an emergency meeting of UNASUR– the union of South American nations– took place in which Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, José Mujica of Uruguay, and Desi Bouterse of Suriname showed up in solidarity with Morales. Envoys from Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia also participated. The rebukes against the “neocolonial” actions of the four European states culminated in a sharply-worded six-point “Cochabamba Declaration.”  It characterizes the flight diversion as a violation of the “law of peoples” and of international law; demands explicit explanations and public apologies by the four European governments; it supports Bolivia’s imminent appeal at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and it announces the formation of a Commission led by all relevant foreign ministers to follow up on these demands.

Friends of the US both within Bolivia and across Latin America will now have a much harder time justifying their critiques of the Latin American Left and exhortations for closer relations with the neighbor to the North. At the same time, the four European states, friendly with the US, will now have more rocky relations with some South American states. Snowden may be very valuable to the US, but it seems the US Department of State did not consider the damage that his pursuit could cause to relations with Latin American leaders, states, and peoples.

We can foresee a sharp rise in further anti-Americanism and a spike in leftist rhetoric and policies in South America as a result of the grounding of Morales’s plane near Vienna. Whether the incident was fabricated or not is in a sense irrelevant: the US response was simply to say that the US government has spoken to a “broad range” of world governments concerning Snowden’s destination. If it turns out that it was indeed US State Deparment pressure on France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal that led to the grounding of Morales’s plane, we should not be surprised to see a long-term leftist backlash in South America. In Bolivia, this may take the form of the US embassy being closed and of Morales’s party, the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) remaining in power for the foreseeable future, led by Morales, Linera, or (more likely) Senate president Gabriela Montaño. More broadly, even center-right countries like Chile and Colombia will likely shift leftwards. The flight’s detour has become a major windfall for the Latin Left.

[Photo credit: National Turk]