Bolivia's plane drama fires up South America

Editor's note: Venezuela and Nicaragua on Friday offered asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who is believed to remain holed up in Moscow's airport.

LIMA, Peru — Anger over the unscheduled Vienna stopover of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane continued to reverberate Friday, after his South American allies gathered in support of the leftist leader and claimed he’d been taken “hostage.”

Morales’ presidential jet was forced to make a stop in the Austrian capital on Tuesday due to suspicions he was carrying US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden on board.

Morales was returning from a summit of gas exporters in Moscow. There he told reporters he would consider sheltering the former US spy agency contractor, who’s still believed to be holed up in Moscow’s airport.

As rumors swirled of what would have been a sensational escape by Snowden, Morales’ plane was denied entry to France and Portugal’s airspace.

That forced him to touch down in Austria to take on fuel, where his plane was grounded for 13 hours and reportedly searched, revealing that Snowden was not, in fact, on board.

Bolivia’s defense minister, however, has said officials didn’t board and check the plane.

Contradictory accounts aside, the incident heightens the global tensions around the White House’s push to retrieve the super-leaker charged with alleged Espionage Act crimes. After hitting China, then Russia, and enraging US allies in Europe, the Snowden saga is sweeping yet another region where many distrust Washington and cheer on whistleblowers who tarnish its image.

On his return to La Paz on Thursday evening, Morales said he would now consider closing the US Embassy in Bolivia if it continued its “conspiracies” and “intimidation.”

But it quickly became clear that the upset spread beyond Bolivia's borders.

In a joint statement, the leaders of Argentina, Ecuador, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela, holding an emergency meeting in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba on Thursday, warned that the incident sets “a dangerous precedent in terms of international law.”

They added, in Spanish: “The unacceptable restriction on the freedom of President Evo Morales Ayma, virtually making him a hostage, constitutes a violation of the rights not just of the Bolivian people but of all the countries and peoples of Latin America.”

Separately, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, unable to attend the meeting due to the ongoing political crisis in her country, issued an even stronger statement, suggesting that the incident could affect talks for a trade agreement between the European Union and Latin America.

Yet despite the widespread fury in South America at Morales’ treatment — with many suggesting that France and Portugal had acted on “orders from the CIA” — several governments seemed keen to avoid escalating the row.

The leaders of Chile, Colombia and Peru, all strong US allies, were notable for their absence from the Cochabamba meeting.

From Bogota, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos did express his solidarity with Morales. But he also urged his Latin American counterparts not to turn the diplomatic spat into a major confrontation with Europe and the United States.

Nevertheless, the anger at Portugal and France — and the United States, presumed by many in this region to have told the European countries that Snowden was aboard Morales’ plane — was visceral.

For Latin Americans, Morales’ humiliation this week was just the latest outrage in more than a century of US abuses.

Highlights include Washington’s backing for brutal military coups against democratic leftist governments in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, and the crushing economic embargo maintained against Cuba by every US president since John F. Kennedy.

One of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, Bolivia has felt particularly victimized. Until Morales — the nation’s first non-white president despite its indigenous majority — booted them out, foreign mining companies had long plundered the country’s mineral riches, while Bolivians saw little economic benefit.

Meanwhile, the United States’ tough line against cultivation of coca — a traditional crop in the Andes but also the key ingredient for cocaine — has further fueled the sense of grievance against Washington.

More from GlobalPost: Can Bolivia teach the US how to fight drugs?

Morales insisted Thursday an apology would not be sufficient for holding him “prisoner,” adding: “Our sin has been to be indigenous and anti-imperialist.”

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro added: “Who is in charge in Europe then? European governments and the European peoples or the CIA? Who makes the decisions to assault a legitimate president of a South American state?”

That allegation appeared to worry France’s socialist president, Francois Hollande, whose foreign minister called his Bolivian counterpart to apologize for closing his nation’s airspace to him, blaming the decision on “conflicting information.”

Bolivia’s government said Wednesday it had filed a complaint with the United Nations and would lodge another with the UN Human Rights Commission against the European countries that closed their airspace to Morales’ plane, Agence France-Presse reported.

Some also speculated as to whether the country could take legal action over the alleged search of the plane.

Yet despite the anger, Bolivia and its South American allies’ options may not go much beyond rhetoric and gestures — largely due to the fact that these countries have already broken many economic and diplomatic ties with the United States.

Venezuela and Bolivia have already kicked out the US ambassadors to each country, while both countries and Ecuador have also booted the US government’s Agency for International Development (USAID).

Venezuela is as dependent on its oil exports to the United States as are American consumers. Venezuelan crude is unusually heavy and can only be processed in special refineries, such as those in Texas and Louisiana.

By contrast, there are relatively few European companies operating in Venezuela and Bolivia, precisely because the socialist governments of both nations have in the past nationalized the operations of companies from Spain and France, among others.

Meanwhile, Snowden's options appeared to narrow further, with Russia's government growing uneasy about the leaker sheltered in its airport, and still no clear takers on his long list of asylum bids.