Bolivian officials vigorously rejected rumors that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was on the same plane as President Evo Morales when the plane was forced to land in Vienna last night after being denied access to French, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish airspace, according to state news service ABI.
President Morales, who was en route from Moscow to La Paz following an official visit, will now return to Bolivia after nearly 14 hours in Vienna. According to Reuters, officials searched the plane and determined Mr. Snowden was not on board.
"We were informed there were unfounded suspicions that Mr. Snowden would be on the plane," said Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca at a press conference in La Paz last night. "We don't know who invented this lie. Someone wants to harm our country."
Bolivia's defense minister, Rubén Saavedra, said the US government was behind the grounding of the plane, calling it an act of "threat and intimidation" following Morales's statement Tuesday that he would consider an asylum request from Snowden.
The situation is drawing anger and condemnation from Bolivia and its allies across Latin America, who see this as a breach of diplomatic protocol and a double standard.
“Regardless of what one thinks of Snowden, from the point of view of many Latin American governments, this is imperialism at its worst,” says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, in an e-mail.
"A diplomatic plane with a president on board, diverted from its route and then searched – it is precisely the kind of mistreatment that the Bolivian government has rejected in its bilateral relations with the United States," she says. "This would not happen to President Obama’s plane; why should diplomatic protocol be shunned for President Morales?"
This is the latest development in the fraught relationship between Bolivia and The United States. In 2008, Morales accused the US of wielding political influence against his government, and expelled the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Agency. This past May the United States Agency for International Development was kicked out of the country as well.
Bolivia is not known as a haven for international asylum seekers, but along with allies like President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Morales maintains a strong political discourse against US dominance in the region. As more and more countries deny Snowden's aslyum requests, Bolivia may be rising up the ranks as a country suited to give him refuge.
"Given Snowden’s situation, Bolivia is in many ways a logical choice for him,” says Ms. Youngers. “US-Bolivian relations remain tense, with no exchange of ambassadors in sight, and US economic aid to the country is at an all-time low, so Bolivia has little to lose in taking him in.”
Ecuador, which was previously viewed as a likely destination for Snowden, backed off from early signs of support on Monday when President Correa told the Guardian that issuing Snowden a temporary travel pass when he left Hong Kong “was a mistake on our part."
Youngers says that unlike Ecuador, Bolivia is not likely to be swayed by a call from Vice President Biden or any other US official. "The US government has few policy tools at its disposal to persuade President Morales otherwise,” she says.
And with Morales likely to be in power for the foreseeable future, Snowden does not have to worry about a regime change that could lead to his ouster down the road, Younger says.
Though Morales is now on his way home to La Paz after access to airspace was reopened, fallout over the incident continues as President Ollanta Humala of Peru has been asked to call a special meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to discuss the legal ramifications of last night's events.