BERLIN -- The assertion by Bolivia’s president that his plane was denied rights to fly across four European nations because of suspicions that fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden might be on board set off a bitter diplomatic battle Wednesday that did little to illuminate what actually had happened.
France and Spain said Bolivian President Evo Morales was always welcome in their airspace on his way home from Moscow, where he’d attended a conference. But the Bolivians said the two nations and others had denied their leader access to their airspace, despite being in a jet that was dangerously low on fuel, and they accused the nations of acting on U.S. suspicions that Snowden, who’s been hiding out in the transit area of Moscow’s airport, had somehow been sneaked aboard Morales’ plane.
The Associated Press later reported that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had released a statement Wednesday night acknowledging that Morales’ plane was initially refused and saying he’d called Morales to apologize. The statement gave no reason for the denial.
Bolivians said the presidential plane had to reroute shortly before entering Italian airspace and head for Vienna to refuel. There, Morales spent 14 hours waiting to continue his journey home. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia called the matter “imperial kidnapping.”
Around South America, reactions were similarly indignant. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner responded to a tweet from Morales that said, “I’m not going to permit a search of my plane. I am not a thief,” by tweeting back: “Simply perfect. Stay strong, Evo.”
The Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry sent out a series of tweets, adding up to a strong condemnation of what it thinks happened to Morales.
“We will not permit this affront against a Latin American leader. . . . The Bolivian government will summon the ambassadors of France, Italy and the consul of Portugal in La Paz to explain why they denied over-flight.”
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino Aroca, also in a tweet, noted, “What happens to Bolivia and Evo happens also to Latin America and Ecuador.”
Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, demanded an explanation for why Morales’ life was put “in danger.”
In all, Morales claimed that his plane was denied access to Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, after the plane had passed over Russia, Belarus and the European Union nations of Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria.
The European nations accused of kowtowing to American whims were quick to try to deflate the story. The Portuguese said in news reports that there were “technical reasons” for denying their nation as a fuel stop.
In Spain, the answer was a bit more direct, coming in a statement on the website of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Yesterday Spain received an authorization request for President Evo Morales’ plane to fly and stop over in Las Palmas from Moscow, which was duly granted,” the statement read, in direct contradiction to Morales’ tale and flight path. “The presidential plane ultimately landed in Vienna. In the early hours of this morning, Bolivian authorities have requested an updated flight authorization for President Evo Morales to fly and stop over on his return to Bolivia. This authorization was issued by Spain this morning.”