Spain gives Bolivian leader airspace clearance after diplomatic standoff

Rumors surfaced that Evo Morales may have been smuggling whistleblower Edward Snowden on board Presidential plane eventually makes stopover in the Canary Islands

Bolivian President Evo Morales talks to journalists on July 3, 2013 at the airport of Schwechat, near Vienna.
Bolivian President Evo Morales talks to journalists on July 3, 2013 at the airport of Schwechat, near Vienna.Helmut Fohringer (AFP)

After a 13-hour diplomatic standoff, prompted by concerns that cyberespionage whistleblower Edward Snowden was trying to sneak out of Russia on board a plane carrying Evo Morales, Spanish officials early Wednesday gave the green light for the Bolivian president’s flight to stop in the Canary Islands for refueling before heading home from an official trip to Moscow.

Morales’ presidential plane touched down at the airport at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria at around 3.40pm as international outrage poured in against Spain, the United States, France, Portugal and Italy for delaying the Bolivian leader’s flight. It took off again after about an hour.

On Tuesday, Morales was forced to land at Vienna International Airport after he left Moscow while his government officials in La Paz denounced that Spain, Italy, France and Portugal — allegedly acting on US orders — were not permitting the Bolivian leader to use their airspace for his flight back home. La Paz accused the four countries of putting Morales’ life in danger and caving into the United States demands.

Spanish officials insisted on inspecting Morales' plane when he landed

In Berlin, where he was attending a summit on youth unemployment, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy played down the incident calling the entire affair “an unfounded debate.”

“What is important is that Snowden is not on that plane,” Rajoy said.

In Vienna, as Morales waited, he told the press that Spanish officials insisted on inspecting his plane when he landed to ensure that he wasn’t trying to smuggle Snowden out of Russia. The former CIA analyst is reportedly still holed up in the transit area of Moscow airport while trying to seek asylum in a third country. But the Bolivian leader told Spain that such a search was a violation of international agreements, and refused to allow them to board.

“I am not a criminal,” said an angry Morales early Wednesday morning after meeting with Austrian President Heinz Fischer.

Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, who said he hadn’t slept all night as the diplomatic brawl played out, denied that Spain had asked to inspect the jet. He also rejected the version that the Spanish government had refused Morales permission to land at any Spanish airport. The problem, according to García-Margallo, had to do with a time factor regarding the presidential plane’s confirmation that it was scheduled to fly into Spanish airspace at a certain time, which could not be confirmed “because there were difficulties regarding authorizations to fly over airspaces that were not Spanish.”

At the Las Palmas airport, there was heavy police security and the runway was blocked off after the presidential plane landed.

Rumors that Snowden may have been on board the presidential plane were actually fueled by Morales, who, in Moscow on an official visit, made an off-the-cuff remark that he would be willing to host the whistleblower.

Nothing justifies a disrespectful action toward a nation’s highest leader”

Venezuela, which is one of Bolivia’s allies in the leftist bloc of Latin American nations, has offered to take in the former National Security Agency contractor. Snowden is wanted by the United States for leaking intelligence information concerning a global surveillance program, known as Prism, which is being used by Washington to spy on government officials in other nations as well as on private citizens.

Both Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner asked that the UNASUR group of South American nations call an urgent meeting over the incident.

In La Paz, demonstrators gathered outside the Spanish, Portuguese and American embassies to protest the actions that delayed Morales’ return home. Citing diplomatic sources, Efe news agency reported that Spanish diplomats decided for safety reasons to close Spain’s Cultural Center and the offices of the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID) in the Bolivian capital. The Spanish Embassy remained open, but was operating with minimum personnel.

The Bolivian government, meanwhile, has summoned the ambassadors of Spain, Portugal, France and Italy to a meeting to demand explanations. Morales administration officials likened the action to a “kidnapping” and said they were planning on denouncing the four nations at international forums.

In a statement, Organization of American States (OAS) secretary general José Miguel Insulza demanded that the four nations publicly explain why they closed off their airspace to Morales’ plane. “Nothing justifies a disrespectful action toward a nation’s highest leader.”

For its part, Portugal explained that it decided not to allow Morales’ plane to land in Lisbon “for technical reasons” but permitted him to use Portuguese airspace. In a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry, Portuguese government officials explained that they allowed Morales to land on June 30 as he was on his way to Moscow, and blamed the Bolivian officials for not deciding to take an alternative route after they were told they couldn’t land on the return journey.

“The president has been forced to land in Vienna,” announced Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca in La Paz. “There are unfounded suspicions that Mr Snowden was on board the aircraft. We don’t know who came up with this lie.”

Austrian President Heinz Fischer later announced to the press that Morales’ plane was finally allowed to fly over the four nations. “Spanish airspace has also been opened for him,” Fischer said.

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