South fires back at US bully
Lawrence Powell, Guest Columnist
We are not colonies anymore. We deserve respect, and when one of our governments is insulted, we feel the insult throughout Latin America. -- Jose Mujica, president of Uruguay
In its frantic scramble to silence whistleblower Edward Snowden - who recently exposed secret spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on Americans and citizens of other nations - the United States government has managed to thoroughly offend its neighbours south of the border.
More than a week ago, South American leaders indignantly accused the US of "imperial terrorism" in orchestrating the "hijacking" of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane - which on a return trip from Moscow was denied airspace by France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, apparently on US orders, and then forced to land in Austria where officials searched Morales' presidential aircraft for Snowden (who was not on the plane).
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, immediately highlighted the double standard. "If this had happened to the president of the United States, it probably would have been grounds for war." But United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in his comments on the incident, merely described it as "unfortunate".
South American leaders have also accused the US of "economic blackmail" against the countries that are considering offering Snowden asylum, of "bugging the Ecuadorian Embassy", of collecting personal information on millions of Brazilians without their knowledge or consent, and of using data-snooping programmes to probe Latin American oil markets, commercial secrets, military affairs and social movements.
They say they are outraged because such arrogant actions by the US show disrespect for their national sovereignty, and ignore recognised norms of international law.
To escape what he regards as certain US persecution for exposing embarrassing truths, former NSA employee Snowden has so far applied for political asylum in more than 20 nations. Most of those countries quickly bowed to intense US diplomatic and economic pressures, refusing to harbour the fugitive. As of this writing, only five nations - Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay and Nicaragua - have stepped forward to indicate a serious interest in granting Snowden safe passage and/or residence. Of those, the most likely destination now appears to be Venezuela.
President Nicholas Maduro, on the occasion of Venezuela's July 6 Independence Day parade, explained his nation's motives for offering Snowden protection. "We must exercise our independence and sovereignty. Our discourses are meaningless if they aren't exercised with force at the national level. I announce to the friendly governments of the world that we have decided to ... protect the young Snowden from the persecution that has been unleashed from the most powerful empire in the world, the United States."
Maduro then posed a rhetorical question that he knew would strike a responsive chord throughout Latin America. "Who violated international law?" he asked. "A young man who decided, in an act of rebellion, to tell the truth of the espionage of the United States against the world? Or the government of the United States, the power of the imperialist elites, who spied on it?"
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega says his country would receive Snowden "with pleasure ... if circumstances permit", and Uruguay's Senator Lucia Topolansky says her country is considering an offer because "I think that every country is free to shelter whomever it wants. Every country has its own rules and makes its own decisions, and no one is allowed to interfere with the sovereignty of other nations."
Readers may recall that it was also a South American leader, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, who last year came to the aid of embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, offering him refuge in its embassy in London when he was in danger of being apprehended by the US for releasing embarrassing information to the press.
So why are all of these offers of political asylum coming from Latin America? Is there some hidden resonance, a sense of common purpose, between men of this generation willing to sacrifice themselves to overcome superpower information tyranny, and the Latin American peoples who have long experienced colonial tyrannies - first from Europe, then from the United States?
Guardian writer John Pilger points out, in his account of the Morales incident, that when the Bolivian president's flight was suddenly denied airspace by four European countries, followed by "his 14-hour confinement while Austrian officials demanded to 'inspect' his aircraft" looking for Snowden, this was, in reality, a mysteriously unpunished "act of air piracy and state terrorism. It was a metaphor for the gangsterism that now rules the world and the cowardice and hypocrisy of bystanders who dare not speak its name."
Following the incident, the leaders of Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to discuss Morales' humiliating treatment and what to do about it. They issued a joint statement demanding a thorough explanation from the US and the European countries that had refused Morales' flight entry to their airspace (Spain, France, Italy, Portugal), and they resolved to reach "a strong decision in defence of the unity of our region" when UNASUR meets again later this month.
Still visibly angry from his ordeal, Morales pointed out to the forum that this was an as-yet-unpunished violation of international law. Blaming the US for pressuring European countries to bar his plane from flying through their airspace, he warned that he might close the US Embassy in Bolivia. "We don't need a US embassy in Bolivia," he said. "My hand would not shake to close the US embassy. We have dignity, sovereignty. Without the US, we are better politically, democratically."
Bolivian Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera referred to the incident as an "imperial hijack". And Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro told those present: "Europe broke all the rules of the game. We're here to tell President Evo Morales that he can count on us. Whoever picks a fight with Bolivia picks a fight with Venezuela."
That the above examples of expressed sympathy for whistleblowers like Snowden and Assange are all Latin American is no coincidence. Washington's habit of not taking south-of-the-border nations seriously as sovereign democracies constantly pours salt on long-standing historical wounds.
The spying practices Snowden has revealed are a bitter reminder to them of past colonial maltreatment by European and North Americans powers, who regarded their nations as mere exploitable banana republics.
The arrogant NSA intelligence-collection practices exposed by Snowden and WikiLeaks reflect outdated rationales of Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, anti-communism, and Cold War spheres of influence which no longer have a place in a 21st-century, multipolar world.
Repeated US attempts by the Bush and Obama administrations to bully the rest of the world into compliance, using a combination of military might and economic blackmail, are beginning to backfire and meet with moral resistance.
Unfortunately, the price of this big-stick policy, over time, has been that the US is rapidly losing the moral high ground and international respect it once enjoyed coming out of World War II. And nowhere is that loss more obvious than in Latin America.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.