July 3, 2013

Bolivian Prez Plane Caught in Snowden S-Storm. (Or: Hiding in the Millenium Falcon!)

Bolivian president Evo Morales waves as he boards his plane prior leaving the Vienna international airport. Photograph: Patrick Domingo/AFP/Getty Images

President Evo Morales of Bolivia finally took off for home this morning after thirteen unscheduled hours on the ground in Vienna. As of this writing, the plane is flying over the Atlantic, leaving Europe behind at last.

It’s not clear exactly what started the diplomatic contretemps; Morales was in Moscow for an energy conference and responded to an interviewer’s questions about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s asylum requests with

“Yes, why not? Of course, Bolivia is ready to take in people who denounce — I don’t know if this is espionage or monitoring. We are here.”

He said this apparently without knowing exactly whether there is in fact such a request, with reports conflicting whether Bolivia is on the long list of countries to which Snowden applied.

The next thing anyone knew, Morales was high above Eastern Europe, denied permission to fly over France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy because of suspicion that Snowden might be a stowaway. Despite President Obama’s announcement last week that he would not be “scrambling fighter jets,” this comes pretty close. Bolivian Air Force FAB-001 was forced to make the abrupt U-turn and land as the radar track shows.

Ironically, it is because of the openness of the Internet that such flight data has become public and ubiquitous since the 1990s. Similarly, the cockpit audio of the Bolivian pilot speaking to Austrian ground control was picked up by a radio enthusiast with long experience of monitoring scanners and frequencies. The tape reveals that without permission to overfly Western Europe, there was real anxiety over where to go with limited fuel. So even as the US government pursues Snowden for his disclosures, it is the infrastructure of public information which allows people to credibly follow the news.

Morales and his entourage ended up at Schwechat’s VIP Terminal in the middle of the night, angry and frustrated. Two intrepid Austrian journalists, Tanja Malle of the Ö1 radio station (@scharlatanja) and Olivera Stajić of Der Standard (@OliveraStajic) tweeted updates and raised the pointed issue of whether or not the Austrians searched the aircraft for Snowden, and if so, with or without permission. That issue was seemingly settled in a face-saving manner, according to the New York Times, when Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry, said “Austrian border authorities carried out a routine check of the passports of everyone aboard after the plane landed and were also granted permission to search the plane to ensure that Mr. Snowden was not aboard.” But details regarding how thorough this search may have been, or how delicate the interaction, have yet to emerge.

Top image Twitter caption: “Morales again. Bottom image Twitter caption: crew is sleeping. #snowden is on tv.” Both photos by Olivera Stajić.

The images show the exhaustion of Morales and his pilots, slumped over in airport chairs. They are a telling indictment of Great Power politics: could anybody imagine Presidents Obama or Putin having to catch a nap under such circumstances?!? International law has ample protection for diplomatic property and protocol. The only other recent precedent for this incident was when Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, also under US pressure, forbade airspace to Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir en route from Iran to China in 2011. Bashir is wanted for war crimes and genocide in Darfur! Evo Morales, controversial though he may be politically, is a fully legitimate head of state, democratically elected and recognized.

Schwechat, Flughafen Wien, Vip Terminal, Aufenthalt von Evo Morales wegen des Verdachts Edgar Snowden sei mit im Flugzeug. Pressekonferenz Morales (Schwechat, Vienna International Airport, VIP Terminal, Evo Morales stay on suspicion that Edgar Snowden was on the plane. Morales Press Conference) Photo by Matthias Cremer / Der Standard

In response, Latin American presidents started to circle the wagons, issuing condemnations and announcing emergency meetings. As the international drama leaps from one airport to another, the ripple effect continues. It’s a crisis unlike any other — bloodless asymmetrical conflict played out both in secret and on the world stage — perhaps proving at least the symbolic power of individual conscience and dissent. Real life isn’t Star Wars. Underdogs don’t always win in the end. But what a coincidence that Morales’ airplane is a Dassault Falcon! Our heroes hid under the floorboards of the Millennium Falcon long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when they were pursued by a powerful empire…

Vintage trading card.

–Alan Chin

h/t to Melissa Eddy, Tanja Malle, Olivera Stajić, and Elizabeth Derbes

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Alan Chin
See other posts by Alan here.

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