Tag Archives: Latin America

The Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

Bolivian President Evo Morales re-boards his plane in Austria.

Bolivian President Evo Morales re-boards his plane in Austria.

A plane carrying Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, was forced to land in Austria after being denied access to French, Italian, and Portuguese airspace. Once on the ground, the plane was searched by Austrian officials to verify it was not carrying Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor accused of leaking the existence of a secret US surveillance program known as Prism. After it was determined that Snowden was not aboard, the plane was allowed to continue along its original route, ferrying the Bolivian President home from a conference in Moscow.

The move, which Spain hinted was the result of US pressure, was been widely condemned by other Latin American governments. Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, called the move “an affront to all America,” and Argentina’s President, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, condiment the move as “a relic of colonialism that we thought was completely overcome.” A special conference attended by the Presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and with representatives from several other countries in attendance, was convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to address the diplomatic row. And Bolivia announced that they may seek to close the US embassy in his country to protest the violation of international law.

While the conference attendees avoided any specific mention of the United States, their statement included a harsh condemnation and a demand for answers from France, Portugal, and Italy (who denied access to their airspace) as well as from Spain (who issued the original warning that Snowden could be aboard the plane). France subsequently sent an apology to Bolivia, but that apology was rejected by President Morales, who concluded that “apologies are not enough because the stance is that international treaties must be respected.”

There is a longstanding tradition of diplomatic immunity—that diplomats are given legal immunity and safe passage, and that they are not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under a host country’s law. These rights traditionally extend not just to credentialed diplomats, but also to heads of state. Such rights are recognized to ensure they can carry out the official duties of their office without intimidation or interference.

So was last week’s forced landing and search of President Evo Morales’ plane a violation of international law? The answer is not entirely clear, and arguments could be made on both sides. But at least one commentator, John Pilger of The Guardian newspaper, called the situation as an “act of air piracy and state terrorism” and described the situation as follows:

Imagine the aircraft of the president of France being forced down in Latin America on “suspicion” that it was carrying a political refugee to safety – and not just any refugee but someone who has provided the people of the world with proof of criminal activity on an epic scale.

Imagine the response from Paris, let alone the “international community”, as the governments of the west call themselves. To a chorus of baying indignation from Whitehall to Washington, Brussels to Madrid, heroic special forces would be dispatched to rescue their leader and, as sport, smash up the source of such flagrant international gangsterism. Editorials would cheer them on, perhaps reminding readers that this kind of piracy was exhibited by the German Reich in the 1930s.

The forcing down of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane – denied airspace by France, Spain and Portugal, followed by his 14-hour confinement while Austrian officials demanded to “inspect” his aircraft for the “fugitive” Edward Snowden – was an 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.

But even if that were not the case, the move would certainly spark a sharp rise in anti-Americanism in Latin America, which has traditionally viewed the motivations of the United States with deep suspicion. Also writing at The Guardian, Stephen Kinzer concluded  that “In its eagerness to capture the fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has taken a step that will resound through Latin American history” and observing that,

If it becomes clear that the United States was behind this action – it has not yet admitted responsibility – this incident will go down in history as the defining episode of US-Latin America relations during the Obama administration. It suggests that the United States still considers Latin American countries less than fully sovereign. Nothing angers people in those countries more.

What do you think? Was the decision to search Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane a violation of international law? Will the decision have longer-term negative impact on US influence in the region? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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The Challenge of Nacro-States

A soldier stands outside military headquarters in Guinea Bissau following April’s coup.

It was reported last week that the government of Guinea-Bissau was likely providing shelter for expansive nacro-trafficking operations. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for West Africa,  a large number of small planes have been making the transatlantic journey from Latin America to the West African nation, likely carrying cocaine which is then sent on to Europe. While West Africa has long been an important transit point for Latin American drugs moving to Europe, the UNODC now estimates that Guinea-Bissau accounts for at least half of all cocaine shipped through the region.

What makes this case particularly interesting is the role of the military coup. The West African nation has a long history of coups and coup attempts; in nearly forty years of independence, no elected leader has finished their constitutional term of office.

Last April, the country’s military staged a coup ahead of the second round of presidential elections. The new government is believed to have close ties to drug traffickers. According to a BBC report, top military officials are believed to be working with drug traffickers to facilitate their operations. The UN Security Council has sought to isolate the nation, imposing travel bans on coup leaders, and the US government has imposed financial sanctions on key officials under the Drug Kingpin Act.

The forces driving the development of the nacro-state are clear. Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest nations, with a gross domestic product of $970 million in 2011 (this works out to a per capita figure of approximately $600. This ties Guinea-Bissau at 172nd place (out of 191 countries) in the world. Nacro-trafficking brings provides a key source of income and revenue in an otherwise exceedingly poor country.

At the same time, drug trafficking illustrates (the admittedly shady side) of globalization. The drug trade accounts for an estimated 5-6 percent of all world trade, a figure slightly greater than that of agriculture and automobiles combined.Indeed, a UNESCO report concludes that it’s behind only the global arms trade (and perhaps now the global oil trade) in market size. It is driven by regional specialization and comparative advantage, and highlights the challenges of weak and failed states and the dynamics of global inequality.

What do you think? What can we learn from narco-trafficking about the dynamics of globalization and international relations?  And what should be done about the situation in Guinea-Bissau? How, if at all, should the international community respond to narco-states? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a bad week for economic news.  Both the United States and Canada posted record job losses, home foreclosures continue to rise, and Congress is at an impasse on how to (or if to) bail out the U.S. auto industry.   Here’s five stories you might have missed amid all the bad economic news coming out this week.

1. Massive riots rocked the Greek capital of Athens on Sunday, as young Greeks took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager by police.  The center-right Greek government has been under pressure amid the spread of the financial crisis to Greece.  It currently holds a narrow two-seat majority in the country’s parliament, but the protests—the largest in Greece since World War II—may force some concessions on the part of the government.

2.  Amid news that the global economic crisis is taking a severe toll in Asia, both China and India are seeking to limit the spread of the crisis by instituting Keynesian-style economic stimulus packages.  India has announced a $4 billion package while China is seeking to boost domestic consumption.  Both plans have been criticized for being too small in the face of the current crisis.

3.  The Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip continues.  According to Palestinian officials, the impact of the closure is so severe that the Gaza’s financial institutions have run out of money.  The lack of cash has affected nearly all aspects of daily life in Gaza, as families lack the cash to purchase basic supplies and relief agencies have been forced to suspend their work.  Israel maintains the closure is necessary to prevent the Hamas government in Gaza from attacking Israeli settlements near Gaza. 

4.  Elections are being held in Ghana, one of Africa’s most longstanding and stable democracies.  Sunday’s presidential election is projected to be very close, potentially triggering a run-off election later this month.  Many are looking to Ghana to illustrate the potential of peaceful political transitions to countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, which experienced violence surrounding recent elections.

5.  Regional economists are raising concerns that Latin American governments may be crowded out of international credit markets due to barrowing by the United States and other developed countries.  The Latin American Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, comprised of former finance ministers and central bank governors from the region, are warning that the loss of access to credit could have severe consequences in the region, potentially forcing countries to undertake painful fiscal adjustments or detrimental import restrictions and capital controls.