United against world in Latin America

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Peruvian President Ollanta Humala had attended an emergency summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He did not attend, and the story has been corrected.

July 4, 2013

Bolivian President Evo Morales was stuck in Vienna, his plane diverted from its path home by officials who believed that American fugitive Edward Snowden was hiding aboard. Fortunately, Morales could count on his friends.

First, Rafa phoned Cristina late Tuesday during the crisis. That’s Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, calling his Argentine counterpart, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “Rafa, how are you?” she recounted on her Twitter account. “He answered angry and anguished. ‘Don’t you know what’s happened?’ ”

“Cristina,” Correa explained, “Evo’s plane has been detained, and they won’t let him leave Europe.”

She was outraged, she told her Twitter followers, and so was Pepe. Soon Ollanta was working to convene a continent-wide meeting of leaders and making sure the influential ones, including Nicolás and Dilma, were there.

On Thursday, some of these leaders — Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, José“Pepe” Mujica of Uruguay, along with Correa and others — rushed to an emergency summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to express fury about Morales’s treatment.

With the United States believed to be behind Morales’s troubles, the leaders heaped scorn on the Obama administration, and Bolivia threatened to close the American embassy in La Paz.

But the gathering also showed a quirky reality unique to leaders in South America — that many of the continent’s presidents consider themselves the best of friends. They refer to one another by their first names and even tweet to followers about conversations they’ve had.

And when one feels aggrieved — as in the case of Morales, who was grounded in Vienna, he said, because of imperialist intimidation — they rally together.

“The personal ties play a big role,” said Heinz Dieterich, who writes from Mexico about the region’s left and is a leading theorist for the movement founded by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo
Chávez.

It’s a closeness shaped by a singular worldview — that over the past decade, with a string of leftist leaders elected to office from Central America to Tierra del Fuego — the region has at last freed itself from Washington’s tentacles. That makes for dramatic speeches and rousing regional summits — often with the United States playing the role of foil.

“When someone wrongs one of the members, in a form that’s arrogant and rude like what happened to Evo, there’s a sense everyone should defend themselves in unity and for the dignity of what they call the Great Fatherland,” Dieterich said.

But JoséMiguel Vivanco, a Chilean who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, spoke of a dark side to all the backslapping.

Presidents accused of violating norms — as in Ecuador, where Correa is corralling the media, or in Venezuela, where the April presidential election was marked by irregularities — know their fellow leaders will side with them against human rights groups.

“They act with the conviction that at least no one from the club is going to cross the line and publicly question their internal affairs,” Vivanco said.

What most Latin Americans see, though, are neighborly ties. The main spearhead of this form of diplomacy had been
Chávez, who brought his folksy charm to staid diplomatic functions. After meeting the Brazilian leader in 2011, he gushed, “The first time I heard Dilma talk she stole my heart.”

When Fernandez de Kirchner’s husband, Nestor, who had been president of Argentina before her, died, Chávez tweeted, “Oh, my dear Cristina. How much pain! What a great loss for Argentina and our America to suffer!”

Chavez then painted a large portrait of him and Nestor, in deep discussion. “My queen, I painted it for you,” Chavez said. “Viva Nestor!”

It’s a style several leaders in the region — most notably leftist populists from Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador — have adopted, complete with nationalistic slogans.

“Congratulations, Nicolás, to the Venezuelan people and the Revolution,” Correa of Ecuador tweeted upon Maduro’s election in April, in which he succeeded Chavez, who had died of cancer. “Viva the Great Fatherland!”

Leaders here go so far as to frequently bestow one another with their country’s highest honors — such as Venezuela’s Order of the Liberator, a medal that has been given to many of the continent’s presidents. Cristina Fernandez recently gave Maduro Argentina’s highest honor, a medal in the name of that country’s liberator, General San Martin.

Those are usually affairs filled with pomp and ceremony.

Thursday’s reunion in Bolivia, the emergency summit, was instead a sober gathering considered of the utmost importance, the message being: We’ve got one another’s backs.

“What the aggression has done is unite us more,” Maduro said. “Whoever messes with Bolivia messes with Venezuela.”

Emilia Diaz in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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