Monday, April 27, 2009

Calvo Ospina falls foul of American security paranoia

If anyone thought that an Obama administration might see the re-emergence of less paranoid American attitudes to security, they should think again. Just last week, an Air France flight from Paris to Mexico City last week was forced to make an emergency landing in Martinique because US authorities refused permission to fly over American airspace. The refusal was because one passenger was deemed a security risk. Air France had sent its passenger manifest to Mexican authorities but that information was somehow obtained by the US. The prohibited passenger was Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina, who works for the French left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.

Hernando Calvo Ospina has written many critical articles about American involvement in Latin America. He is currently writing a book about the CIA and in 2007 wrote a stinging and cogent piece about Reagan’s shadowy National Endowment for Democracy which destabilised unfriendly regimes. But none of this makes him a terrorist and there is no good reason he should end up on a terror watch list other than the fact he is deemed unfriendly to the political administration. This is McCarthyism gone mad.

Ospina has since written about his experiences on the Mexico flight. He says that five hours before the flight was due to land in Mexico City, the captain announced the plane had been refused permission to fly over the US. The captain said one of the passengers aboard was a person who was not welcome in the US for reasons of national security. A few minutes later, he announced the flight would have to divert to Martinique because there was not enough fuel to cope with the unintended detour.

Aboard the plane there was hushed talk about who the unwelcome passenger might be. Ospina overheard one conversation where someone said no terrorist could be at the back of the plane because "nobody there looks like a Muslim." After the plane took off again from Martinique, the co-pilot came to him and asked if he was Mr Calvo Ospina. He asked Ospina to accompany him to the rear of the plane where he told him he was the reason for the detour. "Do you think I'm a terrorist?" asked Ospina. “No,” said the co-pilot, “that's the reason I'm telling you this.”

The co-pilot asked him to keep quiet about it and Ospina returned to his seat. When they arrived at Mexico City, he was stopped at Immigration and taken to a room where two men asked him to “verify” a few things. His inquisitor told Ospina that “five information sources" in data bases had shown some information about him and they needed to make a summary. A second man told him he was being held at the request of US authorities and that after September 11, 2001, the Americans and Mexicans had stepped up their "cooperation" work.

Ospina asked "So, am I to blame for the plane's rerouting?" They told him no, it was merely a technical stopover. Ospina said he heard differently but the two men ignored this and resumed questioning. After the basics came “Are you a Catholic?” and "Do you know how to handle firearms?" Ospina said no to both and added “"my only weapon is my writing, especially to denounce the American government, whom I consider terrorist." One of the questioners responded "that weapon sometimes is worse than rifles and bombs."

They then asked him where he was going. Ospina said he was heading to Nicaragua on a story for Le Monde Diplomatique. After a few more basic questions, he was politely released and he went on to Nicaragua the following day without further incident. But he was left with many questions: How much did it all cost (Air France had to pay for hotel rooms and food for at least half the passengers, who missed their connections) and why have Air France and the French authorities kept quiet about it? And perhaps the most difficult to answer: how far will the US authorities' paranoia go?

No one knows, but clearly the American secret blacklist now stretches to peaceful critics of US policy. Maurice Lemoine, editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, said: Calvo Ospina was a Colombian political exile in France who has denounced his home government of President Uribe and the role of the US in Latin America, and as a journalist has had occasion to interview top members of the leftist guerrilla group FARC. “That seems enough for him to be considered a terrorist,” said Lemoine. The best thing that can be said about this case is that the move has backfired badly. Ospina's ideas will now get to a much larger audience thanks to American stupidity.

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