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Passing by at 30,000 feet, an Américan ‘threat’ to America?

Mexico City to Barcelona flight forced to return to Mexico because Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, en route to Italy, is prohibited from passing through US airspace
Craig Scott
24 July 2011

The byline for a Guardian article by Mexican writer, scholar, and activist Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar about the Bolivian government’s efforts to mine lithium to feed the demand for mobile-device batteries describes her as “an activist who participated in Bolivia's Cochabamba water wars of 2000.” Currently a professor of social sciences and humanities at Benemérita University in Puebla (Mexico), she is part of the movement for authentic journalism in the Americas, and has taught at the wonderfully named Narco News School of Authentic Journalism.

Gutiérrez’ connections to Bolivia and revolutionary currents within social justice, especially indigenous peoples, movements is also evident from the charges that were brought against her in 1992, alongside the current Vice-President of Bolivia, for her alleged membership in a guerrilla organization. Charges were dropped in 2007.

Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar’s brand of speaking radical truth to power would appear to be a tad threatening in some quarters – for it seems that she is on some unspecified US government ‘black list.’ In a July 21 open letter that first circulated in Spanish and is now translated into English on the Narco News Bulletin website, Gutiérrez describes how the US government turned its gaze skyward and “touched me last night.”

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Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar

En route to a conference in Italy on July 20, Gutiérrez was on Aeromexico Flight 33 flight from Mexico City to Barcelona when, an hour and a half into the flight, the pilot informed the passengers on the loudspeaker that he had to turn the plane around and return to Mexico. The pilot said only that US airspace had been closed; that being so, the plane needed to return to re-fuel because it did not have enough fuel to go around US airspace in order to get to Spain.

After the plane had landed in Monterrey in northern Mexico at 1 am on July 21, a member of the cabin crew approached Gutiérrez and asked to see a piece of identity. Gutiérrez showed her National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) credentials. She was then asked to accompany the crew member to the front of the plane with her carry-on luggage. At the doorway to the aircraft, she was met by Ameromexico officials and Mexican police officers, who also asked to see her identification.

When they then directed her to disembark, she declined until someone gave her an explanation. As she recounts, “They said that the United States government had refused the plane because I was on it.” Gutiérrez was stunned – “paralyzed and perplexed” was how she put it. Dozens of passengers were having their entire trip disrupted and prolonged because she would be passing many miles above US territory or territorial waters on her way to Europe. Apart from her treatment, she was aghast at the, “total lack of respect to all of the other travellers”.

She had no choice but to disembark, have her passport demanded from her in an intimidating way by the police and photocopied. She was taken to a Monterrey hotel to spend the rest of the night after the plane, once refuelled, departed again for Spain with the other passengers.

Aeromexico offered to find, at its own expense, another route for Gutiérrez to get to Italy. In the end, she decided not to continue with her trip, as an element of fear was now part of the picture. “What I felt most deeply,” Gutiérrez writes, “was a kind of shock, a deep vulnerability that basically pushed me to want to get to safety. That said, I decided not to try to travel again that night.” In the end, she made her presentations to the conference in Italy by telecommunications link.

Gutierrez is now resolved to seek answers and to draw attention to an abusive and arbitrary extraterritorial exercise of US power, to a “despotism” of “impunity and insolence”, to decisions that are “not only foolish, but also far too arbitrary.” Understandably, she wishes to move from the “paralyz[ing] and perplex[ing]” indignity of her experience to a productive, mobilizing indignation.

As Gutierrez sees it, the US can do what it likes to treat her as persona non grata for visits to the US itself. But she and others in her position should not have their travel around the world held hostage merely because of routine passage of an airliner through US airspace. She and supporters must “demand that US authorities explain the danger that would have been caused if the passenger in seat 17J had flown 30,000 feet above the United States.” How, she asks, does she “threaten the security of Mrs. Smith in Alabama or Miss Jones in Boston when [I] would have been flying over their houses?”

Gutiérrez emphasizes that she realizes hers is a “small, almost miniscule case, where there was no torture, or threats or death.” Yet, after discussions with friends and colleagues, she appears also to have come to interpret her experience as representing something of a microcosm for insidious and arbitrary US efforts to control people beyond its own borders under transnationalized (in)security doctrines and practices:

These arbitrary actions that happen “just because,” which one has to endure without a way to do anything, are the kinds of social relations that they impose on us. In this particular case, it is a kind of “warning” of what they think they can impose on everyone.

And of course they have a lot of power over many things, like being able to force a passenger in seat 17J off of a plane that belongs to a supposedly foreign airline travelling to a country that is not theirs, leaving her in the middle of northern Mexico on any dawn of any day.

Gutiérrez in essence sees silence and quiescence in the face of her experience as itself a victory for US (over)reach within the world. She argues that the US does not have – or must not be granted – “the power to prevent this set of small grievances from helping us become outraged, or from getting together, or from taking care of each other the way my friends have been doing with me since that dawn.” I read her as in effect calling for the magnification of her – and her fellow passengers’ – experience as an emblematic case that demonstrates the structures at play in creating a deepening sense of vulnerability and intimidation not only for leaders for change but also for social movements that try to stand in the way of the bulldozing logic of neoliberal economic globalization – notably in her beloved Latin America:

[I]n this trivial, small case we can recognize all the wrongs we have been suffering and enduring. And that is why it would be good to think of ways to protect our collective selves…. We cannot endure these insults quietly[. W]e plan to not only “denounce them,” but also to inhibit them, to turn it around: how we take care of each other is the best remedy—I think—for this fragmentation based on the fear in which we are living.

As I read Gutiérrez’s open letter, my initial response was that this was ‘just another’ maddening and enfuriating manifestation of 21st Century American security psychosis – in all its intermingled fearful, silly, arrogant, imperial splendour. But then I began to draw connections. Sitting in my Toronto home after having just recently returned from my most recent visit to perhaps the most US-controlled of Latin American countries, Honduras, the image that gradually rose into view was of a giant cartographic mass (what Americans call America) dividing the northernmost and southernmost reaches of the Americas (what alternative journalism like the Narco News refers to, in an exercise of reappropriation, as América).

The US’ willingness to treat its airspace as sacrosanct in this extreme fashion results in the unpredictable prevention of ‘undesirables’ (from the official American point of view) getting to my country from the Americas, given that almost all – if not all – direct flights between the Americas and Canada must fly through US airspace. I began to see how this seemingly isolated incident of a Mexican trying to fly to Europe through US airspace deserves to be on Canadians’ radar screen not only for the reasons of collective human resistance that Gutiérrez outlines but also for more immediate foreign-policy reasons. If Gutiérrez’ experience is anything to go by, the US is indirectly operating a blockade on knowledge flows and human contacts between Canadians and Américans living south of America, like Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar. The extent of the blockade is likely unknowable as the nature, extent and trigger conditions for its various black lists are themselves anything but transparent.

At a more literal level, I began to think that it could be very informative to hear more of and from her, such as her experiences fighting against transnational corporate control of municipal water systems in Bolivia. But, I realized, it would seem that Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar is very unlikely to be able to fly from Mexico to Canada (should the government of Canada deign to give her a visa, far from a certain thing given the viral effect of black lists) if, for example, she were invited to a workshop at the research centre that I direct or to speak to a Parliamentary committee or to appear at a civil society forum on any of the matters on which her perspective would enhance understanding in Canada or deepen pan-Américan solidarity.

And, then, I ended my reflections with my own enactment (aka, acting out) of the kind of boomerang effect created whenever some repressive institution seeks to censor human connection and critical knowledge, as when attempts to ban (and even bomb) Martin Scorcese`s film The Last Temptation of Christ ended up making many more people intent on seeing it. The heavy-handed efforts to contain Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar make me all the more eager to learn more about the ideas and life example of this Américan whose mere presence in seat 17J, 30,000 feet above the heads and hearths of its citizens, is such a threat to the United States of America. And so I shall.

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