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WikiLeaks and Latin America: New Revelations, Same Policies

[Above: President Barack Obama greets Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.  Image courtesy of Flickr user vaXzine]

By Robert Valencia

In one respect, media coverage of the WikiLeaks release of classified American cables has resembled American diplomacy itself: lots of attention paid to conflict zones (Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf) and economic competitors (Europe, China), but not a whole lot of interest in less restive, less threatening locales. Latin America, for example.

The lack of interest, however, doesn’t reflect a lack of material.  El País– one of the five newspapers with whom WikiLeaks shared the cables – has released diplomatic cables involving at least 10 Latin American countries.  Some of these documents reveal interesting orders, such as Secretary Clinton’s request of a psychological profile of Argentina’s current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, including her “leadership dynamics and analytic assessments.” Some experts believe the State Department wanted to sharpen its understanding of Kirchner’s influence in Latin America.  A later cable makes clear the importance of the U.S.-Argentina relationship, describing Argentina’s attempts to improve relations between the U.S. and Bolivia, which steadily eroded during the Bush era.

In an attempt to tighten its control over Latin American affairs, one cable revealed that the United States led efforts to isolate Venezuela’s President Chávez.  (Chávez was described in one dispatch as an “insane person who is turning the richest country in Latin America into another Zimbabwe.”)  One cable described the Bush administration’s dissatisfaction with Spain’s sale of several aircraft and ships to Venezuela, which stirred controversy among several Spanish legislators.  Another cable reveals that the U.S. also tried to deter Russia from supplying military accessories to Venezuela, claiming a potential “risk of diversion of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems [MANPADS] from Venezuela to the FARC [Colombia’s Marxist armed group].” The Americans failed in this effort, and the supplies were shipped.  

The U.S. lack of faith in the Mexican Army’s ability to fight the drug cartels is another diplomatic eye-opener. According to the U.S. embassy in Mexico, the bickering among several security bodies, coupled with the “corruption and the Army’s manifested inability to gather evidence to punish the criminals,” has only led to the punishment of a very small group of criminals in Ciudad Juárez. In other cables, however, American diplomats commend the commitment of President Calderón to combat drug trafficking.

Perhaps the most jarring revelation involves former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s attempts to combat the FARC on Venezuelan soil. During a January 2008 meeting with the former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Uribe claimed Chávez planned to further the Bolivarian Revolution in Colombia, and that the best way to counteract his plan was through military action against possible FARC bases in Venezuela. This meeting took place two months before the Uribe administration carried out a military raid to kill Raúl Reyes, one of the top FARC commanders, in Ecuador. Another cable went on to say that Uribe believed Chávez represented the same kind of threat Adolf Hitler represented for Europe during WWII.

The revelation of these documents has produced a mixed reaction from regional leaders. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, for example, applauded the release of the cables and called for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Using less belligerent rhetoric, former Brazilian President Inácio Lula Da Silva supported the release by saying that “the guy [Assange] was arrested and I’m not even seeing any protest against the lack of freedom of speech,” adding that “WikiLeaks comes up and brings up to the public the diplomacy that looked unachievable.”

On the other hand, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed his solidarity with the Obama administration, emphasizing the high risk these documents pose to U.S. national security and its diplomats. Even though some of the documents disclosed information about Colombia, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Michael McKinley assured it will not negatively impact current bilateral relations. Meanwhile, Mexican President Felipe Calderón condemned the leaks as “irresponsible acts.”  

On December 3-4, the Ibero-American Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, served as the arena for other left-leaning Latin American countries to repudiate U.S. diplomacy in light of the cables’ release.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa condemned the State Department’s practices, and the chancellors of Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela also expressed their criticism. Cuba’s Bruno Rodriguez said that these cables “confuse diplomacy with espionage,” while Álvaro García Linera, vice president of Bolivia, said that “these revelations confirm the existence of imperial espionage,” and that “our communications, mails, and our breathing are controlled.” The members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the American People bloc, or ALBA in Spanish, requested that the summit’s final report include a unilateral condemnation of U.S. diplomatic practices – but Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico rejected the proposal and it was not included.

What larger insights about U.S.-Latin American relations can we draw from these disclosures? As I’ve written before, Washington’s influence in Latin America may be decreasing, yet several Latin American countries still rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and military assistance – a practice with deep historical roots that continues to this day.  Take, for example, the case of Chile under the Michelle Bachelet administration, which requested American help in spying on the Mapuche tribe and reducing radical opposition to the Chilean government in 2008. Additionally, the government of Peru – which receives significant military aid from the U.S. – briefed American officials on its ambitious military plan to combat drug lords and prevent a possible resurgence of the Shining Path, a mostly-defunct Maoist terrorist organization.

Some pundits and experts worry about the lingering consequences these cables will have on U.S.-Latin American relations.  But it’s long been known that the United States is wary of left-leaning governments in the region, particularly in Venezuela and Bolivia.  And it’s hardly news that the U.S. frets about Iran’s expanding presence in Latin America, as some of the cables indicate.  Rather than allowing these rather unrevealing “revelations” to cause a diplomatic crisis, the U.S. should take advantage of the incident and turn it into an opportunity to create a more open public dialogue with Latin America and more effectively engage the region in coping with its challenges and fostering greater prosperity.

Robert Valencia is a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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