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What Can We Learn from the WikiLeaks Cables About US Relations with Latin America?

May 16, 2015

TeleSUR English has posted an interview with Norwegian journalist Eirik Vold that focuses on relations between the US and Latin America, based on information that Vold gleaned from the leaked US diplomatic cables hosted by WikiLeaks. Much of the discussion was related to the media, so I’m going to summarize and comment on some of his remarks.

Eirik Vold on TeleSUR English

I’m happy to see Vold make use of the cables. Though their release and the subsequent legal sagas of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange made headlines, I’ve felt that the content of the cables hasn’t generated sufficient attention. Vold makes this point, noting that WikiLeaks has provided an extremely user-friendly search interface which has gone underutilized, even though “[t]here’s hardly a conflict in the world where the US isn’t involved and where there isn’t some interesting cable in WikiLeaks that … could shed new light on that conflict that would be interesting for the world public opinion.” [Several years back, I used the cables as the basis of a post on the Alba-1 fiber optic cable linking Venezuela to Cuba that has received more visits than any other post on the blog and was republished in the July 2011 edition of Submarine Telecoms Forum.]

Most of what’s in the cables isn’t shocking or even surprising, since the machinations of US foreign policy are relatively clear to anyone paying attention. As Vold points out, however, “what’s new is that now you have this documented from the wording of the very US diplomacy and intelligence community and that can make a huge impact if it’s communicated to the public opinion [sic] in the different Latin American countries, which hasn’t been the case so far, surprisingly.” I agree and there’s a need for analysis to be translated into and/or conducted in the relevant languages.

The points discussed in the interview that were of particular interest to me:

1) Vold’s general takeaway is that the US government viewed Latin America’s move to the political left, begun with the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and sometimes referred to as the Pink Tide, as the most significant geopolitical shift since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wonder if that might now have been eclipsed by the Arab Spring and general turmoil in the Mideast, or perhaps Russia’s increasingly confrontational posture, but I can’t think of any more important shift at the time the cables were written.

2) Around 2004-05, the Bush administration shifted from open confrontation with Venezuela to a strategy of cooperation with Brazil and Argentina in an attempt to isolate Venezuela. This was a period when Chávez was particularly strong, having overcome the coup attempt and subsequent economic attacks of 2002-03 and launching the Missions. In fact, I believe it was in January 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre that he first openly referred to the Bolivarian revolution as socialist in nature. Perhaps the Bush administration had given up beating Chávez on his home turf.

As part of the Bush administration’s attempt to turn Brazil away from Venezuela, it sought to collaborate with a security official who had ties to Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s. This involved selling the idea that Venezuela’s purchase of 100,000 rifles from Russia represented a threat to Brazil and the region in general. You may recall that this and related scare tactics made a splash in the English language press during that time (including stories from Fox, the The New York Times, and the BBC). Vold points out that neither the US nor Brazilian governments put any faith in those ideas. Backing this up is a cable from April 13, 2005 that summarizes a meeting with Lula’s Chief of Staff, Jose Dirceu:

… Dirceu said the GOB [government of Brazil] does not  believe Chavez’s arms purchase plans indicate external  military designs. A Colombia-Venezuela conflict would be catastrophic for both countries, Dirceu said.  Chavez’s possible purchase of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles appears directed toward his arming of the local militias he is forming, Dirceu said, but he did not elaborate on why Chavez is forming militias except to observe that Chavez “feels threatened.” Dirceu seemed dismissive of the value of conventional arms in South America, asking [the] Ambassador [of the US] and PolCouns [political counsel?] how long they thought Venezuelan F-16s or MIGs (if the GOV purchases them) could stay in the air against a modern foe (read USAF).  Unless a country chooses to have long-range missiles or nuclear devices it has no significant deterrent against a powerful national enemy, Dirceu opined, and hence most conventional weapons — however flashy or costly — are largely toys for appeasing the “artifacts of national militaries”  in developing countries, and not a serious threat to any other state.

3) One late addition to the Pink Tide of left-leaning governments was the Paraguayan administration of Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic priest who took office in August of 2008. The US was clearly wary of Lugo’s links to Chávez, but the cables reveal that the Embassy staff was not particularly alarmed. As Vold put it, “this US cable says the [Paraguayan private] media is … so hysterically anti-Chávez … that it’s almost impossible for Lugo to make any efficient cooperation with Venezuela.” I didn’t find a cable with an explicit articulation of that conclusion, but my guess is that Vold is referring to a cable from January 2009 that discusses Lugo’s media strategy and acknowledges strong opposition by the commercial press.

Vold seems to be exaggerating the Embassy’s conclusions, however, which led TeleSUR’s host, Greg Wilpert, to respond that “the role of the media and the effort to exploit the media seems to be a major kind of theme [in the cables]. So they [the US government] obviously count on the support, essentially, in one way or another, of the [Latin American commercial] media.” While that analysis may be generally valid, the cables themselves don’t bear it out in the Paraguayan case.

The Embassy, in a cable from January 2010 entitled “Paraguay Media Analysis”, recognizes greater variation in the Paraguayan media and singles out ABC Color, the “leading” daily newspaper, as being particularly anti-Chávez, thanks to the views of it’s owner, Aldo “Acero” Zuccolillo-Moscarda, who

also owns a department store chain, a construction company, a finance company, and has extensive real estate holdings.  Zuccolillo strongly dislikes Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and although he supported President Lugo in the 2008 elections, has since taken a strong anti-Lugo line.  He has told us that he fears Lugo is a “Chávez-Marxist” who wants to shut down independent media.

The January 2009 cable, meanwhile, discusses a meeting between the US Ambassador, the Director of USAID, and Zuccolillo, in which the latter expressed his fears that Lugo was “following the same plan the Sandinistas used in Nicaragua (in the 1980s)” and was going to use the national public radio network, as well as community stations, as a propaganda machine. That section of the cable, however, is entitled “Zuccolillo Lays It On Again”, signalling that the Embassy didn’t share his alarm. Moreover, the cable offers this concluding analysis:

It is also clear the entrenched media interests here, like most of the power interests which traditionally have “run” much of Paraguay are “closed shops” lacking genuine competition. And they are not shy about trying to pull us into a Cold War repeat if that’s what it takes to raise the alarm. On balance, however, we see Lugo’s efforts as trying to bring some coherence to his messages, messengers, and communications mediums to combat the sometimes brutal beating he has taken in the press. We do not yet see any evidence of a larger and calibrated plan to muzzle the powerful and partisan media enterprises in Paraguay, as Zuccolillo asserts. But we will keep on the look-out.

In fact, in April of 2009 the Embassy proposed offering the Lugo administration “technical assistance on communications strategy and messaging within the cabinet and outside” in order to counteract a “public image of inaction and indecisiveness.” The proposed assistance packages, which would come through the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives, was outlined as follows:

Initially, the possibility of providing a communications expert(s) who could spend as long as a month working directly with [Communications Minister Augusto] Dos Santos and his team on a diagnostic mission, was discussed.  If Dos Santos liked the results, Post [the embassy?] would seek possible follow-on communications training and technical assistance. Dos Santos responded enthusiastically and had clearly already worked out some good ideas on how to approach the task.  He suggested we pick four ministries to start with, two that have good internal communications (he mentioned the Health Ministry as one), and two that have poor internal communications (specifically the Foreign Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry). We suggested the Interior Ministry as the fourth and he agreed. (NOTE: The Interior Ministry is Paraguay’s most senior ministry, led by a capable and powerful ally of the President. END NOTE).

Granted, this can be understood as nothing more than the Embassy taking advantage of the situation to gain access and influence, especially when the cable concludes by recommending that Washington authorize the aid “in a timely manner, before someone else does.” At the same time, however, the preceding sentence of that cable characterizes the assistance package as “the kind of quick-hit, relatively inexpensive help that could make a difference in the public perceptions of this government.” All in all, this doesn’t sound like the language of a government seeking to exploit Paraguay’s commercial media to hamstring or remove the Lugo administration.

Of course, Lugo was eventually and controversially impeached in 2012, with many observers and some Latin American governments likening the proceedings to the 2009 removal of President Manuel Zelaya from office in Honduras. On that note, a cable from December 2009 concluded that, “[w]hile most political actors tell us that [Lugo’s] impeachment remains only a possibility for now, we are closely monitoring the situation, and are being careful to stay out of this highly charged, domestic political issue.”

4) Vold argues that whereas the US government has strongly and publicly criticized leftist governments in Latin America for limiting press freedom, the leaked cables reveal that the diplomatic corps sees the commercial press as anything but weak. For example, according to a cable from June of 2009, US President Obama called Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to congratulate him on his reelection and also “express support for a free and independent press.” This call came amid Correa’s public campaign against commercial media outlets that were critical of his policies and the Embassy staff carefully monitored public reactions to a White House press release on Obama’s stance:

Ecuadorian media on June 12 picked up the second half of President Obama’s message to Correa in such headlines as, “Obama advocates for a free press in Ecuador,” and “Obama asks Correa for a free and independent press.” These reports linked President Obama’s message in support of a free and independent press with the GOE’s [government of Ecuador’s] current administrative actions against Teleamazonas, led by CONARTEL [National Radio and Television Council], which could lead to the station’s closing. This reporting placed President Obama’s congratulatory call in the middle of the current debate in Ecuador on press freedom prompted by President Correa’s long-standing, ongoing attacks on the media, which in the case of Teleamazonas could lead to the first outright shutdown of an independent media outlet under Correa.

In the same cable, however, the Embassy acknowledged that:

There is more than a grain of truth to Correa’s observation that the Ecuadorian media play a political role, in this case the role of the opposition. Many media outlet owners come from the elite business class that feels threatened by Correa’s reform agenda, and defend their own economic interests via their outlets.  In addition, Ecuador’s weak political parties have left a political vacuum, which has been filled in part by criticism of Correa by some of the large Ecuadorian TV stations and newspapers.

The implication of Vold’s accusation is that the US government is simply duplicitous, using press freedom to attack leftist governments from one angle while all-too-free oppositional presses attack them from another. Certainly this has been the case, with the most notorious example being CIA support for Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper during the Allende administration.

Without denying that this type of duplicity still goes on, the cables suggest a more nuanced state of affairs in which the diplomatic staff truly believes that the professional model of objective, commercial journalism is the ideal to be attained. This is a problematic position, but it is not the same as outright cynical manipulation of a corrupted press. Here’s a relevant passage from the “Paraguay Media Analysis” cable:

The quality of reporting is poor in Paraguay and ethical and professional standards are often low. In general, reporting is sketchy, fact checking optional, and the line between reporting and editorializing is often blurred. Many media outlets reflect personal, business, or political interests. For example, both ABC Color and La Nacion mirror the conservative political views of the papers’ owners (see below). Both have taken a hard-line against President Lugo and coverage of him and his government is extremely negative in these publications. Paradoxically, the media is still one of the most trusted institutions in Paraguay.

I don’t mean to be entirely exculpatory here. This is the diplomatic corps, not the CIA, and it’s highly significant that the owners of oppositional media conglomerates have relatively frequent meetings with US ambassadors. Also, despite the classified nature of the cables, US diplomats may deliberately frame their relationship to foreign political actors in the best possible light when writing them, knowing that they will or at least could be seen by the public someday. But what these cables don’t seem to offer is smoking gun evidence that the US government was directly manipulating the Latin American commercial press during the 2005 – 10 period.

5) In a related exchange, Wilpert says, “But one of the things that I noticed, and I think in some of your writing you’ve mentioned, is also the effort to exploit certain media biases, for example about Iran’s supposed role in Latin America and its influence that it has in Latin America.” Vold replies by noting how fears of Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Nicaraguan complicity with Iran made headlines in the US press, but that the diplomatic corps didn’t believe it: “It’s not that they’re nervous … or paranoid, it’s that they do not believe in this. And you see in this cable that the US diplomat says, ‘Well, there seems to be nothing to all these accusation about bicycle factories in the Venezuelan llanos region hiding advanced Iranian weapons directed at the US. There’s nothing into it [sic], but it can be exploited to undermine Chávez’s support internationally.'”

I can find no cable that matches Vold’s paraphrasing. I did find support for the claim that the diplomats don’t share the suspicions that made headlines. For example, in 2009 Israel released a report suggesting that Bolivia and Venezuela were supplying uranium ore to Iran for its nuclear program. These reports were certainly played up by ideologues like Roger Noriega (Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush), found their way into coverage in the mainstream press, and were recently echoed in a thinly sourced report on Fox News Latino.

True to Vold’s claim, the embassy in Caracas wasn’t buying it. Just weeks after the Israeli report came out, the embassy sent a cable titled “Venezuela Incapable Of Substantive Nuclear Cooperation With Iran / Russia”. Here’s the summary:

A plain-spoken nuclear physicist told Econoff that those spreading rumors that Venezuela is helping third countries (i.e. Iran) develop atomic bombs “are full of (expletive).” He said Venezuela is currently unable to provide such assistance particularly as the Chavez administration “does not trust scientists.” He added that Venezuela’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia finalized May 4 is pure political theater as Venezuela is incapable of cooperation with Russia on the development, design, construction and operation of nuclear reactors.  Also contrary to the agreement with the Russians, to the knowledge of the scientific community, there is no exploration or exploitation of uranium, ongoing or planned, in Venezuela. The scientist contended that, even if the Venezuelan government used all Cuban scientists, exploring for commercially viable uranium deposits in Venezuela would require a large taskforce and news of such an effort would leak quickly.

The cable does not, however, suggest that the reports should be used to weaken support for the Chávez administration. In fact, it suggests that the Venezuelan government itself may want to play up such reports: “Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran with Venezuelan produced uranium may help burnish the government’s revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims.” This point seems prescient, given a New York Times article that appeared several months later under the headline “Venezuela Says Iran Is Helping It Look for Uranium”. In this case, it seems the Venezuelan government may have been “exploiting certain media biases”.

In sum, Vold does good work in mining the WikiLeaks cables for insight into US relations with Latin America. I wouldn’t characterize his conclusions as incorrect, but in the context of an interview on TeleSUR English, they’re unsurprisingly presented without some of the more complicating nuances.

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