Paraguay: Washington’s War against Growing Marxist Insurgency

March 6, 2014

Tags: Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, WikiLeaks

To read my new article about Paraguay and the guerrilla insurgency up on Associated Whistle-Blowing press, click here.

For earlier articles, click here.

Interview about the N.S.A. and Brazil

September 21, 2013

Tags: Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks, NSA, Petrobras, Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America

To read my interview with Brazilian web portal UOL Noticas about the impact of the N.S.A. scandal on Brazil-U.S. relations, click here [Portuguese]. For a rough English translation, click here.

Brazil Emerges as a Drone Power

June 10, 2013

Tags: Brazil, WikiLeaks, Dilma Rousseff, Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, Brasiguayos, Uruguay, Argentina, drones, Israel

To read my latest article on Brazil's emerging drone surveillance program, click here.

Unfortunately, there is a pay wall so one cannot read the entire piece though you get a clear gist from the introduction. The article deals with the extreme diplomatic and political sensitivities associated with President Rousseff's drone program. Brazil is an emerging world power, and must tread lightly in neighboring countries like Paraguay and Bolivia which guard their sovereignty closely.

To read earlier articles, click here.

Discussing Paraguay on al-Jazeera

April 23, 2013

Tags: al-Jazeera, Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, Fernando Lugo, Nicolas Maduro, WikiLeaks

Check out this interview I just conducted with al-Jazeera about the Paraguayan election and return of the dreaded Colorado Party. Other panelists included Adrienne Pine, a professor of anthropology at American University, and Kregg Hetherington, who teaches at Concordia University.

It's depressing to think that just a few short years ago, former President Fernando Lugo was poised to ameliorate grinding poverty and social inequality in the Paraguayan countryside. Yet, because he committed a number of internal political mistakes and failed to galvanize the peasantry, Lugo made it easy for the Paraguayan right to depose him in what some observers called a "quasi-coup" [for a run down of Lugo's many missteps, see my very extensive WikiLeaks archive here].

Perhaps, if Lugo had been more radical and pushed for greater land reform, or made more of a point of rebuffing the U.S., he would have received more support from civil society when push came to shove. Unfortunately, the return of the Colorado Party will surely lead to more rural repression and rollback of the left. Moreover, the defeat of the left at the polls suggests a wider political malaise for the Latin left at the regional level. Witness Venezuela, for example, where Nicolas Maduro has held on, but just barely, and the Bolivarian Revolution is on the skids.

How have things changed so dramatically in just a few scant years? In my view, the left has not electrified the population and has thereby given the resurgent right an opening. Furthermore, the U.S. will no doubt exploit the left's missteps in Paraguay and elsewhere. As I explain in my pieces, no one seems to know what U.S. Special Forces are doing in Paraguay, though some allege that they are simply deployed to the Chaco to identify trouble making rural leaders. Meanwhile, shadowy Texas oil companies like Crescent benefited from the Lugo shakeup in the Chaco though to my knowledge no journalist has followed up on the story. Because Paraguay is so remote and far away, even the U.S. left has been slow to demand more accountability and investigation of these matters.

So, what comes now? Once the left has gotten over this initial reversal, it should soberly take stock of the regional milieu. For my money, the Paraguay fiasco underscores the need for a larger political movement within the Southern Cone. In order to achieve true social justice in the Paraguayan countryside, Brazilian landless squatters are going to have to ally with their Paraguayan counterparts across the border in an effort to counteract the power and influence of so-called "Brasiguayos": Brazilian planters who settled in Paraguay to cultivate soymeal.

These Brasiguayos, who number on the order of 350,000, are a big obstacle to rural change. Though Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is a nominal leftist, she will be reluctant to stand up against landed interests and agribusiness. Nevertheless, if they hope to make any headway, social movements are going to have to pressure not only the authorities in Asuncion but also entrenched and powerful interests in Brasilia.

Kissinger Files and Election Day Venezuela

April 14, 2013

Tags: WikiLeaks, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Kissinger Files, Henry Kissinger, Carlos Andres Perez, Luis Posada Carriles

To read my latest about the war on Cuba, Venezuela, the Kissinger files and today's vote in Caracas, click here.

To read earlier articles, click here.

WikiLeaks and Venezuela Election: Lingering Questions about Identification Cards

October 7, 2012

Tags: Venezuelan Election 2012, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, WikiLeaks, Mision Identidad, Cuba

On balance, Venezuelan elections under Chávez have been handled pretty fairly and many observers agree that the system has been free of glaring irregularities. Yet, if WikiLeaks cables are any indication, some potential underlying problems still remain. At issue is the so-called “Misión Identidad” or “Identity Mission,” a government program which has registered new voters.

The Chávez government started the initiative in 2003 in an effort to provide identification cards to the disenfranchised poor which up until that time had not possessed any official government identification. Misión Identidad, which was administered by the National Office of Identification and Naturalization or ONIDEX, formed part of a number of other social-based programs known as missions. Without any official Venezuelan identification, the poor would not able to vote or acquire benefits from social services.

In theory it all sounds good but according to U.S. diplomatic cables “the Chávez government has politicized this social service and used it to improve its electoral standing.” Perhaps, the system could even give Chávez a leg up in today’s presidential election. The U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that Cuba, a key strategic ally of Venezuela in the wider region, has provided key expertise to Chávez on how to expand the country's national electoral registry, and through Misión Identidad the authorities were able to register a whopping two million new voters.

As far back as 2006, the Chávez government used the “tried and true method of stuffing the voter registry” by naturalizing migrants and handing out identification cards through Mision Identidad. According to the Americans, Chávez “unabashedly used the Misión Identidad program as a tool for garnering more votes.” Since most of the Misión Identidad employees were “avowed Chavistas,” the implication was “clear” that applicants were expected to vote for Chávez. Moreover, those who received new ID cards would probably be grateful to Chávez and more inclined to vote for him.

Many of the registrations were carried out in “mass naturalizations” in frontier states like Zulia and Táchira along the Colombian border. The U.S. Embassy reported that “little if any documentation is needed for this process.” In a scathing indictment, the Americans wrote that ONIDEX and Misión Identidad were “rife with corruption.”

If today’s presidential contest is close, perhaps we will hear more questions about the use of these types of programs. Stay tuned.

Venezuela Election, WikiLeaks and Escalating Urban Crime

October 6, 2012

Tags: Venezuelan Election 2012, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, Henrique Capriles Radonski, WikiLeaks, left controversies

To hear Hugo Chávez speak of it, crime is a kind of red herring issue in the Venezuelan presidential election. Recently, when asked if he would beef up security and hire more policemen, the populist leader pooh-poohed the entire notion, remarking that such a strategy responded to a mere right wing ethos. To be sure, conservatives tend to favor such draconian crackdowns which are no substitute for true and lasting social reform. Yet, Chávez may pay a stiff political price for flippantly disregarding the need for greater control over urban crime.

Indeed, some observers believe that violence could be the single most pressing issue in the election. Venezuela’s homicide rate now makes the nation one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the murder rate is now four times higher than it was when Chávez first took office 13 years ago. Of particular concern is Caracas, which displays an alarming homicide rate of 92 per 100,000 residents. That is the third highest homicide rate of any large city in the world, and according to Time magazine there are 50 murders in the city every week. The dead have been piling up and filling morgues, making Caracas even deadlier than Baghdad.

For Chávez, escalating urban crime represents a keen vulnerability heading into tomorrow’s presidential election. Kidnappers, who reportedly operate in tandem with the police, pick up victims from cars, shopping centers, university campuses or even bus stops. Exasperated by the constant state of fear, many young Venezuelans choose to emigrate out of the country. Meanwhile, Chávez recently announced a security plan though it was the president’s 20th such initiative and failed to reassure. The President’s conservative challenger, Henrique Capriles Randonski, has pledged to get tough on violent crime though making a serious dent in the problem could take years.

Some sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Venezuelan crime make for sobering reading. In one communication disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas suggests that the Chávez government is deliberating falsifying crime reports. When the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal suggested that the murder rate had risen 14% in the first trimester of 2008 despite a security crackdown, the authorities accused the paper of “media terrorism” and claimed that murders had actually declined 8% over the same period.

Such claims, however, were revealed as bogus when U.S. diplomats spoke with the former chief coroner of the Caracas morgue, who confirmed that the murder rate had indeed risen. Meanwhile, civil society non-governmental organizations complained that Chávez officials concealed the true homicide figures. They told the Americans that officials failed to list deaths due to police encounters, custodial deaths in prison or so-called “unexplained deaths” as genuine homicides. In its report, the American Embassy explained that the term “unexplained death” concealed a large percentage of homicides. In one case, for example, tenant farmers cleared land and discovered two bodies in a grisly and shallow grave. The incident was later reported as “unexplained deaths.”

Another slippery tactic employed by the authorities was to manipulate time to hide murder statistics. When they compared weekly figures, officials only used Monday to Thursday or Friday of the current week in relation to the seven days of the previous week. In such a way, the Chávez government passed over homicides during the weekend, when murder rates tended to spike. The U.S. Embassy noted that the authorities had carried out high profile anti-crime operations and lofty propaganda, but “crime is undermining public support for the Revolutionary Bolivarian government.” Indeed, the coroner who agreed to speak with the Americans confessed that he had resigned his position as head of the metropolitan forensics unit because of “increased political interference” from high up officials.

At the time of the report, U.S. diplomats noted that “crime is a pressing societal problem that the Revolutionary Bolivarian government cannot solve just by throwing money at it.” However, the Americans continued, neither the government nor opposition parties had come up with “credible, comprehensive plans to combat urban crime.”

Then, as now, crime is a hot button topic in Venezuela and could represent Chávez’s Achilles Heel. Whether Capriles, however, can effectively exploit the issue tomorrow remains to be seen.

Chomsky, Ali, and the failure to challenge the authoritarian left

September 22, 2012

Tags: Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, Israel Shamir, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, Tariq Ali, left controversies

To read my latest article, click here.

Postscript: far from silencing Israel Shamir, Counterpunch continues to publish pieces by the man, most notably this article which actually condones genocide in Cambodia.

The Ecuadoran Embassy Imbroglio and Tragic Historical Precedents

August 17, 2012

Tags: WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchu

Does the UK government dare risk tarnishing its international image by raiding the Embassy of another sovereign nation? It’s a far-fetched notion, but the British seem determined at all costs to apprehend WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning on allegations of sexual assault. Fearing that he would be extradited from Sweden to the U.S., which might seek to try Assange for leaking confidential government information to the public, the man behind WikiLeaks simply walked into the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and requested diplomatic asylum. After long deliberations, Quito agreed to comply with Assange’s request, which in turn has caused a diplomatic firestorm and led British officials to embark on a high stakes gamble.

In a serious escalation, the Cameron government told Ecuador in a letter that “you need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy. We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”

After news broke of the threat, police were sent to the Ecuadoran Embassy in an apparent effort to further intimidate Assange and the Rafael Correa government in Quito. If that was the intention, however, the move only served to inflame the matter further. Indeed, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño rejected “in the most energetic terms the explicit threat of the official British communication.” In a rhetorical flourish, Patiño added for good measure that “we are not a British colony.”

The Legal Back and Forth

There’s some doubt whether the obscure British 1987 law could actually trump long-standing protections enshrined in the Vienna Convention which safeguard diplomatic immunity for embassies all over the world. Legal experts argue that diplomatic missions have long been considered sovereign territory, and the British threat should therefore be considered extraordinary and without precedent. The Ecuadoran National Assembly agreed, and recently voted to condemn Britain’s moves as an attack on the United Nations Charter as well as the Vienna Convention.

Jennifer Robinson, Julian Assange’s legal adviser, remarked that “it would be illegal as a matter of international law to enter an embassy. They are inviolable. And unless and until they withdraw that status, the British government cannot enter the embassy…If the U.K. government were to revoke that status, it would be a watershed in international law.”

Perhaps, the Cameron government realized that it had gone too far. Antony Brenton, a former UK ambassador to Russia, remarked that invading the Ecuadoran Embassy would “make the world a very different place” as diplomats all over the globe could in turn be vulnerable to punitive action exerted by host governments. Caught in the midst of a diplomatic maelstrom, the Cameron government has toned down the rhetoric and threats, at least for now.

Yet, by merely hinting that it would resort to force and “go rogue” in an effort to apprehend Assange, Britain has demonstrated its contempt for international law and diplomacy. What is more, the Cameron government’s attitude is disturbing in that it harks back to some other violent and egregious incidents from past history. Take, for example, the Guatemalan military’s raid on the Spanish Embassy in February, 1980, an episode which cost the lives of many peasant farmers.

Dark Days of Military Repression

During the early 1980s, the small Central American nation of Guatemala was engulfed in horrific violence. Determined to hold back social progress, the armed forces under General Romeo Lucas García and associated death squads carried out a scorched earth policy targeting all those calling for agrarian justice in the countryside. Hoping to raise the international profile of their struggle, 34 Indians entered the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, occupied the premises and announced that they would hold a press conference.

If the peasants, however, thought their actions would elude the authorities they were tragically mistaken. Rather than negotiate with the Indians, García decided to use force and, in flagrant disregard for international norms, sent in the police. The security forces surrounded the Embassy itself and hurled incendiary devices into the building, apparently igniting Molotov cocktails which the protesters had brought inside.

This in turn caused an explosion and caught the Indians in a deadly blaze. The police, however, refused to open the door or let firemen inside. In all, thirty nine people were burned alive including Vicente Menchú, the father of Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú. The only survivor was taken out of hospital a couple of days after the conflagration and shot, though it’s unclear by whom. The massacre at the Spanish Embassy destroyed the Guatemalan government’s standing, and demonstrated to the world that the military would stop at nothing to combat its internal enemies.

It seems somehow doubtful that the British government by contrast would violate the territorial sovereignty of another nation, let alone cause destruction and mayhem within the Ecuadoran Embassy. Whatever its flaws, the Cameron government is a far cry from the Lucas García regime and its death squad allies of the early 1980s. Nevertheless, by simply calling international law into question, Britain seems to be riding a slippery slope. Just how far is London willing to go in its efforts to get its hands on Julian Assange? Hopefully, the authorities will come to their senses and the rule of law can prevail.

Speaking about Assange Case on Pacifica Radio

August 16, 2012

Tags: Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, Rafael Correa, Ecuador

Just got off the phone after concluding an interview with Pacifica Radio KPFA about the escalating Julian Assange case. An interesting panel discussion, which begins at about 8:00. Click here to go to the link.

WikiLeaks: Ambivalent Emerging Power Brazil

August 11, 2012

Tags: Brazil, WikiLeaks, Dilma Rousseff, Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, Brasiguayos

My latest about Brazil and its wider role in South America now out. Click here to read the article.

What is Washington Up To in The Remote Chaco Region of South America?

July 24, 2012

Tags: WikiLeaks, Paraguay, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Fernando Lugo, Evo Morales, Chaco

Few people know what the U.S. is up to in the remote Chaco region of South America. Let the debate begin and read my article here.

Behind the Coup in Paraguay

July 8, 2012

Tags: WikiLeaks, Paraguay, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Fernando Lugo, Hillary Clinton

To read the article on al-Jazeera, click here.

To read older articles, click here.

Is Brazil the Next Cop on the Beat in Africa? The Pentagon Seems to Hope So

June 10, 2012

Tags: Africa, Brazil, WikiLeaks, Africom, Leon Panetta

Big al-Jazeera article today about Pentagon's desire to have Brazil play a more forceful role in Africa. To read the piece, click here.

Update: just concluded an interview with Capetown radio station Voice of the Cape which dealt with aforementioned article. The issue of Brazilian involvement in Africa is a new one, and I had the sense that Africans don't really know what to make of Brazil's rise on world stage. What are your thoughts? Write me and let me know what you think, particularly if you hail from Africa.

Venezuela's Cuban Health Program Fraying at the Edges

May 22, 2012

Tags: Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, Cuba, WikiLeaks, Venezuelan Election 2012, left controversies

To read my article about the status of Venezuela's Cuban health program, click here.

Why is Obama Wary of Dilma Rousseff and Brazil?

May 5, 2012

Tags: WikiLeaks, Brazil, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Argentina, Dilma Rousseff, Barack Obama, Chaco military base, INVAP, Paraguay, Uruguay, Stratfor, George Friedman

My big piece about up and coming power Brazil and what's behind the story in terms of big power rivalry with the U.S. To read the article, click here.

My interview with former British diplomat Carne Ross about WikiLeaks

May 3, 2012

Tags: Carne Ross, WikiLeaks

Just published my interview with former British diplomat Carne Ross, with audio coming soon. During our discussion, we talked about the legacy of WikiLeaks as well as Ross' new book, The Leaderless Revolution. Click here to go to the link.

For earlier articles, click here.

US embassy complains in Venezuela: WikiLeaks

March 19, 2012

Tags: WikiLeaks, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Venezuelan Election 2012

To read the article about Venezuela election 2012 and problems at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, click here.

For earlier articles, click here.

Beware of al-Chavezeera

October 4, 2011

Tags: U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, WikiLeaks, Aram Aharonian, Telesur, al-Jazeera, William Brownfield

I'm back writing for al-Jazeera, which is probably wondering why its activities are being monitored by the U.S. State Department in Venezuela. To read the article, click

For earlier articles, click here.

Caracas Cables: A Five Part Series

September 6, 2011

Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks has released all of its documents, and I'm staying on top of the Caracas cables. To read Part I, click here. For Part II, click here. For Part III, click here. For part IV, click here. For part V, click here.

For earlier articles, click here.

Finalist in WikiLeaks Essay Prize

August 6, 2011

Tags: WikiLeaks, Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan Election 2012

To read my article about WikiLeaks documents pertaining to Venezuela, and how these cables relate to Hugo Chavez's recent state of bad health, click here. The essay qualified for the final round in the WikiLeaks competition.

The Quito Cables Part II

June 2, 2011

Tags: Ecuador, Lucio Gutierrez, WikiLeaks, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America

To read the report on Council on Hemispheric Affairs, click here.

WikiLeaks Peru: The Great Equalizer

June 2, 2011

Tags: Ollanta Humala, Keiko Fujimori, WikiLeaks

To read my article on the Peruvian presidential election, click here.

For earlier articles, click here.

WikiLeaks and the Peruvian Presidential Election

April 8, 2011

Tags: WikiLeaks, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Alejandro Toledo, Alan Garcia, Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori

Despite soaring rhetoric about the need for an equal partnership in U.S.-Latin American relations, the Obama White House is still intent on halting the leftist contagion spreading throughout the wider region. Over the past few years, a more radical bloc of countries including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have emerged to contest U.S. hegemony. In response, Washington has cultivated the support of wavering Brazil and Chile as well as the more rightist Colombia. Yet another country that hangs in the political balance, Peru, holds the first round of its presidential election on Sunday and the U.S. surely wants the keep the country in the ideological fold.

Under the outgoing Alan García regime, which originally took power in 2006, Washington had little to fear. A political scoundrel and opportunist, the formerly leftist García morphed into a great supporter of U.S. corporatism and free trade. Peru’s raw resources were thrown up to the highest bidder and the country witnessed polarizing social and environmental conflict. In 2009, for instance, the police killed at least 25 civilians in the Amazonian town of Bagua when several thousand indigenous peoples protested the president’s free trade policies and land law allowing for corporate access to communal territories.

Judging from cables recently released by the whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. may fear that Amazonian Indians are becoming radicalized by the likes of Hugo Chávez. In one memo, U.S. embassy staff in Lima remarked that “While a series of government miscalculations and missteps was largely to blame [for the violence in Bagua] radical and possibly foreign interference also played a role.”

Read further in the cable, and U.S. priorities become clear. “We have built a strong bilateral relationship with Peru in recent years, partly embodied in the Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA),” wrote one diplomat. “We also share a similar strategic vision, namely that the region's foremost security threats originate from transnational and non-state criminal actors such as narco-traffickers and terrorists, as well as resurgent populism and the meddling of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his allies.”

While one might expect such combative commentary from the likes of diplomats in the Bush era, bear in mind that this particular cable was sent in the first year of the Obama administration, thus refuting the notion that Washington had somehow turned a new leaf in its hemispheric attitudes. Indeed, diplomats noted with approval how García had “played a constructive role in the region and sees challenges and opportunities through a similar policy prism.”

The Americans could not have been happier about Peru’s willingness to play a key geopolitical role. “Under Garcia,” diplomats declared, “Peru has helped to counter Bolivia and Venezuela's efforts to blame the U.S. for rising regional tensions. Relations with Bolivia have also been strained over alleged Bolivian political meddling, and personal insults between Presidents Garcia and Morales. The government of Peru remains concerned that Venezuela is trying to sow instability in the region through its covert support of radical and indigenous groups in Peru and elsewhere.”

Sunday’s Election

Now that the García era is coming to an end, Washington may fear that Peru might waver in its political allegiances. Yet, judging from the lackluster roster of candidates, the Obama administration doesn’t have much to fear. Take, for example, Alejandro Toledo, who preceded García as president from 2001 to 2005. An academic free market economist who had a stint working at the World Bank, Toledo has been a long-time darling of international capital. Under his “neo-liberal” presidency, Peru negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States which gave American corporations expanded access to the Andean nation’s raw resources.

The other three conservative candidates offer little substantive difference to Toledo. Former Lima mayor Luis Castañeda, who has met with the Americans behind closed doors to discuss politics [see below] is one contender. Then there’s Pedro Pablo Kucyzynski, a former World Bank official and lobbyist for mining and oil companies who served as prime minister under Toledo.

Lastly, in a bizarre blast from the past we get Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori. At 35 she is the youngest candidate in the field and is running on experience --- that is to say, the experience of her father. Keiko says that if is she is elected president she will seek to secure Alberto’s release from prison. Currently, disgraced Fujimori Sr. is serving a 25-year sentence for embezzlement and directing death squads.

Keiko’s political story is probably the most surreal of all the candidates. In 1994, Alberto named Keiko first lady after fighting with his wife Susana Higuchi. When the details of the acrimonious divorce were publicized, including inflammatory accusations that Alberto had even tortured Higuchi, Keiko sided with her Dad. Perhaps justifiably, many Peruvians view Keiko’s relentless pursuit of politics at all costs as shameless and crass.

Countering the Humala Threat

Most likely, any of these questionable candidates would suit the United States. There is one contender, however, who may have raised some eyebrows within the Obama White House. Ollanta Humala has said he would rewrite Peru’s constitution and retool the economy in favor of the poor who have been left out of the recent economic boom promoted by Alan García. A nationalist and former lieutenant colonel, Humala led a failed revolt against Fujimori’s electoral fraud in 2000 and even kidnapped a general [he later received a congressional pardon]. Humala would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and mining companies and, according to the Financial Times, investors are nervous about the emerging candidate. Indeed, Peru’s markets have taken a hit as the brash Humala rises in the polls.

It’s not the first time that Humala has stoked concern amongst the Peruvian elite. In the 2006 presidential election, Humala ran against García on a nationalist platform. After meeting with Chávez and Morales, Humala declared himself part of “a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted.” In an incendiary move, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and declared his strong opposition to the free trade agreement which his country had signed with Washington.

WikiLeaks cables reveal the Bush administration’s concern over Humala and diplomatic currying of favor with up and coming conservative luminaries. In the midst of the 2006 election cycle, U.S. ambassador Curt Struble met with Lima mayor [and current presidential contender] Luis Castañeda. Struble characterized Castañeda as “a driven man…who certainly aspires for the top office.” Speaking privately with the ambassador, Castañeda told Struble that he expected to be “the rallying point for the opposition if Humala wins the Presidency.”

On another occasion, Castañeda elaborated at greater length with the Americans about the Humala threat. A shrewd player who was apparently willing to play dirty, Castañeda believed that a useful tactic “would be to create confusion regarding the four Humalas currently involved in politics: Ollanta…his imprisoned brother Antauro (charged with responsibility for the death of five people in the January 2005 Andahuaylas uprising) and his father Isaac (most
recently talking favorably about the possibility of war with Chile).” Apparently, the Americans saw Castañeda as a useful asset: the Lima mayor’s “views on the basis for Humala’s popularity,” remarked ambassador Struble, “and on the ways to undermine it [my italics] are worth paying attention to.”

Fear of Venezuelan Contagion

Judging from the cables, the 2006 election in Peru had taken on wider geopolitical implications. In Venezuela, Chávez was already taking notice of events on the ground and came out strongly for Humala. For his part, García countered that Morales and Chávez were spoiled children and “historical losers” for criticizing Peru’s free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency had been marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a “thief” and a “crook.” “I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru,” Chávez declared. “To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!” the Venezuelan leader added.

Chávez’s comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country’s internal affairs. García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When García painted his opponent as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive.

When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. “Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty,” García said. “They have defeated the efforts by Mr. Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no,” García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that “the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate.”

Humala Round Two

Despite the rhetorical triumphalism, however, WikiLeaks cables reveal that the Americans continued to monitor Chávez’s influence in Peru. In 2007, for example, Struble declared that Venezuelan agents might have been involved in stoking unrest in the largely indigenous department of Puno. In light of Washington’s previous concern, it is not a stretch to imagine that the Obama administration may be slightly concerned about a Humala upset on Sunday.

Yet, peer a little deeper and it would seem that the U.S. has little to fear. Indeed, the Humala of 2011 bears little resemblance to the military man’s previous political incarnation. The brash candidate no longer sports red campaign shirts, instead opting for grey suits and dark blue ties. What is more, Humala speaks warmly of free markets, has pledged to support investors’ rights and cites World Bank reports when making his points. In addition, even if he did win the presidency, it’s doubtful that Humala would have enough support in Congress to inaugurate momentous change.

Moreover, any lingering threat of Venezuelan contagion can probably discounted as Humala has done his utmost to distance himself from the more radical crowd including Chávez, Morales and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Determined to avoid the red baiting pitfall, Humala has bent over backward to prove that he is a responsible statesman. When Chávez described Humala as a “good soldier,” one of Humala’s own congressional candidates even threatened to launch a lawsuit against the Venezuelan president. Humala chimed in for good measure, telling Chávez to butt out of Peruvian affairs. “The Venezuelan model is not applicable in Peru,” commented a tamer Humala.

Humala is the only leftist candidate in the field, but he lacks something to be desired. In a disappointing development, the Peruvian has turned to strategists linked to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a political centrist. There may be other reasons to believe that Humala is not an ideal standard bearer for the left: for years, he has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses. The charges, none of which have ever been formally proven, stem from Humala’s stint as a commander in a remote army post during Peru’s civil war. In a wry but macabre aside, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has remarked that choosing between candidates like Keiko and Humala is like opting between cancer and AIDS.

Not to worry, though, as some observers are predicting that even though Humala may very well pass through the first round that he has little chance of ultimately prevailing. Though the former army man is surging in the polls, surveys suggest that Humala would not fare well in a second presidential runoff to be held on June 5th. That is certainly an electoral outcome that would satisfy Washington, since Keiko, Toledo and Kuczynski are all tied for second and none of them pose an ideological challenge to the U.S. (Castañeda is trailing but not fully out of the running yet).

The Leftist Quandary

Given the great likelihood that Peru’s next president will continue Alan García’s investor-friendly policies, we can surely anticipate more social conflict in troubled Peru. What is more, this campaign has been quite short on environmental debate centering on such vital issues as melting glaciers in the Andes [for more on this, be sure to check out my recent book]. There is some danger, too, that Peru will become something of a Brazilian satellite and subject to boondoggle development projects slashing through the Amazon rainforest. In recent years, green parties have emerged in other parts of South America and in some cases have even fared relatively well, though so far the Peruvian left has failed to launch a serious environmental candidate.

In a wider geopolitical sense, the election in Peru is likely to enhance the notion that the region’s “Pink Tide” to the left may be running out of steam. Much like the Middle East right now, South America seemed to be headed toward revolutionary ferment just a few years ago. While the unrest is likely to continue in North Africa and the vicinity, the South American left is now facing a dilemma. With Chávez and his allies looking like something of a spent force, Brazil is fast emerging as the principal power in the neighborhood. Politically crass and lacking a compelling progressive vision of the future, Brazil is mostly interested in promoting stability and its own business investments [for anyone who would doubt such an interpretation, see my detailed articles since late November 2010 on the WikiLeaks cables]. In the coming months and years, we’ll see whether the Pink Tide has any staying power or will simply cave in to U.S. pressure, corporate interests and a politically bankrupt Brazilian juggernaut. (more…)

Kozloff article on Al Jazeera

March 15, 2011

Tags: WikiLeaks, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Cuba, Brazil, left controversies

To read my article about WikiLeaks, Brazil and Cuba in the post-Castro era, click here.

WikiLeaks: Chinese “Locusts” Spreading into Latin America

January 27, 2011

Tags: WikiLeaks, China, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico

If Wikileaks documents are any indication, Chinese investors might have a big surprise in store as they continue their push into Latin America. In their effort to extract raw resources, the Chinese have fared relatively well in such areas of the globe as Africa. However, recently disclosed U.S. cables hint that Latin America may not prove as pliable for the Chinese. Indeed, during private discussions with U.S. diplomats in Shanghai, Chinese experts candidly admitted they faced a “public relations challenge” in Latin America, and that local residents viewed Chinese businessmen as “locusts” intent on “extracting minerals and natural resources and leaving very little of lasting value behind.”

China is a relative newcomer in Latin America, yet the Asian powerhouse has made a big splash. In its drive to dominate Latin American markets, China is primarily motivated by economic and not political considerations. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have understood that native industry must be provided with adequate supplies of energy, minerals, and other basic raw materials if the Asian powerhouse is to sustain continued economic growth. In tandem with such desires, China has moved aggressively to become Latin America’s second largest commercial partner after the United States.

For their part, the Latin Americans have been content to export their raw materials to China, though many countries have uncomfortable memories of U.S. economic enclaves and may wonder whether the Asian powerhouse will encourage sustainable development and social equity. While China is willing to help construct ports and railroads, such infrastructure projects will be linked to the transport of raw materials and in this sense the Asian tiger is little different from the United States, which historically sought to promote the type of “development” which would merely facilitate the extraction of South America’s resources.

Latin America is Not Africa

In Africa, China found that it could import its own labor, ignore environmental standards and essentially adopt a colonialist approach toward local peoples and resources. Compliant political elites, who displayed scant regard for human rights, made life easy for Chinese investors. But Latin America, having recently witnessed a tectonic shift to the left, is less willing to embrace untrammeled economic development if this comes at a high social and environmental cost.

In contrast to Africa, Latin America has a much more dynamic political culture characterized by combative political parties, labor unions and non-governmental organizations. Though many within Latin American civil society may have looked upon China as the champion of “Third World-ism” at a certain point, some will be less than impressed by the Asian tiger’s shedding of any ideological pretensions in the name of promoting a more politically neutral “multi-polar” world.

WikiLeaks documents shed fascinating light on the many difficulties and contradictions in the incipient Chinese-Latin American relationship. Speaking with officials at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, Chinese experts said their nation’s leaders were interested in paying more attention to large emerging countries like Brazil and Mexico “amid the changing global economic balance of power.” Chinese companies, however, had difficulty understanding the Latin business milieu, and complained about “strong labor unions and cultural conflicts.”

Fundamentally, experts noted, “Chinese investors think Latin America and Africa are the same…but it is easier for them to do business in Africa since Africa's institutions and regulatory environment are less well-developed than Latin America’s.” Chinese workers, meanwhile, had a “different work ethic” from their Latin American counterparts, and as a result many companies had chosen to import their own laborers which had in turn fed “local resentment.” Conscious of the need to improve its public image, China encouraged its companies to take on more local employees, and the Asian tiger had become a substantial donor to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Differing Views on China

Despite these many problems, it is also clear from WikiLeaks cables that Latin America’s view of China depends very much on the individual country. Indeed, while China is viewed as a friend in some nations, in others it is viewed as a threat. In recent years, China has signed free trade agreements with Peru and Chile, two countries which don’t have competitive industries to defend. China has failed to negotiate accords with some of the other larger countries, however, because certain Chinese exports are viewed as more direct threats.

One country which has been particularly wary of the Asian tiger is Mexico. In early 2009, U.S. diplomats at the American embassy in Mexico City wrote Washington that “Mexico’s trade deficit with China and concerns over China’s approach to investment continue to color Mexico’s perception of China as a true partner.” While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was well received in Mexico, officials were “reluctant to push too strongly for increased Chinese presence.” One top Mexican businessman confided to the Americans, “We don’t want to be China’s next Africa.”

The entrepreneur was referring to “the oft-cited criticism that China has pursued a strategy of seizing the continent’s huge natural resources while dumping cheap industrial manufactured products into Africa’s markets.” “We need to own our country’s development,” the businessman added. Judging from WikiLeaks documents, the Chinese are aware of Mexico’s skittishness. Speaking to U.S. officials in Shanghai, Chinese experts pointed to the “similar industrial structure” between China and Mexico, adding that the Asian powerhouse should “invest more in the Mexican oil industry to counter Mexican concerns about China's growing trade surplus with the country.”

Seeking a South American Gateway

Another nation with mixed feelings toward the Asian tiger is Colombia. In WikiLeaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Beijing remarked that Colombia was actively seeking new economic partners but was still “wary of Chinese motives.” Speaking to the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing, Colombian businessmen expressed their concern that China might “walk all over” Colombia and its people much as the Asian powerhouse had done in Africa. In addition, the Colombians were wary of Chinese investment in mining and hydrocarbons given the Asian tiger’s awful track record on environmental and labor practices [such talk is rather ironic in light of Colombia’s own horrible standards on these counts].

Because Colombian exports compete with those from China, the Andean nation is mainly interested in investment as opposed to signing a free trade agreement with the Asian powerhouse. Originally, China had directed its companies to invest in neighboring Venezuela, but the firms had “dragged their feet.” Reportedly, Chinese businessmen regarded Colombia as more stable and economically open than Venezuela, and therefore a “better base for targeting the rest of Latin America.”

In the long-term China may find that Colombia, which has a much more repressive anti-labor climate than Venezuela, is a country more to its political and economic liking. Indeed, recent business deals suggest that China sees Colombia as its preferred South American gateway. Take for example a Chinese plan to build an auto assembly plant in Colombia. The factory will manufacture light vehicles for export to different regional markets. The Chinese chose Colombia over Chile, Brazil and Mexico and the factory will begin production in 2012.

Brazil: “We Don’t Want to Be Colonized Again”

While Colombia and Mexico are certainly economically important within the overall Chinese strategy, it is the South American powerhouse of Brazil which has become the most indispensable linchpin. China has already displaced the U.S. as Brazil’s chief trading partner and experts predict that between now and 2014 the Asian tiger could invest an average of about $40 billion a year in Brazil. As they establish their key beach head in South America, the Chinese will target specific economic sectors such as telecommunications, infrastructure, farming, oil, biofuels, natural gas, mining and steel.

The most visible sign of burgeoning Sino-Brazil ties is the Açu complex, a mega port which is being constructed near Rio de Janeiro. The vast $2.5 billion facility will open in 2012 and its piers will host fleets of cargo ships including the ChinaMax, a huge vessel capable of holding a whopping 400,000 tons of cargo. In the nearby city of São João da Barra, the local town hall is providing free Mandarin lessons to those who wish to work with an anticipated wave of Chinese guests.

Though the new economic relationship has proven beneficial to both China and Brazil, it is rather lopsided. Indeed, China’s needs have begun to alter the Brazilian economy in fundamental ways. Take, for example, the Brazilian footwear industry which has been decimated by Chinese imports. Caught by surprise by China’s economic rise and burgeoning manufacturing sector, Brazilians worry that they haven’t laid the ground work for a sufficiently balanced relationship, one which will result in sustainable growth and not just small enclaves of prosperity.

Información Selectiva, a Mexican company providing financial news from around the region, recently reported on an eye-opening business meeting which brought together Latin and Chinese executives. During the summit, which took place in Chengdu, Brazilian investor Nizan Guanaes remarked “We were already colonized once and we don’t want to be colonized again. We want to be partners.” It’s unclear whether the Chinese have the patience to put up with such insolent independence. Frustrated by everything from Brazilian bureaucracy to strong labor unions to a more vigilant media culture and stringent environmental laws, the Chinese have found that Brazil is no pushover.

To be sure, the Chinese relationship has brought tangible economic benefits for Brazil. Take for example the local soybean industry which has thrived amidst booming exports to China. For the Asian tiger, soya is a versatile product which is utilized from everything from soy flour to tofu to soy sauce. In my recently published book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) I discuss the rise of soy boom towns in Brazil and accompanying infrastructure such as highways which are designed to facilitate exports to China. Even here, however, local development has been a mixed bag: while the soybean industry has brought economic gains it has also led to severe environmental downsides and pressures on the Amazon. Meanwhile, paved roads linking Brazil to Pacific ports of call and onward to Asia have cut through the rainforest and exacted a high ecological toll.

Wikileaks cables underscore underlying tensions in the Sino-Brazilian relationship. Speaking with American officials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, Brazilian diplomats expressed some concern about growing imbalances in bilateral trade. Although Brazil exported some small commercial aircraft to China, in general the South American nation was a mere provider of commodities to the Asian tiger and received higher value-added machinery in exchange. Meanwhile, Chinese investors failed to adequately understand the local Brazilian market and regulations.

As history has shown, the Latin American people do not take kindly to outside powers coming in to the region and reaping maximum economic advantage while failing to encourage equitable social development. For years, it was the United States which raised the political ire of many countries throughout the hemisphere as it set up economic enclaves and propped up compliant elites. So far, the Chinese interest in Latin America has been primarily economic though the Asian giant may be obliged to become more involved in local politics as its interests grow. If China expects, however, that it will get its way in Latin America as easily as it did in Africa then the Asian tiger may find that it has another thing coming.

WikiLeaks: Lula’s Secret Dealings with Chávez and Morales

January 9, 2011

Tags: Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Celso Amorim, WikiLeaks, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Petrobras

When will Brazil throw its weight around on the world stage and actually start to challenge Washington? Judging from Wikileaks documents, that day may be very off indeed. Far from taking a stand against the United States, Brazilian diplomats serving in Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s administration sought to appease the Americans behind closed doors or, at most, express mild criticism. Since Wikileaks documents end in late 2009, we don’t know if incoming president Dilma Rousseff will choose to mimic her predecessor’s non-confrontational foreign policy, but most observers expect continuity. For the South American left, Wikileaks documents serve as a sobering wake-up call and underscore the difficult political work which lies ahead.

Recent cables pick up in 2005, at the height of the Bush administration’s diplomatic difficulties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. In Brasilia, U.S. ambassador John Danilovich expressed Washington’s “growing concern” about “Chávez’s rhetoric and actions” during a meeting with Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim. Going further, Danilovich sought to set up a joint U.S.-Brazilian operation which would gather intelligence on Chávez. Amorim rejected Danilovich’s entreaties, remarking that Brazil did not see Venezuela as a threat.

Nevertheless, Amorim said the Lula government would be interested in “any intelligence [the U.S.] wished to provide unilaterally.” What was behind Amorim’s interest, and might the diplomat have shared sensitive U.S. intelligence with Venezuela? Like Chávez, Lula came out of South America’s new left and the two shared cordial diplomatic relations, at least publicly. Perhaps, Brazil’s foreign minister hoped to double cross Washington, though frankly such an interpretation seems unlikely given that Lula had reportedly told Chávez to “tone down his rhetoric.”

Furthermore, Lula had “personally persuaded Chávez not to go swimming at a Chilean beach where Chávez intended to proclaim to gathered press that he was bathing in a spot which should be Bolivia's coastline on the Pacific.” Ever since the 1879-1904 War of the Pacific, La Paz has claimed that Chile denied Bolivia rightful access to the ocean and the issue strikes a nationalist chord in the impoverished and landlocked Andean nation. Historically, Chávez has been a leading critic of the more pro-U.S. Chile and a champion of leftist political movements in Bolivia.

The Petrobras Affair

The Danilovich-Amorim détente took place against the backdrop of political instability in the Andes. In Washington, the Bush administration was concerned about coca grower and rising political star Evo Morales, who would shortly succeed to the presidency of Bolivia and become Chávez’s protégé. During his meeting with the U.S. ambassador, Amorim sought to depict Brazil as a reliable regional partner. The Lula administration, which was focused on the “economic exposure of Brazilian companies in Bolivia, along with the threat posed to regional stability by unrest there,” sought to persuade Morales that the Bolivian needed “to act in a democratic fashion.”

Compared to the politically volatile Andean region, Brazil is certainly an island of tranquility and it is understandable that the Lula administration would seek to promote regional calm within its own “near abroad.” There’s always a fine line, however, between promoting stability and diluting South America’s common leftist front. Wikileaks cables suggest that, more often than not, Lula opted for the latter in his dealings with Bolivia. Shortly after the Danilovich-Amorim meeting, the Americans checked in with Lula’s Institutional Security Cabinet and asked if Brazil had a contingency plan “if the Bolivia political situation deteriorates into instability or radicalization that threatens Brazilian interests, especially Petrobras [a mixed private/state Brazilian energy company which had operations in Bolivia] and energy resources from Bolivia that are critical to industry in southern Brazil.”

Brazilian officials frankly admitted that they were “banking on ‘a strategy of hope,’ i.e., that despite fiery nationalist rhetoric during the elections, sensible leaders in Bolivia will not allow radical new government policies or general instability to damage Brazilian energy industries which contribute so massively to Bolivia's economy.” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Phillip Chicola remarked that Lula’s security apparatus was particularly concerned “about the potential for increased cocaine flows into Brazil from Bolivia in the event of a Morales victory.”

In the wake of Morales’ electoral victory, Lula and Amorim announced they would maintain “strong relations” with Venezuela and Bolivia, but did not seek to “abandon” or “contaminate” Brazil’s bilateral ties to the Bush White House. Writing to Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, Chicola suggested that the U.S. seek to exploit Brazilian-Bolivian tensions in upcoming meetings. It would be wise, Chicola advised, for Shannon to bring up “the grittier, real-world worries of Brazilian law enforcement and intelligence services about the increased threats a Morales presidency may bring in the arenas of narcotrafficking and other cross-border criminal activities.”

In mid-2006, Lula was placed in a further quandary when Morales nationalized foreign oil and gas investments in Bolivia. Publicly, U.S. diplomats noted, the Brazilian president “issued a stunningly bland public statement…recognizing Bolivia's sovereignty to act as it did but reaffirming that Brazil would act to protect the interests of…Petrobras.” In a private meeting with the Americans, however, deputy foreign affairs advisor Marcel Biato painted a more intricate picture. According to him, Bolivia and Petrobras had been involved in “what appeared to be relatively positive discussions.” Later, however, Morales abruptly broke off the talks and “there was a lot of Morales interaction with Chávez.”

At a meeting in Brasilia, Lula was scheduled to “register his concern” about “Venezuelan involvement with Morales on the hydrocarbons issues.” The Brazilians, it seems, were angered when Morales dramatically sent in the army to occupy Bolivian gas fields. In the final analysis, American diplomats noted, Morales was emboldened by Venezuelan support “after hearing that Chávez would (a) provide technical help to get gas out of the ground if Petrobras bails…and (b) buy the product.”

Writing to his superiors in Washington, Chicola noted that “Lula and his foreign policy team could not look worse at this moment. The image of Bolivian soldiers moving into Petrobras installations is vivid and offensive for Brazilians of all classes, and will appear to many as a massive rebuke to the Lula administration's theology of a Brazilian-led new era of ‘regional integration.’ Indeed, in the Brazilian press and popular imagination, Lula is increasingly seen as outmaneuvered, manipulated and flim-flammed by his ‘hermanos,’ Chávez and Morales.”

Adding insult to injury, on the same day that Morales announced the gas nationalization the Bolivian president also stated his intention to carry out agricultural reforms which could affect Brazilian farmers residing within the Andean nation. Numbering some 15,000-strong, the farmers had been gradually moving into Bolivia where they had taken to cultivating soybeans. Chicola noted that “any action taken that would threaten the rights of those farmers would occasion a public outcry in Brazil, probably worse than that caused by the spectacle of Bolivian soldiers occupying Petrobras facilities.” Needless to say, as I point out in my recent book, soybean farming has been highly damaging to the environment and in this sense Brazilian interests run contrary to social progress in the Andes.

‘Managing’ Morales

All in all, Brazilian officials were exasperated by Morales, a politician who was intent on playing poker with Brasilia but who had no sense of “logic and rationality.” When Chicola “challenged” Biato “about the growing public perception in Brazil that Morales and Chávez are in cahoots at Lula’s expense,” the Brazilian was “laconic.” “What are we supposed to do?” Biato lamented. “We can’t choose our neighbors. We don’t like Chávez’s modus operandi or Morales’ surprises, but we have to manage these guys somehow, and keep the regional integration idea alive.”

The idea that Brazil might have to “manage” pesky Bolivia, much as the U.S. has sought to oversee political developments in, say, Central America, proved irksome to the Lula administration. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Brazilian presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told the Americans that Bolivia’s instability stemmed in large measure from Morales’ highhanded attitude. The coca leader, Garcia declared, had come into office “as if it were a revolution.” Prolonged instability in neighboring Bolivia, the diplomat added, could worsen “like a flammable gas in the air.”

Many Brazilians, Garcia continued, were frankly surprised by Morales’ “confrontational posture” toward Brazil early on and the Lula administration had been compelled to warn Bolivia, like Venezuela before, to “tone down the rhetoric” and to “cease provoking the United States.” Fundamentally, Garcia opined, Bolivia would have to get its political house in order if the country sought to attract foreign investment and maximize its energy potential. A further cable from late 2009, now well into the Obama era, suggests that relations failed to improve over time. Speaking to the Americans, Brazilian diplomats characterized their relationship with Morales as “frustratingly difficult to manage” and expressed ongoing interest in joint counter-narcotics operations with Bolivia and the United States.

Brazil’s Ambiguous Role

Though Brazil has refused to ostracize its leftist neighbors at the behest of Washington, South America’s biggest political and economic powerhouse has acted rather cynically more often than not. Publicly, Lula expressed solidarity with his leftist colleagues in Brazil’s near abroad, but behind the scenes diplomats worked to dilute a common anti-imperialist front. Putting on airs in private, Brazilian diplomats evidently feel their own country is superior and more “mature” than neighboring nations where rabble-rousing populist regimes hold sway. As the U.S. loses geopolitical influence in South America, will Brazil expand its own regional sphere and what are the larger implications? If Wikileaks cables are any indication, promoting revolutionary change could not be farther from the minds of Brazilian officials. Rather, narrow-minded energy and economic interests will guide Lula’s successors.

Endgame: Could Lula’s Support for Wikileaks Translate into Brazilian Asylum for Assange?

December 24, 2010

Tags: Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, WikiLeaks, Celso Amorim, Itamaraty, Julian Assange, Manuel Zelaya, left controversies

According to Spanish newspaper El País, Julian Assange might be looking for political asylum in Brazil, and the Wikileaks founder is reportedly even interested in basing some of his organization’s operations in the South American nation. Brazil, Assange explains, “is sufficiently large so as to resist U.S. pressure; the country has the requisite economic and military means to do so.” The Wikileaks marked man adds that Brazil “is not like China or Russia which are intolerant toward freedom of the press.”

What could have prompted Assange to consider asylum in South America? In recent days, outgoing President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been one of Wikileaks’ most prominent defenders, remarking that Assange is a champion of free expression. Interrupting a run-of-the-mill speech about infrastructure development, Lula declared “What’s its name? Viki-leaks? Like that? To WikiLeaks: my solidarity in disclosing these things and my protest on behalf of free speech.”

The Brazilian president added, “I don’t know if they put up signs like those from Westerns saying, ‘wanted dead or alive.’ The man was arrested and I’m not seeing any protest defending freedom of expression…Instead of blaming the person who disclosed it, blame the person who wrote this nonsense. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the scandal we now have.”

Assange has praised Lula for speaking out about Wikileaks, and promises to release more cables relating to U.S.-Brazilian relations. Relatively speaking, Wikileaks has already published a great number of documents from the U.S. consulate in São Paulo and the American Embassy in Brasilia. Assange says some members of his organization are Brazilian, and “it would be great to receive an offer” of political asylum from Lula.

Lula Might Want to Read the Cables

So, just how likely would it be for Brazil to extend asylum to Assange? It is one thing to praise Wikileaks for shedding light on U.S. foreign policy and quite another to welcome such a whistleblower to Brazilian shores. On the face of it, such an endgame would seem unlikely: though Wikileaks cables have proven to be a severe embarrassment to Washington, the documents aren’t too flattering toward Brazil either.

Political idealists may have hoped that Brazil, which forms part of the regional “Pink Tide” which has come to power in recent years, would move the leftist agenda forward in South America. Yet, Wikileaks documents seem to dash any such hopes. As I discussed in an earlier article, the Brazilian political elite is divided with some senior figures in the security apparatus opposing Venezuela’s Chávez and negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors.

While Wikileaks cables suggest that the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry, also known as Itamaraty, disagrees with the nation’s defense establishment when it comes to setting policy toward the U.S., it can hardly be said that Lula diplomats are a radical bunch intent on overturning Washington’s goals. Indeed, Itamaraty has sought to portray itself as a valuable geopolitical partner to the U.S., willing to promote “political stability” in the immediate regional neighborhood.

Bush Years and Brazil’s Double Game

Perhaps, after scrutinizing some of the recently released Wikileaks cables, Lula will think twice before backing Assange. In tandem with earlier documentation, the cables confirm the overall cynical nature of Brazilian foreign policy during the Bush era. They show that even as Lula was extending warm ties to Hugo Chávez, Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu was meeting with White House Special Envoy for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich. A staunchly anti-Chávez figure, Reich expressed “deep concern” with the political situation in Venezuela. Dirceu was critical of Chávez, remarking that Lula was “uncomfortable” with the Venezuelan’s behavior at a recent meeting of the G-15 in Caracas. Since the meeting, Lula had refused to take any of Chávez’s calls, though the Brazilian might agree to do so “as unpleasant as it may be.”

Shortly after the Reich-Dirceu tete-a-tete, Brazilian officials expressed “grave concerns” about the “seismic changes” occurring in Bolivia. Evo Morales’ electoral victory was still some two years off, and the Andean nation was going through a period of severe political instability. On the one side was the Carlos Mesa government, intent on ramming through a neo-liberal economic agenda, and on the other a rising tide of Indian opposition. Far from expressing any solidarity with Morales, Brazilian authorities said they were “disturbed” by the “energized indigenous movement” and sought to preserve political “moderation” at all costs in the neighboring Andean country.

If the Bush administration had any qualms about the political allegiances of the Lula regime, Dirceu sought to alleviate such concerns, remarking to U.S. ambassador John Danilovich that both Washington and Brasilia shared a common interest in promoting regional stability. The Lula government would seek to “ameliorate tensions” in Venezuela, Dirceu said. Another cable from the following year of 2005 lays even more bare Brazilian intentions toward Venezuela. According to the document, Dirceu said he planned to travel to Caracas to deliver a blunt message to Chávez to “stand down from his provocative rhetoric,” “do his homework” and “stop playing with fire.”

Specifically, the Brazilians were upset with Chávez for pursuing useless provocations against the United States. Moreover, by pursuing an escalating war of words with Washington, Chávez was adversely affecting the course of commercial integration with Brazil. Dirceu’s mission was cleared at the top level by Lula, who sought to meet with Bush “at the earliest opportunity” so as to “clear the air” on Venezuela. When Danilovich asked Dirceu whether Brazil was in reality pursuing a strategic alliance with Chávez behind Washington’s back, the Brazilian assured the U.S. ambassador that there was “not a single item of anti-American intent” in Lula’s “regional policy matrix.” In the long term, Dirceu added, Brazil hoped to draw Venezuela into more moderate and practical economic integration.

Perhaps, Lula’s erstwhile leftist supporters within his own Workers’ Party would have been surprised by what came next. According to the documents, Dirceu said it was “crucial” for Bush to meet personally with Lula so that the two might discuss the future of the Free Trade Area of the America or FTAA, a corporate free trade scheme backed by Washington but widely reviled by the South American left. Brazil, Dirceu remarked, could not “afford to create the impression that it lacks interest in the FTAA.” The Brazilian added that his government ought to increase its commercial relations with the U.S. “one hundred fold.” In five to ten years, Dirceu continued hopefully, South America might constitute one market under Brazilian dominance, and U.S. firms based in Brazil would certainly want to export their goods throughout the region.

From Bush to Obama: Brazil Reluctant to Challenge U.S. Interests

Four years after Dirceu’s meeting with Danilovich, Brazil was still reluctant to challenge U.S. hegemony in the wider region. When democratically elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup, Brazil strenuously protested. Yet, again Wikileaks cables show Lula as a timid player and fundamentally unwilling to counter the U.S. in its traditional sphere of influence. Perhaps, Brazil was afraid of being too closely identified with Zelaya, a Chávez protégé, for fear of jeopardizing its cherished ties to the newly installed Obama White House.

The Honduran imbroglio was all brought to a head when, in the midst of political hostilities, Zelaya made a surprise visit to the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. According to cables, Brazil had no hand in the matter and was caught off guard by the ousted Honduran leader. Though Brazil graciously welcomed Zelaya inside, the Lula government had no idea how to handle the subsequent standoff. When Honduran security forces surrounded the premises in a show of force, Lula requested U.S. assistance in helping to supply its embassy and head off any potential violence.

The Brazilians grew apprehensive of what might happen, and asked for diesel fuel to run their generator. Unfortunately, Brazilian officials noted, they did not have “the type of protection the U.S. Embassy has, the Marines,” and as a result could not defend their embassy. The Brazilians added that they believed Chávez was behind Zelaya’s appearance at their embassy, a maneuver which they apparently did not welcome. Perhaps somewhat incensed by Chávez, Brazil did not coordinate with Venezuela during the crisis, preferring instead to check in with Secretary of State Clinton who declared that Zelaya should behave himself and act in a peaceful manner.

Writing to her superiors, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Brasilia Lisa Kubiske summed up the crisis succinctly. “Having been vocal in its support for Zelaya’s return and dragged--almost certainly without advance warning--into an unaccustomed place at the center of the crisis,” she wrote, “Brazil appears to be at a loss as to what to do next. It is remarkable that the government of Brazil has apparently made no effort to reach out within the region or taken a more assertive role in seeking a resolution. Instead, planted firmly in the back seat, it appears Brazil is looking to the United States, the OAS, and the United Nations to safeguard its interests and, it hopes, navigate toward a long-term solution.”

In the end, Honduras held elections under extremely dubious circumstances and political repression against Zelaya supporters continued, accompanied by rampant human rights abuses. According to cables, however, the Lula government refrained from asserting itself too much. Brazilian officials told the U.S. that they were displeased about the situation in Honduras but did “not want this issue to create difficulties” with Washington. Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister at Itamaraty, added that the U.S. and Brazil should continue to pursue close ties even when the media sought to exploit the two countries’ differences. The diplomat declared that Brazil was not ready to recognize the recent election in Honduras as valid, but the Lula government was “done harping on this point.”

Wikileaks Endgame?

Clearly, Brazil has not emerged from the Wikileaks scandal smelling like a rose. Far from standing up for the progressive left in the wider region, the Lula government has more often than not acted timidly while negotiating with U.S. diplomats behind closed doors. It’s a sorry spectacle, and there may be more unflattering revelations in the pipeline: Assange has declared that Wikileaks possesses a whopping 2,855 cables related to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, of which only a few have been disclosed thus far.

Lula has publicly defended Wikileaks, but there may be limits to the Brazilian’s magnanimity. Thus far Lula has not addressed any of the leaked cables specifically, preferring instead to simply criticize Washington’s heavy handed use of foreign policy. For his part, Assange has been praising Lula to the skies, remarking that the Brazilian leader is brave for defending Wikileaks. Whether such flattery will work is another matter, however. If the Lula administration were to grant political asylum to Assange, this would create a diplomatic firestorm and seriously damage U.S. relations.

It seems unlikely that incoming president Dilma Rousseff, who takes office on January 1st, would want to risk such a fallout. Lula, however, might be another matter. The legendary president leaves office with a record-breaking 83% popularity, and Lula might think he can afford to make a controversial move on Wikileaks. That, at any rate, is what Assange clearly hopes for: recently, the Wikileaks founder remarked that Lula was nearing the end of his second term and as a result “he can speak more freely about what he genuinely thinks.”

I suspect that Assange may be overestimating Lula’s willingness to confront the U.S., but you never know. In any case, if Brazil does provide refuge to Assange the announcement will have to come in the next few days, as the window of opportunity for the Wikileaks founder is likely to close very shortly.

Quoted in El Nuevo Herald

December 1, 2010

Tags: El Nuevo Herald, WikiLeaks

For a roundup of what we know so far from the diplomatic cables, and my own Brazil commentary, check out today's article in El Nuevo Herald.

For earlier articles, click here.