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Argentina to Brazil: Please Don't Get the Bomb

For some time, I have been writing about revelations stemming from correspondence between the State Department in Washington and various U.S. embassies based around Latin America.  Leaked WikiLeaks documents have revealed growing U.S. concern over the left tide in the wider region and crucial strategies to derail progressive change.  More surprisingly, perhaps, the cables also hint at key fissures within the South American left --- tensions which the U.S. has been all too willing to exploit.

 

Divide and rule tactics may work to a degree with Ecuador, Venezuela or Bolivia, but the U.S. will have a tougher time managing Brazil.  Indeed, what struck me most as I poured through the documents was the marked difference in tone between U.S. embassy cables emanating from Quito, La Paz and Caracas on the one hand, and Brasilia on the other. 

 

It's clear from just a superficial read that American diplomats are much more cautious and level-headed with the Brazilians than elsewhere in the Andes, where U.S. officials tend to be much more direct and confrontational.  For Washington, Brazil promises to be the chief geopolitical worry in the decades to come, not Venezuela.

 

An exporting dynamo and powerhouse with a growing middle class, Brazil is using its newfound economic clout to venture into world politics like never before.  Unlike the Andean region, which has been plagued by chronic volatility, Brazil's political institutions look relatively stable.  Provided that Brazil's economic fortunes continue to soar, the South American juggernaut will surely be a force to be reckoned with in future. 

 

Behind Mercosur's Façade

 

Speaking with the Americans, leading members of the Brazilian political establishment remarked that their country should serve as "the natural leader of Latin America, or at least of South America."  Leading, however, is obviously a very different concept from standing shoulder to shoulder with smaller nations, and for those who view South America as essentially marching relentlessly toward regional integration along leftist lines, WikiLeaks cables can serve as quite a corrective.  Indeed, Brazilian conservatives were reportedly very unhappy with their government's "overly acquiescent approach to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela." 

 

As one reads the cables, a more complex and nuanced picture emerges of Brazil, a country torn by many conflicting impulses and agendas.  To be sure, Brazil is a member of trading bloc Mercosur which has helped to politically align sympathetic leftist regimes in South America.  Yet, if the diplomatic cables can be believed, many influential Brazilians view Mercosur with a healthy degree of skepticism and during the era of former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, "most parts" of the Brazilian government were opposed to the trade bloc, seeing little benefit to their country from such integration. 

 

Lula, who himself came up from the ranks of organized labor, favored Mercosur but recalcitrant elements including the Ministries of Finance and Development saw matters differently.  Chafing under Mercosur's yoke, these technocrats complained that Brazil provided too much money toward the trade bloc's infrastructure fund, while other countries donated much less.  In particular, the influential industrial lobby complained that Mercosur was "selling out" commercial interests for the mere sake of preserving the trade bloc's unity.  Like the U.S., then, where Republicans routinely complain about multilateralism, the United Nations and doling out foreign aid to needy countries, Brazilian officials too "complained that underdeveloped areas in Brazil's northeast will get short shrift compared to needy areas" elsewhere in South America. 

 

As Brazil starts to accrue more power, the country may run into an image problem.  Like the U.S., which has been criticized for its sorry environmental record on climate change, Brazil too could find itself politically isolated from its more radical neighbors.  According to one WikiLeaks cable, environmental subjects within Mercosur are "very messy" with "no cooperation of note."  Reportedly, Argentine officials believed that Brazil was "focused on its position as a major player with China and India, not as part of Latin America, while Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, and Bolivia form a separate block with their own interests."

 

The Cocaine Connection

 

Brazilian skittishness was also evident toward its radical neighbor Bolivia.  Publicly, Lula and the Brazilian left proclaimed their solidarity with Chávez protégé Evo Morales, a radical indigenous coca grower.  But cables reveal Brazilian concern over political stability and the drug trade.  As early as 2004, prior to Morales' election as president, the Brazilians viewed instability in Bolivia with "grave concern," including the "disturbing convergence of an energized indigenous movement with the drug problem."

 

In some ways, then, the Brazilian relationship to Bolivia echoes U.S. ties to Mexico, a country which has also been convulsed by the drug trade.  For years, high level officials at Lula's GSI or Institutional Security Cabinet had viewed Brazil as essentially a corridor country for outbound narcotics to other nations, but "the brutal reality of violent, drug-driven crime in Brazil's cities has shattered that outlook…and huge quantities of cocaine and other drugs appear in large and small Brazilian communities throughout the country."    

 

The GSI, as well as the police were concerned "about the potential for increased cocaine flows into Brazil from Bolivia in the event of a Morales victory."  "We are clearly the target," remarked one GSI official, "for the low-grade coca based narcotics produced in Bolivia, which are flooding Brazilian cities, with devastating social consequences."  Feeling increasingly frustrated, the Brazilians had sought to convey their concerns to La Paz, via "indirect channels" and even through policy suggestions.  When Brasilia suggested that its Andean neighbor should substitute alternative crops for coca leaf, however, Bolivia balked and "fell back on the traditional crop argument," thus "shutting down further discussion." 

 

Brazil's Voracious Energy Needs

 

Like Mexico, which supplies oil to the U.S., Bolivia is an energy supplier to Brazil and provides natural gas.  In 2005, the Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy said his country was "worried" about the reliability of its natural gas supply emanating from Bolivia.  If the gas supply decreased or prices skyrocketed, the official conceded, Brazil would "face a serious problem."

 

So concerned was Brazilian intelligence that high level officials developed contingency plans.  At the GSI, analysts sought to evaluate what the likely impact of an energy shortfall might be.  In the midst of Bolivia's presidential election season, Lula hoped that any new regime would "not allow radical new government policies or general instability to damage Brazilian energy industries."  If need be, Lula would reportedly take the same tone with Bolivia that "a parent would take when firmly disciplining an errant child."

 

Brazil to Chávez: We Run Things Here

 

Publicly, Brazil has demonstrated solidarity with Hugo Chávez and his protégé in Bolivia, Evo Morales.  However, WikiLeaks cables suggest that Brazil is ambivalent about the volatile Andean region and skeptical about Venezuelan leadership.  In 2007, for example, Brazil was reportedly skittish about Chávez's moves to establish a so-called "Bank of the South" which would counteract the International Monetary Fund.  Brazil already had its own development bank known as BNDES, and would "need to be convinced" of the efficacy of further institutions.  In the effort to foster its own regional agenda, Brazil has promoted BNDES, which finances infrastructure development through the trans-Andean highway. 

 

Whatever his own interest in BNDES, Lula was reportedly willing to go along with Bank of the South as long as Brazil was given a prominent place at the table.  In a snub, however, Chávez reportedly went behind Lula's back and negotiated with Argentina, causing the Brazilians to become "absolutely livid."  Perhaps, these types of developments made Brazil even more skeptical of Chávez and determined to assert its own independent leadership in the wider region.

 

Further cables underscore this subtle geopolitical shift.  In August, 2009 Lula traveled to Bolivia's coca growing region of Chapare.  There, the Brazilian met with Morales in a stadium "amid a festive atmosphere" of 10,000 cheering coca leaf growers.  Publicly, the two praised each other but beneath the surface lurked tensions.  Speaking to U.S. officials, Brazilian diplomats said they had grown quite frustrated with Bolivia on counter-narcotics and economic policy, adding that they wanted to "provide Morales with alternatives to the radical advice he is receiving from Venezuela and Cuba." 

 

Are Brazilians the New Gringos? 

 

It would be an overstatement to claim that Bolivia is a Brazilian satellite, but some WikiLeaks documents suggest that the small Andean nation could be quietly moving away from Venezuela in the hopes of gaining a new benefactor.  As far back as 2008, Brazilian legislators claimed that Bolivia was "tired of the Bolivarian idea."  According to Brazil's Chairman of the National Defense Committee and Senate Foreign Relations, the Bolivian ambassador in Brasilia "apologized…for some disagreements between presidents Lula and Morales a couple of years ago and agreed…that the two countries need to continue their tradition of friendly relations."

 

The WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010, so we don't know much about the further ins and outs of this diplomatic game.  What's clear though is that Brazil's footprint has only increased in its own "near abroad," leading to new political frictions.  Today, the Bolivian left and indigenous peoples are probably just as prone to attack Brazilian imperialism as Washington's dictates.  At issue once again is BNDES, an institution which is fast outstripping the World Bank.  When BNDES announced it would support road construction through remote indigenous territory in Bolivia, the effort sparked protest from local Indians who accused Evo Morales of being a foreign lackey.  

 

BNDES, which seeks to create strong Brazilian multinationals via below-market loans, could fall under greater criticism in the years ahead.  With support from BNDES, companies like oil giant Petrobras, iron flagship Vale, and steel maker Gerdau have been conducting a big push into neighboring countries.  The Brazilian wave however has been met with wariness and resistance from Paraguay to Guyana to Peru to Ecuador, where local residents have protested large boondoggle projects. 

 

Big Power Rivalry in the Southern Cone?

 

As BNDES extends its influence, and Brazil ramps up diplomatic and political ties to Peru and even Colombia, Chávez's Venezuela has become eclipsed.  Such developments have not escaped the attention of Argentina, Brazil's historic rival for dominance in the Southern Cone.  If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, Buenos Aires has become increasingly alarmed by the unpredictable nature of Brazilian foreign policy, and even fears that its South American neighbor may be tempted to back up its interests through military means.   

 

My interest was particularly piqued by one cable dated to 2009, in which Argentine nuclear non-proliferation officials complained to U.S. diplomats "about the direction of Brazilian security policy in the final years of the Lula Government."  The Argentines were concerned about "yellow lights," such as Lula's outreach to Iran and North Korea.  Moreover, Argentine officials were worried about "the pace of Brazilian military purchases," and had even pondered what Buenos Aires might do in the event that Brasilia chose to develop a nuclear weapon.

 

The Argentines were particularly looking forward to Brazil's presidential transition in 2011, because Lula's "unmatched popularity and his late-in-the-term detachment from political considerations had allowed him to become a risk-taker in foreign and defense policy."  Any successor, the Argentines hoped, "would shy away from such controversial policies in his or her first years, perhaps retrenching on the Iran relationship and becoming more cooperative on new nuclear confidence-building instruments."

 

While it's true that Brazil has become somewhat less of a "risk-taker" under Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, the South American giant will certainly be a huge force to be reckoned with in the years to come.  How Brazil's rise reconfigures South American politics, particularly in regard to Argentina, could be interesting to watch.  What is most importantly reinforced from the WikiLeaks documents, however, is the notion that the U.S. may now face a real competitor in the region.

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Time for a New Geopolitical Climate Bloc

A two part series focusing on the Durban climate conference. To read Part I, click here. For Part II, click here.

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WikiLeaks: Lula’s Secret Dealings with Chávez and Morales

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.

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WikiLeaks: The Dalai Lama’s Misplaced Climate Change Strategy

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WikiLeaks: Psychologically Profiling Latin American Leaders

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WikiLeaks: The U.S. Must “Neutralize, Co-opt or Marginalize” Radical Latin American Bloc in Climate Negotiations

As activists launch protests at the Cancún climate summit in Mexico, could negotiators be engaged in cynical backroom deals? In light of recent WikiLeaks disclosures, such an eventuality seems more than likely. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables show that the Americans have been trying to strong arm other countries in order to get their way at international summits. The cables, which go back to last year's Copenhagen summit, show the U.S. as a manipulative and opportunistic power seeking to water down important environmental agreements.


Judging from documents, the WikiLeaks scandal could well turn into the Climate Gate scandal. When reporting to his colleagues, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in La Paz John Creamer described Bolivian President Evo Morales' climate justice activism in the most unflattering light. An impoverished Andean nation, Bolivia is poorly equipped to deal with the ravages of climate change and has been a leading critic of the United States and the Global North at international summits like Copenhagen.

In a report, Creamer remarked that Morales "seemed to revel" in his opposition to the Copenhagen summit, which was dominated by the United States and other large powers. The Bolivian, the diplomat continued, made "extraordinary demands" like reparations and aid, thus alienating conference organizers and most delegations. The Danes became "fed up" with Morales and the pesky left-leaning ALBA bloc of countries from Latin America, which kept on mounting "propaganda arguments" against the Copenhagen accord [following the environmental debacle in Denmark, Morales invited international activists to Bolivia for a counter climate summit in Cochabamba].
 
Blackening Morales' Image

One would expect U.S. diplomats to be critical of Morales in their reporting, but in going over the WikiLeaks cables I've been struck by the remarkably supercilious tone and vindictive accusations hurled at the Bolivian leader. At this point, it's difficult to establish the exact veracity of all the many claims, and diplomatic historians will no doubt look into the charges in more depth in future. Perhaps American diplomats genuinely had high placed intelligence on Morales upon which to base their reports, or maybe they simply wanted to satisfy their superiors in Washington with wishful propaganda.


Not surprisingly, Creamer's own political bias doesn't differ much from that of his colleagues. In a report dating to early 2010, he acknowledges that Bolivia "is already suffering real damage from the effects of global warming." Yet, the diplomat continues sarcastically, Morales is immature as he "seems to prefer to score rhetorical points rather than contribute to a solution." Morales, the diplomat implies, is like a four-year old child for opposing the Copenhagen accord. "Our assessment," Creamer states, "is that Bolivia remains beyond reach on Copenhagen, at least until Morales sees the limits of his approach."


Creamer writes that Morales' activism made him a hero in the eyes of anti-globalization activists, while at the same time alienating neighboring South American nations [Creamer doesn't name the countries, but presumably he is referring to Brazil]. Ascribing cynical motives to Morales, Creamer remarks that the Bolivian leader "views climate change as a vehicle for raising his and Bolivia's international political stature." Creamer cites one senator from Morales' political party who believed that the Bolivian president saw
"environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez. She recounted to us that an animated Morales told her he was surrounded by well-wishers in Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."


Creamer then calls out Morales for environmental hypocrisy, remarking that "many Bolivians" are eager to point out that "Morales's climate change campaign is about enhancing his global stature, not about the environment." Creamer goes on to quote a former Morales cabinet official who says "there is a huge gap between Morales' strident, pro-environmental rhetoric in international fora and his domestic emphasis on industrialization as they key to development. The foundation of this effort is large-scale natural gas, iron, and lithium production projects, enterprises that have historically proven extremely damaging to the environment."  Creamer then points out that the Inter-American Development Bank had recently presented the Bolivians with a report detailing serious potential environmental hazards associated with extracting lithium.
 
Brazil's Environmental Duplicity

To be sure, Creamer makes a number of valid environmental points but needless to say it was the United States, and not Bolivia, which exacerbated climate change over the years. Not only does Creamer's report illuminate U.S. hypocrisy, however, but also that of the other big powers. In La Paz, Chinese diplomats prodded Bolivia, urging Morales to support the Copenhagen accord. However, such efforts were rapidly demonstrated to be "pointless" and the Chinese concluded that Brazil would have to convince Bolivia and the other ALBA nations to come round.


I have always suspected that, behind the scenes, Brazil has played a negative environmental role in the region. In midtown Manhattan, Brazil employs a fancy PR firm to extol the country's green credentials and send out e-mails about Brasilia's progressive programs. At one point, I even got the opportunity to interview Izabella Teixeira, Brazil's Environment Minister. I asked her to clarify Brazil's precise negotiating role at international summits, to which she would respond, time and again, that Brazil was an equal opportunity and good faith player, consulting with Third World nations within the G-77 group, for example.


Perhaps what she really meant to say was that Brazil sought to strong arm Bolivia into coming into line and playing a zero sum game. According to Creamer and WikiLeaks, "Bolivia refused to adopt Brazil's position on Copenhagen," but Brasilia's Foreign Affairs Ministry or Itamaraty would "continue to press Bolivia... hoping that Bolivia's isolation on this issue will eventually bring it around."


U.S. and Europe vs. BASIC and ALBA


For anyone interested in learning how strong arming occurs in advance of climate change confabs, U.S. diplomatic cables make for obligatory reading. In February, 2010, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman met with EU officials in Brussels. The aim of the discussions was to "push back against coordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil, South Africa) to our international positions." Though the BASIC group had widely differing interests, U.S. diplomats observed, the bloc was "surprisingly united" and would "take turns" playing the U.S. and EU off against each other.


"The U.S. and EU need to learn from this coordination," Froman believed, "and work
much more closely and effectively together ourselves, to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future trainwrecks on climate." In advance of Cancún, the Europeans and Americans hoped to get BASIC and the G-77 on their side and to "be in close touch with Mexico" which would be chairing the meeting. In one damning passage of the report, it is mentioned that "Froman agreed that we will need to neutralize, co-opt or marginalize" the more radical Latin American bloc including Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and others.


What is ironic about these cables is that the U.S. wants to undermine not just ALBA but also BASIC. Yet, BASIC and Brazil are hardly what we might call a progressive bloc of countries. Indeed, it was BASIC itself which helped to draft the inadequate Copenhagen Accord with the U.S. at the eleventh hour. Clearly, however, the U.S. doesn't even want to put up with BASIC, most likely because the bloc wants the Americans and Europeans to assume most of the responsibility for solving our climate crisis.


Cancún Strategy: No Friendly Overture toward Brazil

If these cables are any indication, Cancún could wind up being a zero sum game with the EU and U.S. seeking to oppose BASIC and all three groups hoping to circumvent the more radical proposals advocated by Bolivia, ALBA, and the small island nations. It all makes for a rather pessimistic scenario, yet perhaps the WikiLeaks documents will shame and embarrass the big powers into making some concessions.


In an earlier online column, I suggested that activists might consider making a friendly overture toward Brazil in the hope that the South American juggernaut might cease its counter-productive negotiations within the BASIC group which is fast becoming a chief obstacle to enacting progressive climate change legislation. I reasoned that Brazil, more than other countries in the bloc, would be more likely to take the side of ALBA and small island nations in international climate negotiations. In the first round of Brazil's presidential election, Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered 19% of the vote, suggesting that environmental consciousness is on the rise in the South American nation.


WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal Brazil's true colors behind closed doors. In light of the disclosures, it doesn't seem to make much sense for activists to conduct any "friendly overtures." At this point, there's got to be a concerted campaign on Brazil designed to humiliate and embarrass the Lula government so that we can see some movement at Cancún. ALBA and the small island nation group do not constitute a formidable geopolitical bloc, and so activists will have to up the ante and exert more pressure on Brazil in the hope of creating a countervailing force to the U.S. and EU.

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WikiLeaks: So Much for Left Wing “Solidarity” in South America

In Oliver Stone's recent documentary South of the Border, leftist regimes in Latin America are depicted rather idealistically. In country after country, Stone interviews the region's leaders, who criticize the United States and present a common anti-imperialist front. Yet, while it's certainly true that politics has taken a decisive leftward shift from Venezuela to Bolivia and beyond, many differences and tensions remain. That, at any rate, is the impression I got when I read U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistleblower Wikileaks. Previously, in a couple of online articles, I analyzed internal political fissures within the top echelons of the Brazilian political leadership. U.S. cables reveal that some members of the Lula administration harbored suspicions about Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and, more often than not, saw eye to eye with Washington when it came to wider South American geopolitics. While these revelations are surely eye opening, it now appears as if they may be just the tip of the iceberg.


Take, for example, the case of Argentina. Publicly, the nation's power couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, has embraced Hugo Chávez and the region's leftist "Pink Tide." Yet in 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires noted that Néstor was engaged in a kind of diplomatic double game: on the one hand, the Argentine president sought to "stake out a position for himself close to Chávez," while also maintaining a close working relationship with the U.S. on particular issues such as counter-terrorism. The U.S. Embassy saw Kirchner as a kind of latter-day, independent Charles de Gaulle, a politician who would maintain a "balance" in relations between Venezuela and the U.S.
 
Néstor: A Paper Tiger?


From the beginning, American officials noted, the Kirchner style "has been combative in the face of real, imagined and fabricated challenges from sources as varied as the Catholic church, neoliberalism and the 'Washington consensus,' the World Bank and IMF, parasitic foreign multi-nationals, the press and political opponents (whether from within or from outside the Peronist party) and — indirectly stated — the U.S. This style has stood him in good stead. As the economy boomed, buoyed by favorable external factors, his popularity ratings have soared, and have remained high, due in no small part to his pugnacious character." Wikileaks cables reveal U.S. diplomats by turn as either cynical, supercilious or blasé toward the South American left, so one must take the documents with a certain grain of salt. In this case, however, it would appear that the Americans had a bead on Kirchner. Indeed, even as Néstor struck an anti-imperialist pose, senior Argentine officials were meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for discussions on counter-terrorism and counternarcotics efforts. What is more, in conversations with Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, Gonzales brought up the "the situation in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the need for strengthening stability in the region." Hardly confrontational, the Argentines placed great importance on attracting U.S. investment.


Despite his rhetorical bluster, U.S. officials had little fear of Néstor. Though U.S.-Argentine relations took a nosedive as a result of the November, 2005 Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas, in which leftists leaders, Kirchner included, showed up George Bush, Néstor was at heart an opportunist and would not move against the U.S. In fact, the Mar del Plata episode "perhaps convinced Kirchner he had gone a bit too far down the populist route. Since then, we have seen a gradual and steady improvement in relations with an increasing willingness by senior-level officials in engaging in dialogue with us and in identifying areas where we can strengthen cooperation.


Cristina: She's No Rebel

 

Cristina Kirchner proved similarly pliable. On the presidential campaign trail, the Argentine first lady touched base with the U.S. ambassador and "expressed a strong desire to promote foreign investment, increase scientific and educational exchange with the United States, and 'tell it like it is' with American policymakers." Cristina's conciliatory tone convinced the Americans that she would be a "reliable, trustworthy, and accessible partner of the United States."


In another 2009 cable, U.S. diplomats report on Argentina's mid-term elections in which the Kirchners lost badly. Discussing the post-electoral milieu, the Americans expressed skepticism that Argentina's power couple would radicalize the country, preferring instead a "reform-lite" agenda which would seek "to recapture political space without significant policy concessions."


Moreover, on the foreign policy front diplomats did not expect Cristina to embrace a more "Bolivarian" agenda. The Argentines, U.S. diplomats noted, had "become much less eager to criticize the U.S. directly since Barack Obama became President. CFK [Cristina] wears her affection for our Commander-in-Chief on her sleeve." Furthermore, Argentina was unlikely to embrace Bolivarian politics more generally, since Brazil was a much more important economic partner than Venezuela. "Lula and his associates will remain an important moderating influence on the Kirchners," diplomats noted.


Chile: Bachelet Placates U.S. Diplomat


Judging from the cables, the U.S. had little to fear from Chile, either. During a luncheon meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela at La Moneda Presidential Palace, Bachelet exclaimed that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. Fortunately, Bachelet remarked, there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez. Then Bachelet dished on the Kirchners, remarking that Argentina "has problems with credibility as a country." The country's Peronist ideology, Bachelet said, "can lead to paranoia" and undermine political and economic stability. In contrast to orderly and reliable Chile, Bachelet said, "Argentines tend to live from crisis to crisis...rather than pursuing stable, long-term policies." In a particularly damning aside, Chileans at the meeting agreed that Cristina was emblematic of Argentina's problems.


Embattled Venezuela
 
The more populist regimes could use a bit more diplomatic support from the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Yet as the Wikileaks documents reveal, that is extremely unlikely since moderate leaders throughout the region are politically compromised by the United States and, even worse, criticize their peers in private with American diplomats. Even worse, some leaders even lobby the U.S. to take a harder line with Chávez. At one meeting in 2009, for example, Mexico President Felipe Calderón urged U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to increase U.S. presence in the wider region, and in particular to engage Brazil in an effort to isolate Venezuela.


Faced with dwindling support, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia have become very embattled and take a no holds barred, combative approach toward Washington. It's a battle of nerves which has become much more intense than commonly portrayed in the media. As early as 2006, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that "Cubans cooperate extensively with Venezuelan intelligence services." Indeed, diplomats reported that "Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chávez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting unvetted by Venezuelan officers."


U.S. officials fretted about the situation, remarking that "The impact of Cuban involvement in Venezuelan intelligence could impact U.S. interests directly. Venezuelan intelligence services are among the most hostile towards the United States in the hemisphere, but they lack the expertise that Cuban services can provide. Cuban intelligence routinely provides the BRV [Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela] intelligence reports about the activities of the USG [U.S. government]."


The U.S. Embassy in Caracas struck back in kind. Two years later, American officials requested assistance from the Department of Defense in executing a "strategic communications plan...to influence the information environment within Venezuela. The strategy's goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the U.S. and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries." Hardly amused by the Americans and their propaganda efforts, Venezuela reportedly conducted intelligence operations against the U.S. Embassy as recently as January, 2010.


Bolivia: A Pawn in Wider Geopolitical Chess


Faced with domestic political unrest and hostility from Washington, Bolivia has also engaged in a battle of nerves with the United States. Yet unlike Venezuela, Bolivia is very poor and perhaps as a result has relied on extensive foreign assistance in charting its political destiny. In Wikileaks documents, Bolivia emerges as a kind of political pawn in the midst of larger geopolitical forces.


In 2006, the U.S. Ambassador in La Paz wrote that "President Morales... lacks confidence in his economic and international relations abilities." As a result, Morales relied on a group of Cuban and Venezuelan advisers "who seem to have growing influence with the President." U.S. sensitive reporting meanwhile revealed that Morales met with his foreign advisers many times a week without any domestic advisers present. "Morales," the ambassador continued, "likely sees the Cuban and Venezuelan advisers as non-threatening to his domestic power." The following year, a U.S. report claimed that Venezuela had greased the political loyalty of Bolivian military commanders. However, these Venezuelan "bonuses" had "created much resentment in the mid- and lower-ranks and cost the high command significant legitimacy." U.S. cables suggest that Morales may be somewhat sensitive to the notion that Bolivia is being overrun by foreign interests. In one communication, it is mentioned that "Morales sees environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez." An animated Morales reportedly declared that "he was surrounded by well-wishers in [the international climate summit at] Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."


How much can we trust these sensitive documents dealing with Bolivia, let alone Venezuela? Perhaps, U.S. officials in both countries painted an unflattering portrait of both countries because they thought that was what their superiors wanted to hear, or alternatively the intelligence is just plain shoddy. However, one cannot discount that the accounts have some basis: recently some Latin American leaders failed to show up for a summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Perhaps, the Wikileaks scandal is causing embarrassment.

 

Wikileaks and its Significance for the Hemisphere

 

Though the U.S. certainly doesn't emerge very rosy from the Wikileaks scandal, coming off more often than not as manipulating, imperious and supercilious toward the Latin American Pink Tide, the recent torrent of released documents doesn't reflect well on South American leaders either. Far from presenting a united anti-imperialist front, the Pink Tide is internally divided and frequently compromised. Additionally, some reports reveal certain leaders as somewhat vain or petty. It's too early to say what the likely impact of the Wikileaks scandal will be on the hemisphere, though hopefully it will prompt South American political leaders to take a more critical stance toward the United States and to cease their useless and counter-productive backbiting.

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