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WikiLeaks: Washington and Brasilia Monitoring Chávez in the Caribbean

As more and more WikiLeaks cables get released, the Brazilian-U.S. diplomatic relationship has become increasingly illuminated.  Though somewhat wary of each other, Washington and Brasilia sometimes saw eye to eye on matters of geopolitical importance.  Take, for example, both countries' handling of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.  Under the helm of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil cultivated a strategic alliance with Venezuela and publicly the two nations embraced South America's "pink tide" to the left.  Yet, WikiLeaks documents reveal that Brazil may have shared Washington's concern over Chávez's rising geopolitical importance, particularly in the Caribbean theater.


During the Bush years, American diplomats kept a close bead on Venezuela's growing partnerships in areas far afield.  In Jamaica, for example, U.S. officials conducted a "sustained effort to dissuade" the authorities from supporting Chávez's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.  Concerned over Venezuela's rising star in the region, the Americans met with the Jamaican political opposition.  Writing to her superiors in Washington, U.S. ambassador in Kingston Brenda Johnson expressed "concerns over the influence of Venezuelan money and energy supplies in Jamaica in the years ahead." 


Monitoring Chávez in Jamaica


During a local cricket match, Bruce Golding of Jamaica's opposition Labour Party approached the ambassador to request a meeting.  Asking that the U.S. hold the information in "strict confidence," Golding revealed that his party's concern over Chávez had "heightened in recent weeks."  Confidentially, he continued, a "senior person in the government" had passed him "sensitive inside information," and "a number of persons within the government" were "frightened over the secrecy" concerning Jamaica's official dealings with Chávez. 


Spinning a rather cloak and dagger narrative, Golding explained how senior officials from the ruling People's National Party (PNP) had recently flown to Caracas.  Once in the Venezuelan capital, he claimed, they had been given one or two large packages and thereafter returned to Kingston.  The opposition politician alleged that overall the Venezuelans had doled out $4-5 million to the PNP in Caracas in order to finance the electoral campaign of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.  The very next week, the government magically claimed that it had managed to repay $475,000 to a Dutch-based oil trading firm called Trafigura.         


Earlier, the company had made the "contribution" to the PNP, but when the matter came to public attention the news spiraled into a full blown campaign finance scandal.  Speaking to the U.S. ambassador, Golding thought it was "logical" that part of the cash which Venezuela had given to the Jamaicans had been later used to pay back Trafigura.  Going further, Golding claimed that just before the Trafigura "contribution," the PNP had experienced financial problems and even found it difficult to maintain its own facilities.  Recently, however, there had been a "dramatic turnaround," and the party no longer found it necessary to solicit contributions from the private sector. 


Because Jamaica already participated in Chávez's so-called Petrocaribe program, which provided liquefied natural gas to the Caribbean nation, Golding feared that "it would be easy to imagine a scenario in which Chávez offered to write off or defer a portion of these debts in return for government of Jamaica support of his positions in international fora."  In drawing closer to Chávez, Golding continued, Jamaica was "getting mixed up with something from which it will be difficult to extricate ourselves."  In conclusion, Golding thought that Chávez had become a "godfather with money."  Jamaica, he said, was "being sucked into an agenda not of our own making.  Chávez waves cash, we're mesmerized, and cave in to anything he wants."


While it's unclear whether Golding was speaking the truth, WikiLeaks cables suggest that the U.S. ambassador took the politician's points seriously enough.  Reflecting a paranoid anti-Chávez mindset, Johnson told the Jamaican that he should "raise these concerns with U.S. government officials during [an] upcoming visit to Washington." 


Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines


Elsewhere in the Caribbean, U.S. diplomats carefully monitored Chávez influence.  In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Americans sat up and took note when local politicians signed on to Venezuela's PetroCaribe accord.  When Chávez sent liquefied petroleum gas to the government of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, the American Embassy in Bridgetown remarked that "the timing of the shipments, the first of which arrived just prior to St. Vincent's December 2005 general election, led to speculation that they were also intended to shore up the electoral prospects of the PM.  Gonsalves is one of Venezuela President Hugo Chávez's most ardent supporters in the region."


Over in Grenada, meanwhile, the Americans noted that the authorities had signed on to the PetroCaribe deal and hoped to import diesel supplied by Venezuela's state oil company PdVSA.  In light of the contentious history of U.S. military intervention in Grenada, Washington would have been interested in keeping Grenada out of Venezuela's orbit.  It's not clear from the cables whether American diplomats pressured Grenada to cut its links to Venezuela, but other documents suggest that, overall, Washington had grown concerned about the Caribbean theater.


In 2008, for example, U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Mary Ourisman sat down with Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  Speaking over breakfast at the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Ourisman pressed Gonsalves on his country's recent participation in Chávez's Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (or ALBA) summit in Caracas.   Somewhat defensively, "Gonsalves was quick to deny any military and intelligence agenda or component to ALBA, and appeared to generally want to disassociate himself from Chávez's ideologies.  He was quick to thank the United States for its continued military and law enforcement assistance." 


Gonsalves' soothing assurances notwithstanding, Ourisman was suspicious.  "While the friendly nature of the meeting reflected the Embassy's generally good relations with St. Vincent and the Grenadines," she remarked, "Gonsalves was at his legalistic best, downplaying both Saint Vincent's and the Grenadines involvement in ALBA."


Brazil's Fears over Guyana


While it's not too surprising that Washington during the Bush years kept a careful eye on Chávez in the Caribbean, it's interesting to note that Brazil too had grown concerned.  On the surface at least this might seem surprising: publicly, Brazil's Workers' Party President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva embraced neighboring Venezuela.  WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal that powerful figures in Brasilia were growing increasingly restive and nervous when faced with Venezuela's bold assertiveness in the Caribbean.


As part of its efforts to become a "responsible" member of the international community, Brazil has taken a more active role in the Caribbean theater, sending peacekeeping troops to Haiti and beefing up ties to Cuba in advance of the island's post-Castro transition.  Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials threw cold water on the notion that leftist Venezuela would continue to play a significant role in Cuba.  Chávez's brand of "strident" populism, they remarked, had "less space to grow in Latin America than you may think."  On the other hand, closer to home in the Caribbean Brazilian politicians saw themselves in more direct competition with Venezuela for geopolitical influence, for instance in Guyana.


Chorus of Conservative Brasilia Politicians


In early 2007, former President and sitting Senator Jose Sarney of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party fretted to American diplomats that Venezuela was "becoming a destabilizing military power."  Warming to his theme, Sarney remarked that he was "especially concerned about Venezuela's irrendentist claims on Guyana's Essequibo region."  Growing even more alarmist, the politician stated that two thirds of Guyana was rich in diamonds and Chávez could "cause trouble over an area of 170,000 square kilometers."  A conflict was all but inevitable, Sarney continued, and "in that event, a burden will fall on Brazil's shoulders."


In the following months, a growing number of conservative politicians in Brasilia echoed such alarmist claims until Sarney finally laid down the gauntlet, urging Washington to "do more to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's increasingly destabilizing actions in the region." 

Since Sarney's last tete-a-tete with the Americans, tensions had mounted in the Essequibo region, with Guyana accusing Venezuela of militarily invading its territory to stave off gold mining operations.  Caracas flatly rejected the claim, arguing that the incursion occurred squarely within Venezuelan territory. 


Reiterating his previous arguments, Sarney said that Chávez sought to "create a hotspot of regional conflict like the Balkans," and would seize Guyana's Essequibo region.  Speaking candidly, the politician remarked that Lula was "aware of the dangers Chávez presents," but unfortunately the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was "infiltrated" with Chávez sympathizers.


The Mood Begins to Shift in Brasilia


Despite Sarney's claims about the pro-Chávez leanings within the Brazilian government, WikiLeaks cables suggest that many within the political elite had grown tired and impatient with Venezuela.  Take, for example, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who "expressed a personal concern that if Chávez started to have domestic problems, he could decide to focus public attention on unresolved claims on Venezuela's borders."  Rather bluntly, Jobim suggested to the Americans that Brasilia and Washington should "step in and confront Chávez if he did anything extraterritorial."


Though Lula continued to defend Venezuelan democracy, opposition politicians in Brasilia began to see their president's position on Chávez as "weak and fearful of conflict."  Overall, the Americans noted, the mood was changing in Brasilia and there was "growing agreement among the political and foreign policy elites that Venezuela represents a threat to stability and that something must be done."


By early 2008, Sarney was openly asking the Americans for any information relating to Venezuela's arms purchases.  Elaborating further, the veteran politician added that Chávez's aggressive behavior could pose a threat to a Brazilian road which stretched from the jungle city of Manaus all the way to the Guyanese border. 


Interestingly, however, it wasn't just the political opposition which had grown leery of Chávez and Venezuela's regional ambitions.  If WikiLeaks cables can be believed, Lula himself was ready to throw in the towel and the president had grown increasingly worried about Venezuela's "serious" border problems with Guyana.  Indeed, Lula believed that Venezuela might even want to "annex one third of Guyana's territory."  


That, at least, was the claim of one Antonio Delfim Netto, one of Brazil's "most influential economic commentators" and a former Minister of Finance who was said to meet with Lula regularly to provide informal economic advice.  Delfim, who the Americans referred to as a "strictly protected" source, told the U.S. ambassador in Brasilia that "if Venezuela were to invade Guyana, Caracas would likely militarize all of Venezuela's south, antagonizing the indigenous populations there."


Delfim added that this would "have an impact on Brazil because the territories of at least one tribe, the Yanomami Indians spills over the Venezuela-Brazil border.  Delfim believes that, should Venezuela invade Guyana, the Yanomamis will declare independence, forcing Brazil to get involved in a Venezuela-Guyana war."


Fortunately, the border dispute did not turn into armed conflict but further WikiLeaks cables suggest that Brazil may have seen Venezuela as an ongoing geopolitical rival in Guyana.  In late 2009, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske wrote Washington that Brazil was involved in talks with Guyana to build a hydroelectric plant in the disputed area claimed by Venezuela. 


To be sure, Lula officials told the Americans, the project would augment energy capacity for both Guyana and Brazil.  However, the initiative would also exert an important political impact by allowing Guyana "to establish government infrastructure in the disputed territory."  Kubiske added that the project would allow Lula to build upon Brazilian efforts to promote a South American political bloc, "through which Brazil can conduct harmonious regional relations while building a base of support for its larger international ambitions."


Wary Allies


In an effort to stay on the good side of most all countries, Brazil is reluctant to offend those nations in its immediate neighborhood.   WikiLeaks documents suggest that, for now, Brazil and the U.S. are somewhat ambiguous diplomatic partners.  Both reportedly see eye to eye on the need to keep Venezuela in check within the Caribbean theater, with Brasilia frequently taking a back seat and waiting for the U.S. to take the initiative and rein in Chávez. 


For the time being, then, an unsure Brazil will continue to play the role of junior diplomatic partner.  However, in the not so distant future such an arrangement could be subject to change.  As Brazil becomes more economically and politically prominent, the South American juggernaut may seek to exert its influence more assertively, even within Washington's traditional "back yard" of the Caribbean or even Central America.  If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, U.S. diplomats are already keenly aware of this growing rivalry and see Brasilia as their greatest competitor in the region.

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WikiLeaks: Lula and Ahmadinejad’s Delicate Dance

From the Monroe Doctrine, which was aimed at curbing the encroachments of European powers in the nineteenth century, to Cold War foreign policy, designed to forestall the geopolitical machinations of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, Washington has stopped at nothing in its bid to maintain power and prestige within its own regional "back yard" of Latin America.  But with all of those rivalries now a relic of the past, the U.S. is moving on to the next threat to its own hegemony: Iran.  That, at least, is the impression I got from reading diplomatic cables which were recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks. 


For Washington, a great concern was that Iran might gain a strategic foothold in South America, recruiting key allies such as Brazil.  Much to the chagrin of the Americans, Brazil under former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva sought to carve out a more independent foreign policy which even embraced the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  By extending cooperation to Iran, Lula aimed to increase trade and boost collaboration on biotechnology and agriculture.  In a surprising development, Lula even urged the west to drop its threats of punishment over Iran's nuclear program, a move which proved very reassuring to the politically isolated Ahmadinejad.


Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. officials in Brasilia sought to glean more information about this budding relationship, sound out disaffected politicians, and express displeasure about growing diplomatic ties between Teheran and Brasilia when need be.  Key in this effort was U.S. ambassador in Brasilia Clifford Sobel, who pressured the Brazilian Ministry of Energy to cut its burgeoning ties to Iran.  Speaking to government officials, Sobel expressed deep concern over Brazilian state energy company Petrobras, which had been considering plans to invest in the Iranian oil and gas sector, located in the Caspian Sea.


The Petrobras Imbroglio


WikiLeaks correspondence reveals Brazilian diplomats as walking a very fine tight rope, striking out on the one hand toward rogue nations like Iran but on the other hand very keen on placating the Bush administration and staying within Washington's good graces.  Responding to Sobel, the Brazilians argued that if they did not invest in Iran then the Chinese would certainly beat them when it came time to develop deep water exploration and production.  However, the Brazilians also "acknowledged the seriousness of the issue [Brazilian-Iranian energy ties] to the international community and, although they did not say Petrobras would halt its… activities in Iran, they did make it clear that they understand the sensitivity of the political moment."


In a further effort to shore up energy ties, Brazilian under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe met with Iranian Vice Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar some time later.  "In particular," U.S. diplomats noted, "Iran was fishing for increased Petrobras investment, although the Iranians seem to be growing impatient with Petrobras' unresponsiveness."  Concerned about the situation, the Americans again pressed Brasilia to clarify.  Petrobras would not be bullied into any rash decisions by Teheran, government authorities stressed, and the company was unlikely to increase its stake in Iran in the near term.  "Indications that Petrobras is winding down its operations in Iran is a positive sign," noted Sobel, but the sanguine diplomat was quick to add that Brazil was "playing it both ways" with Washington and Teheran.


In late 2008, Sobel was still pleased that Brazil was "trying to assuage our concerns" on Iran.  Nevertheless, the ambassador had grown concerned, writing the State Department that "we will need to intensify our dialogue…if we hope to sway the government of Brazil that this is not the moment for increased engagement with Tehran."  Confiding in the Americans, Brazilian officials claimed that their country was "under tremendous pressure from Iran…to increase Petrobras investment."  Though Brazilian officials continued to stress that Petrobras was not considering any further investments in Iran, they also believed there was much "trade to be done between the two countries."


At the Rio Defense Fair


In the realm of defense, too, U.S. diplomats were eager to head off any growing ties between Brasilia and Teheran.  In April, 2007 the Americans received worrying reports about Iranian participation at a Latin American Air and Defense show to be held in Rio de Janeiro, which had been organized by a U.K.-based firm.  When he found an Iranian stand at the event, which stood in violation of United Nations Security Council strictures, an organizer grew alarmed and immediately contacted the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also known as Itamaraty. 


The Brazilians claimed they were unaware of the Iranian presence at the show, and would take steps to shut down the Iranian stand.  In Teheran, meanwhile, the Brazilian ambassador was dressed down by the Iranians who vigorously protested the treatment.  Why had they been invited to the show and then subsequently shut down, the Iranians wanted to know?  Defensively, the Brazilian ambassador countered that the invitation had been issued well before the issuing of United Nations Security Council measures. 


It would seem that the Brazilians were acting in good faith and in accordance with international law, but both Britain and the U.S. were still unsure where the Lula government stood.  When asked by the British if they would act to seize any assets belonging to the Iranian Defense Industries, Lula officials explained that no such interests existed in Brazil.  For their part, the Americans were a bit mystified about Brazilian intentions and wondered whether the authorities actually ordered the closing of the Iranian stand or merely "stood back" and left the closing of the booth to the show's UK-based organizing firm.


U.S. concern over defense-related matters continued well into the Obama era, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's secret cable to the American Embassy in Brasilia.  The new Secretary of State requested that diplomats alert the Lula government to a possible effort by the Iranian firm Machine Sazi Tabriz to acquire machine tools from a Brazilian company called Mello S.A. Maquinas e Equipamentos.  Sazi Tabriz, Clinton explained, was the largest manufacturer of machine tools in Iran and had provided tools to the Islamic Republic's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  Brazilian export of machine tools to the company, Clinton elaborated, could therefore be diverted to Iran's weapons programs. 


Senator Fortes Sounds the Alarm


Concerned over Iranian-Brazilian ties, U.S. diplomats conferred with dissident politicians opposed to Lula's more independent foreign policy.  In Brasilia, a "handful" of legislators had started to worry about the independent trajectory of Lula's foreign policy.  One of those politicians, opposition Senator Heraclito Fortes of the Democrats Party, breathlessly called the U.S. ambassador in late 2007.  Fortes requested an urgent meeting "to raise a matter he could not discuss on the telephone."  As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and National Defense committees, he apparently saw himself as the last bastion of hope against Lula's more assertive trajectory on the world stage.  Sitting down with the ambassador and other embassy staff, including the assistant U.S. army attaché no less, the Brazilian painted an alarmist picture, remarking that he was "truly concerned" about Iranian, Venezuelan and Russian collaboration in the South American theater, including potential financing of arms sales. 


According to Fortes, presidential foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio García had recommended that Ahmadinejad himself visit Brazil, and therefore the U.S. government should become engaged "before it is too late."  Growing even more heated and agitated, Fortes accused the Americans of being "indifferent" to what was happening in the region.  "You are children," Fortes declared to the startled Americans.  "You ignore a problem until it is well along and then it is too late."  In order to counteract Iran, Fortes recommended increased U.S. arms manufacturing partnerships with Brazil.


Internal Dissent on Controversial Policy


Fortes continued to seek out American counsel, as evidenced by a further cable dated from April, 2008.  This time the Brazilian sounded the alarm bell about Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, who had traveled to Brasilia in hopes of drumming up support for an anti-U.S. bloc in South America.  According to Fortes, the Iranian diplomat complained about UN pressure on Iran's nuclear program, and went so far as to claim that after the Olympics, China would purposefully exert pressure on the American dollar by selling off its U.S. investments.  Reportedly, Attar told Fortes that these Chinese actions would "be more powerful than an atomic bomb."


On the whole, Fortes declared, it was unlikely that Brazil would ever join in any anti-U.S. crusade in South America, but the politician was concerned about certain figures within the Lula circle including presidential adviser García who was reportedly receptive to Iranian overtures.  Itamaraty meanwhile seemed intent on pursuing a "correct" relationship with Iran, and unfortunately there was little that Congress could do to stop such high level diplomacy, save stalling ambassadorial appointments or appealing to public opinion.


Other cables hint at further dissension within the ranks.  According to U.S. diplomats, Lula and Itamaraty "were getting pressured on a near-daily basis by Brazilian religious and ethnic minority groups opposed to the Iranian government's activities."  Indeed, Brazilian Jews had lobbied high up officials within Lula's Workers' Party, advising the president not to meet with Ahmadinejad.  In addition, Brazilian Baha'is and Syrian-Lebanese Christians who had become alarmed by Iranian fundamentalism registered their concerns on a "more ad hoc basis." 


Attempt to Reassure U.S. Diplomats


Eager to exploit internal tensions over Brazil's controversial Iran policy, U.S. diplomats continued to press Lula officials on the growing number of meetings between the two countries.  "Iran seems to be placing a significant number of eggs in the Brazil basket as part of its strategy for enhancing relations with Latin America," ambassador Sobel noted, "as indicated by the bilateral meetings, the outreach to congress, and the push for a presidential meeting."  When pressed by the U.S., Brasilia authorities admitted to the exchanges but claimed that "Iran's interest in Brazil does not begin to approach the level of Iranian links with Venezuela."


Tensions continued into early 2008, when the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia pressed officials to clarify high level diplomacy reaching out to Ahmadinejad.  The Americans had grown concerned, noting that Brazil "often tilted uncomfortably towards the anti-U.S. view of things in the Middle East."  Again, Lula officials were defensive, claiming that Middle East diplomacy was "necessary to balance Brazil's high-level engagement with the Arab countries."  In another tack, the Brazilians stated that it was Iran, and not Brazil, which was pressing most for greater political and economic engagement. 


Brasilia officials declared that they were skittish about a potential Lula-Ahmadinejad meeting, and "they were trying to stall such an encounter but that sooner or later they would run out of pretexts and a meeting would become inevitable."  Perhaps, American diplomats noted, the Lula government realized that "evenhandedness [was] critical to remain a credible player."  By avoiding a presidential meeting with Ahmadinejad, Brazil seemed to be sending a "positive signal that [it] understands its responsibility as a self-proclaimed neutral player."


Turning the discussion to Iran's wider role in South America, the Brazilians sought to appease U.S. concerns.  "Bolivia," they noted, "has nothing to offer Iran, commercially or politically."  Even the Iranian-Venezuelan alliance, they continued, had "no substance."  Overall, the Brazilians downplayed Ahmadinejad's influence, declaring that the Iranian leader, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, was "more bluster than anything." 


Sobel's Strategy


Despite such reassurances, Sobel remained unconvinced and, in July, 2008 wrote his superiors that Brazil's continued focus on the Middle East was "worrisome."  Overall, the diplomat added, Brazil's "almost obsessive interest in pursuing 'balanced' relations tends to come at our expense, leading the government of Brazil to stay neutral on such issues as Iranian support of Hizballah, Iranian activities in Iraq, and Tehran's flouting of United Nations Security Council resolutions, while remaining blind to aggressive Iranian moves in the region."


In Sobel's view, it was unlikely that the U.S. could persuade Brasilia "to take an approach fully in step with ours."  Nevertheless, he added, "it is critical to engage the government of Brazil both to ensure they have a complete understanding of U.S. policy and concerns in the region, and to demonstrate that we take Brazil's leadership aspirations seriously."  Accordingly, Sobel urged Washington to send high level authorities "to come to Brasilia for detailed discussions with Brazilian government officials, members of Congress, and, where appropriate, press, regarding Iran nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism." 


Sobel then detailed the planned charm offensive.  In addition to Fortes, a couple of other Senators had expressed concern with Lula's foreign policy, and the U.S. should therefore "take advantage" of this "window opening up to bridge the gap in our Middle East dialogue."  Washington should "seize the opportunity to try to steer Brazil away from its usual role of sideline sniper and make an attempt to recruit Brazil into a helpful or at least truly neutral role." 


Obama Officials: Whose Side is Brazil On?


Sideline sniper or genuine ally?  That seems to be the question on many U.S. policymakers' minds, including newly appointed Secretary of State Clinton, who sent a detailed questionnaire to subordinates seeking more information on Iran's precise role in South America.  In particular, Clinton wanted to know what governments in the wider region sought from Iran, and how they were catering to the desires of the Islamic Republic.  In addition, Clinton wanted to know, were Latin American governments concerned about Iran's ties to terrorism?  If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, the Americans were perplexed by Iran's political offensive in the region, and had precious little intelligence about the Islamic Republic's diplomatic missions or wider strategic intentions. 


Sensing American disquiet, the Brazilians again sought to reassure Washington shortly after Obama's inauguration.  Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials said they had tried their utmost to strike a conciliatory tone with Ahmadinejad, urging the Iranians to "respond positively" to Obama's more multi-faceted approach to foreign affairs.  Under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe then heaped praise on Obama for striking the "right signal" and "right chords" to the Iranians. 


U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske, however, was unconvinced by Brazil's double game.  In late 2009, she wrote Washington worriedly that Ahmadinejad would likely travel to Brasilia and sign bilateral agreements.  Lula and his inner circle of advisors, however, did "not appear to fully grasp the negative feedback that will be created by the Iran visit."  Kubiske seems to have believed that Brazil was out of its depth and had only a "small number of experts on the Middle East in Itamaraty."  As it punched above its weight, carrying out a "frenzied effort" to reach out to many players in the Middle East, Brazil risked committing "missteps and misunderstandings."  Without a clear sense of Brazilian loyalties, Kubiske reiterated the Embassy's earlier request to send Washington Middle East experts to Brasilia for a set of thorough briefings. 


WikiLeaks documents leave off in early 2010, but one can be sure that American puzzlement over Brazil continues today.  Though Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff has been less of a maverick in foreign affairs than her predecessor, Brazil is certainly a rising power on the world stage and the country will likely throw its weight around, not always to the liking of Washington which expects its regional partners to stay in line and not depart from the age old script.

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WikiLeaks: U.S. and Brazil Vie for Power in Peru

In their correspondence with the State Department, U.S. diplomats in South America have been exceptionally paranoid about the activities of Hugo Chávez and the possibility of a leftist regional alignment centered upon Venezuela.  That, at least, is the unmistakable impression that one is left with by reading U.S. cables recently disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, and it's a topic about which I have written widely in recent months.  Yet, with President Hugo Chávez's health now fading fast and Venezuela looking like a rather spent force politically, it would seem natural that Washington will eventually turn its sights upon other rising powers --- countries like Brazil, for instance.


Judging from WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. doesn't have much to fear from this South American juggernaut in an ideological sense, and indeed leftist diplomats within Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs are regarded as outmoded and anachronistic relics of the past.  Nevertheless, Brazil is a rising player in the region and U.S. diplomats are keenly aware of this fact.  For the time being, Brazil and the United States maintain a cordial, if not exactly stellar diplomatic relationship.  As Venezuela fades and Washington struggles to maintain its crumbling hegemony in the wider region, however, Brazil and the U.S. will inevitably develop rivalries.


This geopolitical competition has fallen somewhat under the radar, but a close reading of WikiLeaks cables lays bare Washington's secret agenda.  As far back as 2005 American ambassador to Lima Curtis Struble wrote that the U.S. was enmeshed in an "undeclared contest" with Brazil for political influence in Peru.  "We are winning on most issues that count," Struble added, remarking that negotiations over a U.S.-Peru free trade deal had remained positive.   However, the ambassador noted ominously, "the government of Brazil is still very much in the game" and had met with some success in pushing for the so-called South American Community of Nations or UNASUR which would diminish U.S. influence.


Run-Up to 2006 Election


Further cables indicate that the Brazilian administration of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva pursued narrow-minded self interest in order to advance Machiavellian geopolitical and economic goals.  In the run-up to the Peruvian presidential election in 2006, Brazilian foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio García visited Peru where he met with members of the Alejandro Toledo administration.  During his discussions, García sought to spearhead moves to establish the South American Community of Nations in the face of internal difficulties. 


Chief amongst those "difficulties" was none other than Hugo Chávez, a regional rival.  In order for the South American Community of Nations to progress, its two constituent parts, namely trading blocs Mercosur and Andean Community, would have to be "stabilized."  According to García, however, the Andean Community was in "crisis" due to Chávez's "antics."  Speaking to the Peruvians, García recommended that the Toledo government simply "ignore his [Chávez's] diatribes" [privately, the Brazilian added, Lula had helped to "rein in" the Venezuelan leader]. 

Meanwhile, García opposed Chávez's so-called Bank of the South, an institution designed to counter large financial entities like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  According to a WikiLeaks cable, the Peruvians agreed that Bank of the South would not be suitable for the new South American Community of Nations.  Like García, Toledo officials saw the more conservative Andean Development Fund as a more appropriate mechanism to enhance regional integration.


Handling Humala


García also met with nationalist presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, a kind of Chávez protégé.  During the campaign, the Venezuelan leader had provocatively backed Humala while attacking the candidate's chief opponents.  At campaign events, Humala had taken a leaf from his political mentor by sporting red T-shirts, calling himself "comandante" and boasting of plans to assert greater state control over energy resources.   


None too pleased by Humala's tilt toward Venezuela, García reportedly told the candidate that Brazil disapproved of Chávez's actions which promoted "intranquility" in the region.  Moreover, the diplomat remarked that he did not agree with Chávez's notion of countries belonging to different "axes" of powers.  García added that he was very concerned about social, political and economic tensions in the Andean region and Brazil was intent on playing a larger stabilizing role.


The meeting took place at Humala's own house and the candidate's wife, Nadine Heredia, took great pains to graciously entertain the Brazilians [perhaps Heredia wanted to reassure her guests in light of her own reported links to Venezuela].  Humala meanwhile "was very polite, upright and not at all a firebrand."  The candidate added that he wanted Peru to peacefully co-exist with both the U.S. and Brazil. 


A More Assertive Brazil


In the event, Humala must have surely regretted his political associations with Chávez.  During the campaign, the Peruvian was widely criticized for his ties to Venezuela, and the connection may have even cost him the election.  The man who edged out Humala, former president Alan García, had a previous incarnation as a fiery nationalist.  However, García was extremely critical of Chávez during the campaign and as he succeeded to the presidency the veteran politician went out of his way to court Brazil.


According to WikiLeaks cables, Brazil viewed the election as a necessary corrective which would help to restore "regional equilibrium" and to curb Chávez's increased geopolitical profile.  In the wake of the contest, Lula met personally with García in Brasilia in what insiders termed a "love-fest."  Though both leaders had political origins on the left, García and Lula had long since jettisoned such ideals in pursuit of their respective careers. 


Perhaps, Lula sensed that Chávez's star had waned and that it was now time for Brazil to press its own strategic advantage.  The Brazilian president stressed the need for greater physical integration between Peru and Brazil, including the dreaded Inter-Oceanic Highway which stood to exacerbate deforestation in the Amazon (for more on this, see my book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet).  The project, which is being carried out by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, will ship Brazilian exports to China via Peruvian ports.


Lula also spoke of the need for a regional, military, and political alliance between Peru and Brazil.  Lest García get the wrong idea about Brazilian intentions, Lula stressed that his country did not seek regional "hegemony" but merely wanted to transform South America into "a global actor on a par with China and India."  Responding to Lula, García candidly admitted that he preferred Brazilian regional hegemony to that of the United States.  Peru, the new president added, would surely be interested in forming joint ventures with Brazil and benefiting from Brazilian technological know-how.         


Judging from other cables, García sought to extend cooperation in yet other areas.  In 2009, U.S. diplomats reported that Lima was interested in purchasing a dozen Super Tucano combat support aircraft manufactured by Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer.  Details of the deal were discussed during a Lula visit to Lima, "with a large commercial delegation in tow."  The Peruvians may have been prompted to turn to Brazil out of pure frustration with the United States.  According to leaked documents, the García government was dissatisfied with the "slow and complicated U.S. defense procurement process and high price tags for U.S. equipment." 


Humala Act II


Perhaps recognizing that Chávez's star was on the wane, Humala saw fit to remake himself politically by cultivating greater ties to Brazil.  Reporting on Peru's recent presidential election, the New York Times remarked, "in a transformation this year that points to the eclipse of Venezuela by Brazil, Mr. Humala has swapped the red shirts for dark suits, explicitly rejected talk of seizing private companies and celebrated Brazil's market-oriented economic model, while distancing himself from Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez."  In addition, Humala even hired campaign advisers tied to Lula's Workers' Party and paid a whopping four visits to Brazil.      


Then, Humala went out of his way to praise Brazilian companies invested in Peru's mines, steel industry and hydroelectric projects, adding that the new boondoggle Interoceanic Highway connecting western Brazil to Peru's Pacific coast was a landmark achievement.   Toning down the rhetoric, Humala started to refer to himself simply as Ollanta instead of "comandante."  Perhaps, the more moderate image helped Humala, who edged out conservative challenger Keiko Fujimori.  As soon as he was elected president, Humala flew to Brazil and met with Lula protégé Dilma Rousseff.  It was Humala's first official trip abroad in his new office and sent a clear sign of Peru's geopolitical priorities moving forward. 


Vying for Power in Peru


Though Humala continues to forge a partnership with the United States, Brazil could overtake Washington in the Andes.  To be sure, Peru has an important free trade agreement with the U.S. and both countries collaborate on combating drug trafficking.  However, Humala sees Peru as a crucial Pacific gateway and strategic link between the two mammoth economies of Brazil and China.  For years, Brazil and Peru ignored each other diplomatically but now trade has mushroomed into the billions of dollars. 


A voracious energy consumer, Brazil is keen on building hydroelectric projects in Peru which would allow the South American juggernaut to stop importing diesel fuel and produce electrical power instead.  A proposed 600 mile natural gas pipeline meanwhile is due to connect Peru's Camisea field with a petrochemical plant proposed by Odebrecht.  Additional firms are operating port concessions and even steel operations.  The owner of Brazilian company Gerdau, which acquired Peru's largest steel plant, is a friend to both Lula and Rousseff.  What is more, an additional Brazilian operation has purchased Peru's largest metal refinery, Cajarmarquilla, which produces indium, a material used to manufacture flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. 


In time, might Peruvian nationalists turn against Brazil?  The more Brazil inserts its tentacles into the Andean region, the greater the risk that the South American giant will ruffle feathers and local sensibilities.  Already, one hydro-electric project has led to major opposition and some fear that Humala might favor the Brazilians excessively as 80 percent of the operation's 2,000 megawatt output would be allocated to its giant South American neighbor. 


Moreover, Brazil hardly has a sterling record when it comes to hydro-electric power (for more on this, recall the controversy swirling around Hollywood director James Cameron), and one proposed Peruvian dam on the Inambari River would flood 158 square miles of rain forest, displacing some 7,000 people in the process.  Old foreign policy hand Marco Aurelio García, who now serves as Rousseff's top foreign policy adviser, and who had earlier warned Humala about cozying up too much to Chávez, has declared that the project is "very important" for Brazil.  Humala meanwhile says that locals' needs will be respected when it comes to deciding whether to move ahead with the project.  That is, for the time being.


Christ Statue of Lima


Overlooking the Pacific cliffs of Lima hangs a potent symbol of Brazil's rise on the world stage: a towering statue of Jesus which at first glance looks remarkably similar to Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, a famous icon lying on the Atlantic side of the continent.  The statue, which rises 118 feet into the air, was sculpted in Brazil at a cost of $1 million and the cost was footed almost entirely by Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht. 


The "Christ of the Pacific" statue was erected even before Humala came into power by outgoing president Alan García, and there was no public consultation surrounding its construction.  For Lima Mayor Susana Villarán, the donated Christ statute is a tasteless eyesore, while Humala has diplomatically remarked that the structure "would improve the Lima panorama."  Odebrecht told the Associated Press defensively that it funded the statue because it "contributes to the diffusion of artistic expression" wherever it does business and because the statue could promote tourism for the poor who live in the vicinity.


In a tweet, Peruvian playwright César de María exclaimed, "I have nightmares in which I see that Peru's president is Odebrecht and all we do every five years is elect its representative."  Speaking to Caretas magazine, outgoing Brazilian ambassador to Peru Jorge Taunay remarked "there is not the least risk of Peru becoming a satellite.  It's not in Brazil's nature."  Others, including Guillermo Vásquez, a retired professor at Peru's Center for Advanced National Studies, is alarmed by Brazil's presence but is resigned to his country's fate.  "Brazil is coming," he told the Associated Press.  "What are we going to do about it?"

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WikiLeaks: Fissures over South American Left Integration

Over the past few years, the international left has derived much satisfaction from the course of South American political and economic integration.  The novelty of such integration is that it has proceeded along progressive lines and has been pushed by regional leaders associated with the so-called "Pink Tide."  With so many leftist leaders in power, it is plausible to surmise that a left bloc of countries might challenge Washington's long-term hemispheric agenda.  Yet, behind all of the lofty rhetoric and idealism, serious fissures remain within South America's leftist movement, both within individual countries and within the larger regional milieu.


That, at least, is the impression I got from reading U.S. State Department cables recently declassified by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks.  Take, for example, the Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva administration in Brazil, which at times encouraged a "hostile" climate against the Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA, a corporately-sponsored plan backed by Washington, while on other occasions encouraging "public doubt and confusion through its own often-conflicting statements" about the accord.  Behind the scenes, the Brazilian government was much more divided on the matter than commonly portrayed, torn between its South American loyalties on the one hand and the desire to gain access to the lucrative U.S. market for agricultural and industrial goods on the other. 


In 2003, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia noted that "Brazil's political goals, which include a leadership role in South America along with a strong focus on development and the social agenda, sometimes clash in its pursuit of certain national economic interests."  Cautiously, Brazil conducted sensitive negotiations with Washington over the FTAA.  Lula's position was somewhat delicate: while the president needed a substantial export boost to fund his social agenda, producers were fearful about facing increased competition. 


Across the border in Argentina, Lula could count on political ally Néstor Kirchner, and as a result the prospects for further integration through South American trade bloc Mercosur looked bright.  On the other hand, however, Mercosur remained "more important as a political project than an economic one," and virtually all Brazilians recognized that, in the long term, Mercosur would not offer a viable long-term solution to Brazil's export needs. 


Itamaraty vs. Other Agencies


In addition to the economic contradictions, Lula faced serious political fissures within his very own cabinet over the FTAA.  In other pieces, I have noted the open U.S. disdain for Brazil's Foreign Ministry, known as Itamaraty.  A den of suspicious leftists, Itamaraty and its diplomats proved frustrating to Bush administration officials time and again.  Particularly irksome to the Brasilia embassy was Itamaraty's "rigid perspective" (read "opposition") on FTAA policy.  Specifically, the Americans fretted that Itamaraty Secretary General Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães and his ideological clique was driving anti-FTAA sentiment. 


In the long-term, however, such leftist sentiment within Brazilian foreign policy circles may be shunted aside by powerful interests.  Writing to the State Department, U.S. diplomats noted that "not everyone within the diplomatic corps nor within the government agrees with Itamaraty's current FTAA policy."  Specifically, Itamaraty faced opposition from the ministries of Agriculture, Development and Finance, and such divisions offered up a tempting target for Washington. Ultimately, the U.S. embassy decided that it would not seek to "exploit differences among ministers," but further WikiLeaks cables suggest that the Americans continued to gauge such fissures. 


Airing dirty laundry before U.S. officials, Paulo Venturelli of the Ministry of Agriculture remarked that Itamaraty negotiators were "paranoid" and had even lied to Lula about the status of FTAA deal making.  Venting yet further, Venturelli said that "top level officials" at the foreign ministry were "formulating policy based totally of 1960's North-South ideology and without real economic consideration."  In a jarring break from normal diplomatic protocol, Venturelli himself advised the Americans to take a "hard line" with his own government, and to either "tell Brazil to take the FTAA as is, or be left behind as the U.S. and the other countries proceed to form the FTAA."


The story was much the same during a meeting with Arno Mayer of the Finance Ministry who advised the Americans how to outflank and strengthen rival Brazilian agencies favoring the FTAA.  Mayer noted that Finance was supportive of FTAA but unfortunately Itamaraty was responsible for formulating trade policy.  Within Itamaraty, Mayer continued, officials believed that the U.S. was "out to isolate Brazil."  In an effort to "personalize" the FTAA issue, Itamaraty diplomats portrayed U.S. trade policy as "aggressive" and aimed at "encircling Brazil" by cutting deals with other Latin American countries. 


Tensions within Brazilian-Venezuelan Dynamic


In the event, Lula did not conclude an FTAA deal with the United States, and as a result the path was cleared for greater South American political integration along progressive lines.  Yet, even so, WikiLeaks documents reveal great fissures within the Mercosur bloc of nations.  Take, for example, the whole issue of Venezuela's admission to Mercosur, a development which stood to destabilize the delicate geopolitical balance.  Publicly, the Lula administration supported Venezuela's bid to join the large South American trade bloc.  President Hugo Chávez was, after all, a kindred political spirit and represented a key force driving the region's "Pink Tide" to the left. 


On the other hand, Lula's team and even Itamaraty did not "seem to be going out of their way to actively promote" Venezuelan membership.  Indeed, during a private meeting the Brazilian Vice-Minister of Development, Industry and Trade implied that Brazil "lacked enthusiasm" when it came to wider integration.  What is more, the Brazilian private sector was divided about Venezuela's bid.  While one group favored greater export opportunities, another "worried that Venezuela's admission to Mercosur will further complicate Brazil/Mercosur's trade negotiations with other partners." 


These businesspeople were concerned about Venezuela's more avowed anti-imperialist stances, particularly Chávez's opposition to the FTAA.  Moreover, they fretted that Brazil could be tainted through its association with Venezuela, and Chávez could "undermine" key efforts to establish trading links with the European Union.  In the long run, however, the Brazilian political elite seems to have calculated that it would be more worthwhile to bring Venezuela into the Mercosur fold, thereby constraining and moderating Chávez and not leaving him "to his own devices on the outside." 


Still, the insufferable Chávez was difficult to take as he had "frequently stolen the stage at Mercosur gatherings from Brazil's President Lula," and openly challenged Brazilian leadership by supporting Bolivian President Evo Morales's moves to grab assets belonging to state Brazilian energy company Petrobras.  Speaking to influential members of the Brazilian political elite, U.S. diplomats picked up on some skittishness.  Take, for example, one Senator Heraclito Fortes, who told the Americans that Chávez's behavior during a summit held in the Brazilian city of Manaus was "not normal."  During the proceedings, the firebrand Venezuelan leader reportedly insulted the conservative Brazilian Congress, thus leading the Chamber of Deputies to postpone a bill dealing with Venezuela's accession to Mercosur.  Expressing concern, Fortes remarked that Chávez was intent on garnering veto power within Mercosur, which would be "too much power for someone so unstable." 


Southern Cone Skittishness


The Brazilians weren't the only ones who expressed skittishness on Venezuela.  In Brasilia, U.S. diplomats met with their Argentine counterparts who said that Chávez's membership in Mercosur would be "problematic."  Traditionally, the Argentines and Brazilians had dominated Mercosur with "Paraguay and Uruguay trailing along behind."  If oil-rich Venezuela were to join Mercosur, however, this would introduce a "destabilizing element, with Caracas playing the Brazilians against the Argentines and vice versa to increase Venezuelan influence."


Elsewhere within the Southern Cone, regional leaders were "suspicious of his [Chávez's] motives and objectives."  Indeed, Mercosur members gave second thought to their pro-Chávez leanings once it became clear that Venezuela was intent on pushing an assertive agenda.  Take for example Chilean President Michele Bachelet, who reportedly stated her "firm dislike" of Chávez in private.  The only reason the socialist leader supported Venezuela in the first place was that she was "under great internal pressure from pro-Chávez members of her administration who want her to publicly support Chávez."


Montevideo Intrigue


Even as Brazil and Argentina grew leery about Venezuela's entry into Mercosur, other smaller countries became concerned about being eclipsed by powerful neighbors.  Take, for example, tiny Paraguay which "chafed" under the Mercosur "yoke."  According to U.S. diplomats, Brazil withheld or delayed its electricity payments to Paraguay if its smaller neighbor refused to go along with Brasilia's strategic objectives.


Uruguay, too, found itself in a geopolitical quandary.  A tiny nation sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, the country formed part of Mercosur and the region's pink tide to the left but simultaneously embarked on a high stakes double game with the Bush administration.  Fearing that its political and economic interests might not be served by Mercosur, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez flirted with the notion of signing a free trade agreement with Washington. 

In Montevideo, U.S. diplomats sought to parse the diplomatic tea leaves.  In early 2006, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires James Nealon wrote that Uruguay might have been prompted to seek a free trade agreement with Washington due to the country's soured relations with Argentina.  Specifically, Uruguay had grown embittered over a bilateral dispute involving a paper mill.  On the economic front meanwhile, some Uruguayans blamed Argentina for dragging their tiny nation into a terrible financial crisis following the 2002 "corralito" bank run.


By openly questioning the underlying validity of Mercosur, however, Vázquez risked alienating not only his leftist regional partners but also "hardened lefties" within his own Frente Amplio coalition.  The Uruguay government was "navigating a fine line" by seeking to expand its trade relations with the rest of the world while simultaneously remaining a part of Mercosur.  Vázquez himself, wrote U.S. diplomats, was more of "a pragmatist than an ideologue."  A sly fox, the president sent conflicting signals over his country's economic and political loyalties.  Speaking in Caracas, Vázquez derided free trade with the United States, but backed a faction within his own coalition to keep the option open.  By openly traveling to Venezuela and standing with Chávez, Vázquez angered the U.S.  But WikiLeaks cables also reveal a fawning and deferential Uruguayan president who sought to appease Washington.  In an attempt to "allay U.S. fears" over Vázquez's rambling press conference with Chávez, obsequious Uruguay Minister of Industry and Energy Jorge Lepra called upon Nealon for a one-to-one meeting. 


Never fear, Lepra declared: his boss knew "how to manage the radicals within his governing Frente Amplio coalition."   Sometimes, the minister added, Vázquez needed to "placate that crowd," but rest assured internal politics would "have little effect on his [the president's] foreign policy overtures towards the United States."  Far from being a reluctant partner, Uruguay strenuously pursued the free trade matter behind closed doors.  In a follow up meeting, a very worried Lepra expressed grave concern over the fate of the trade deal, which unfortunately for Montevideo failed to materialize in the final analysis.


Bank of the South Imbroglio


WikiLeaks reveal yet further fissures within the left coalition, even when it came to hallmark initiatives designed to challenge the U.S.  Take, for example, the much heralded Bank of the South, a new financial institution aimed at counteracting the nefarious International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  Formed in late 2007, the bank was expected to contribute to regional integration, poverty alleviation, and investment.  During a ceremony, Chávez as well as Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador made "forceful comments" criticizing large financial institutions which had imposed lending conditionality and offered "bad advice" to their clients. 


During the ceremony, Brazil's Lula as well as Argentine president-elect Cristina Fernández de Kirchner lauded the creation of the new bank.  Privately, however, both leaders were more circumspect.  According to U.S. diplomats, "Argentine and Brazilian officials are working behind the scenes to moderate Venezuela's influence in the organization of the bank in order to avoid the overt politicization of the Bank's lending policies."  In Montevideo meanwhile, Uruguayan Finance Minister Danilo Astori said he did not believe that Bank of the South was particularly useful and moreover Uruguay only agreed to participate "so as not to be isolated."


The Fraught Path to South American Integration


In the long run, the so-called Union of South American Nations or UNASUR may replace Mercosur as the guiding mechanism for regional integration along progressive lines, which could represent a blow to Washington's hegemony.  Yet, if WikiLeaks cables are again any indication, UNASUR has had difficulty getting off the ground amidst internal fissures.  Though Venezuela and Bolivia would have surely liked to see UNASUR strike a combative stance towards the U.S., there was little agreement about how to deal with Washington.  


Not to worry, the Chileans related to U.S. diplomats in Asunción: Santiago had already spoken to Paraguayan officials who had "all agreed that the UNASUR declaration should not be anti-U.S."  Indeed, during an UNASUR meeting the ostensibly leftist Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo had steadfastly "held that line."  Moreover, Chilean diplomats claimed that Chávez, who had delivered a feisty anti-imperialist speech at the UNASUR summit, annoyed most other heads of state. Behind the scenes, Venezuela reportedly lobbied Paraguay to cancel an upcoming meeting between Lugo and Bush, but that effort had failed. 


Moreover, if WikiLeaks cables are to be believed, Paraguay is just as shifty a player as Uruguay.  Confiding in the U.S. ambassador in Asunción, Lugo remarked that he had reached out to the rightist opposition in Bolivia.  In addition, the Paraguayan leader believed that indigenous president Morales had "a complex" about race.  In a report to Washington, the Americans noted that Lugo continued to "walk a fine, pragmatic line on regional politics."


Counteracting the Leftist Pink Tide


Whatever the shortcomings and weakness of the leftist "pink tide" in South America, however, the pace of regional integration seems to have seriously alarmed U.S. diplomats.  Speaking to their superiors at the State Department, Americans officials noted that "the entry of Venezuela into Mercosur clearly altered the power balance and dynamics of the organization. Mercosur has increasingly devolved from an imperfect customs union into a more restrictive and anti-American political organization…It is clear that we need better resources and tools to counter Venezuela's political efforts…[and] politicization of MERCOSUR expansion."


Furthermore, if Mercosur was merely worrying, then UNASUR would seem to represent an even greater ideological challenge for Washington.  In a cable sent to Washington, U.S. ambassador in Quito Heather Hodges expressed concern that Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa might take advantage of an UNASUR ceremony to raise the issue of destabilizing U.S.-Colombian military cooperation.  "We can be sure," Hodges explained, that Correa "will emphasize the importance of deepening South American integration, and he may well put this in the context of seeking to minimize the influence of and dependence on the United States in the region."


Faced with such ideological pushback, U.S. diplomats soberly assessed the geopolitical milieu and looked for internal weaknesses to exploit.  Throughout the Bush years, American officials focused their attention on Venezuela, but cables suggest that small countries like Uruguay and Paraguay were particularly susceptible to U.S. pressure.  A shrewd diplomat, U.S. ambassador in Montevideo Nealon wrote his superiors that "it is…probably in our interest to lend a helping hand to government of Uruguay that is struggling to emulate a moderate Chile rather than a Bolivarian Venezuela."


Moving From the Venezuelan to Brazilian Threat


Surely the greatest nightmare for U.S. diplomats is that Venezuela, with its populist anti-imperialism, might steer the course of South American integration.  Shrewdly, however, American officials have been able to deal with Brazil, which in turn acts as a moderating force on Chávez.  True Machiavellians, U.S. diplomats have even noted that the friction between Venezuela and Brazil "provides an opportunity."  Though the WikiLeaks cables leave off in early 2010, it would not be surprising if the Obama administration continues to pursue such a divide and rule strategy to this day.


 With Chávez's health now fading fast and Venezuela looking like a rather spent force politically, it would seem natural that Washington will eventually turn its sights upon Brazil.  Judging from WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. doesn't have much to fear from this South American juggernaut in an ideological sense, and indeed leftist Itamaraty may be outmaneuvered by more pragmatic forces in the long run.  Nevertheless, Brazil is a rising player in the region and U.S. diplomats are keenly aware of this fact. 


Take, for example, American ambassador to Lima Curtis Struble, who in 2005 wrote Washington that the U.S. was in an "undeclared contest" with Brazil for political influence in Peru.  "We are winning on most issues that count," Struble added, remarking that negotiations over a U.S.-Peru free trade deal had remained positive.   However, the ambassador noted ominously, "the government of Brazil is still very much in the game" and had met with some success in pushing for UNASUR which would diminish U.S. influence.


If they are not doing so by now already, American diplomats are probably monitoring Brazil in an effort to preserve U.S. hegemony in the wider region.  In the not too distant future, State Department officials may believe it is imperative to sit down with their counterparts in Peru, Bolivia, or Paraguay in an effort to thwart not Caracas but Brasilia, and thus the Machiavellian game will start all over again.

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In Light of WikiLeaks Documents, U.S. Diplomats May See Opportunity in Chávez’s Illness

With a big question mark hanging over the health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, many in Washington may see opportunity.  Though Chávez initially claimed that he was merely suffering from a "pelvic abscess," the firebrand leader subsequently conceded that he had cancer.  In a shock to the nation, Chávez announced that he had a tumor removed during a sojourn in Cuba, and that he would "continue battling."


Reporting over the past several weeks suggests that Chávez might be in worse shape than has been commonly let on.  Though he returned to Venezuela after his operation in Cuba, Chávez recently announced that he would pay yet another visit to Cuba in order to undergo chemotherapy.  The firebrand leader, however, still refuses to reveal what kind of cancer he has or its severity.  Ominously, one medical source reported to Reuters that Chávez's cancer had spread to the rest of his body and was in an advanced stage.


It's unclear how the president's shaky health might factor in the nation's upcoming 2012 election.  The populist leader, who has closely identified himself with the so-called "Bolivarian Revolution," has never shown much interest in grooming a successor within his own United Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV, and so if Chávez should falter it is easy to imagine a scenario in which much of his political project could unravel or be derailed by the right.


The Caracas Cables


Judging from U.S. State Department cables recently declassified by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, many American diplomats, including former ambassador in Caracas Charles Shapiro, would view this outcome as highly desirable.  In 2004, two years after the Bush administration aided the rightist opposition in its short-lived coup attempt against Chávez, Shapiro sat down with Alí Rodríguez, the head of Venezuela's state-run oil company PdVSA.      


In light of Washington's meddling, Rodríguez might have assumed a bellicose attitude but according to correspondence the Venezuelan was courteous and unassuming.  Seeking to calm tensions, he urged a "dose of pragmatism."  Shapiro, however, shot back and complained of Chávez's alleged authoritarian streak as well as the president's verbal attacks against Bush and threats to suspend oil shipments to the U.S. Two months later, a "troubled" Shapiro warned his superiors that PdVSA, which had been involved in Chávez social programs, was in danger of becoming a "social welfare agency."


If another 2006 cable is any indication, there was no love lost between the U.S. embassy and Chávez.  In a lengthy rant, one diplomat noted "We have to maintain our careful restraint to the rhetorical provocations as well as a steady public diplomacy effort to offset Chávez' insidious effort to teach Venezuelans to hate us." 


A full three years later, by now in the Obama era, U.S. officials openly complained of harassment.  The Venezuelans, claimed one diplomat, had called for new procedures which compromised the ability of embassy staff to receive classified escorted diplomatic pouches.  Things got so bad that at one point Venezuelan officials denied an embassy officer access to a classified diplomatic pouch at the airport. 


The Americans responded hotly that "we were no longer in the 18th century and diplomatic correspondence required machines such as computers that would be compromised if they were at any time out of the control of our diplomatic personnel."  The Venezuelans countered that "the US did not extend privileges such as planeside access to foreign diplomatic couriers in the U.S." After a tense "standoff," the Venezuelans finally agreed to return the pouch uninspected. 


The Kirchner Connection


Elsewhere in South America, U.S. diplomats monitored Venezuelan influence with relentless zeal.  "Chávez's outsized ambition," noted one official, "backed by petrodollars makes Venezuela an active and intractable U.S. competitor in the region."  In 2007, the Americans openly fretted that Chávez might upstage an upcoming Bush visit to Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia.  The Venezuelan, it was feared, could stir up anti-American sentiment by flying to Buenos Aires where he could count on sympathetic allies.


"Venezuela's embassies abroad actively promote, fund, and guide left-wing Bolivarian circles of persons sympathetic to Chávez' anti-American foreign policy," noted one diplomat, adding that "Chávez has almost certainly asked Venezuelan embassies in the region to generate protests against the President's visit, just as his government organizes such protests at home." According to "sensitive reporting," the Caracas embassy believed that Chávez was "providing direct support to organize anti-American protests in Buenos Aires."


Argentina, under the stewardship of President Néstor Kirchner, was of particular concern to the Americans.  Though Kirchner had sought out a "more independent line," the peronist politician nevertheless followed an economic strategy that envisioned closer commercial and financial ties to Chávez.  Also worrying was Kirchner's growing military collaboration with Chávez, with Venezuelan officers having a "presence" in the Argentine Army and Air War Colleges.  What is more, the Venezuelans even briefed the Argentines on the concept of "asymmetric warfare."


Southern Cone Conundrum


Over in neighboring Brazil, the Americans were also paranoid about Chávez's rising influence.  In response to a detailed questionnaire sent by the State Department, U.S. ambassador to Brazil John Danilovich warned his superiors that Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva's Workers' Party had organized a "Simon Bolívar Action Group" in solidarity with Venezuela.  Moreover, members of Brazil's landless movement, known by the Portuguese acronym MST, traveled to Venezuela where they reportedly met with Chávez personally. 


In addition, Danilovich and his associates were concerned about the Venezuelan ambassador in Brazil, a diplomat who was involved in drumming up support for Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution.  In 2003, Danilovich devoted considerable time in tracking the Venezuelan's movements and activities in and around Brasilia.  The paranoia over Chávez was so pronounced that Danilovich even saw fit to draw his superiors' attention to a University of São Paulo conference which discussed the Bolivarian Revolution.


Chávez however faced a very different political reception elsewhere in the Southern Cone.  In theory, noted U.S. diplomats, Chilean socialist president Michele Bachelet had "a certain ideological sympathy" for Chávez, but on the other hand she was "also a pragmatist who recognizes that Chile's successful free market economic policies and stable democratic political model is preferable to what Chávez offers."  In 2007, U.S. diplomats reported that Chilean Army Intelligence was actively monitoring the Venezuelan Embassy in Santiago and keeping tabs on Chávez's funding of Bolivarian and leftist groups.


In Chile, however, the Americans were worried about Venezuelan influence.  They were in fact so concerned that they followed the arrival in Santiago of one Aram Aharonian, the executive vice president of TV channel Telesur.  In 2005 Aharonian [who I discuss in more detail in my book] traveled to Chile to promote his station, which had received funding from the Venezuelan government.  In other cables, U.S. officials clearly saw themselves in a media and propaganda war with Chávez who they viewed as an ideological threat.


Even in tiny Uruguay, U.S. diplomats intently monitored what Chávez was up to.  Though Venezuela's influence was "not yet great," officials fretted that Chávez "shouldn't be underestimated.  Money talks [and] democratic institutions in the region are still weak and free market economics have yet to provide consistent solutions to the Southern Cones social and political ills."  In a paranoid aside designed no doubt to raise the red flag in Washington, the Americans noted that President Tabaré Vázquez's security detail was run by his brother Jorge, himself a former guerrilla fighter who allegedly recruited leftists from a local labor union.  The service agents were then trained in Caracas or Havana.


Diplomats added that "it is clear we need more (and more flexible) resources and tools to counter Chávez's efforts to assume greater dominion over Latin America at the expense of U.S. leadership and interests."  Though Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez was a centrist, Chávez was poised to make political inroads in the country because Uruguay had a heavy debt burden and no known hydrocarbon deposits.  "As such," diplomats explained, "Venezuelan oil and money could prove tempting as part of a bid to boost the economy." 


Glossy Propaganda Tools


Even as Danilovich and his colleagues sought to monitor Chávez in the Southern Cone, other American diplomats were following suit.  Take, for example, U.S. ambassador in Lima Curtis Struble, who went so far as to request a one-on-one meeting with Peru's Foreign Minister in order "to discuss the Venezuelan government's involvement with violent, extremist Peruvian organizations."  In a cable dating from 2005, perhaps the high point of Chávez's regional popularity, Struble had grown concerned about the activities of the Venezuelan ambassador to Lima.


In dealing with the Alejandro Toledo regime, Struble could count on a much more sympathetic audience than he would have encountered in, say, Argentina or Brazil.  Speaking to government officials, Struble claimed that Venezuela had sought to organize Bolivarian sympathizers amongst radical groups.  The Peruvian Foreign Minister said he was aware of the issue, and had already consulted with the Ministry of Interior about the Venezuelan threat.     


According to him, Venezuela had sent a "5-6 person advance team" to Peru in advance of a South American summit.  In the city of Ayacucho, the Venezuelans had met with a group called Patria Roja and provided their collaborators with money to print anti-Toledo and pro-Chávez placards.  Even more worryingly, the Foreign Minister believed Chávez might be trying to stir things up in the dirt-poor provincial department of Puno. 


So obsessed was Struble that shortly after his meeting with the Peruvians the diplomat sent a cable to Washington dealing with pro-Chávez publications.  Recently, Struble noted, a leftist magazine entitled Wankar [or "Song of the People" in the indigenous language of Quechua] had surfaced in Lima.  Struble went into great detail about the magazine, noting that the first issue had "a slick paper cover with a dramatic color photo of Chávez sporting his commando cap, his fist raised in the air.  The masthead of the magazine as well as the subjects and/or authors of most of the articles are members of the Peruvian Communist Party-Patria Roja (PCP-PR)."  Struble believed that the glossy publication must have relied on outside financing. 


Three years later, in the twilight of the Bush administration, diplomats were still frantically monitoring supposed Chávez subversion in Peru.  During a general strike held in the city of Cusco, the Americans analyzed protest leaders' ties to Venezuela.  One strike leader, U.S. officials claimed, was linked to Chávez's so-called ALBA initiative designed to promote reciprocity and barter exchanges amongst Latin American nations.  In Cusco, diplomats noted, several "ALBA houses" coordinated a Venezuelan program called "Misión Milagro" to provide eye surgeries to poor people.


Across the border from Puno in Bolivia, the United States had perhaps more to be worried about.  There, Washington could not count on sympathetic allies and indigenous president Evo Morales openly courted Chávez as a friend and ally.  In 2007, American diplomats fretted that "at least one hundred if not several hundred Venezuelan military advisors and intelligence operators" might have been scattered throughout Bolivia.  Raising the alarm bell, the Americans added that Chávez's military personnel were thought to be "conducting intelligence and counterintelligence activities in La Paz and Santa Cruz in coordination with Cuban intelligence agents."


Paraguay Paranoia


One would think that the U.S. would not view Paraguay, a poor and tiny South American nation, as worthy of too much political attention.  Yet WikiLeaks cables show that even here, Washington was paranoid about Chávez infiltration and devoted significant time and resources toward monitoring Venezuelan activities.  This, despite the fact that Paraguayan President Óscar Nicanor Duarte maintained "lukewarm" relations with Chávez during the Bush years.


In late 2005 the U.S. embassy in Asunción cabled Washington, warning that its "sensitive reporting" had uncovered links between Venezuela and several Paraguayan social, political and religious organizations.  Even more seriously, diplomats added, it was possible that Bolivarian groups were "behind the spread of blatantly false rumors of U.S. plans to build a base in Paraguay, deploy 400 troops to Paraguay to protect oil and natural gas reserves in Bolivia, and steal the region's fresh water supplies from the Guarani Aquifer."


Two years later, in the midst of leftist Fernando Lugo's bid for the presidency, U.S. officials sought out local municipal officials who claimed that Venezuela had provided leadership training to peasant leaders.  And, still unable to break free of their broken record, the Americans honed in on "Misión Milagro" once again, noting that hundreds of poor Paraguayans had flown to Cuba and Venezuela in what appeared to be an effort at "winning converts at the mass levels while the elites are increasingly nervous."  Meanwhile, the Bush administration suspected that Venezuela had offered material support to leftist groups along the Paraguayan-Bolivian border which had raised tensions.  Ridiculously, diplomats then noted that "there is a Venezuelan student at the Paraguayan War College. It is unclear what his status or activities are at this point."


Lugo's win at the polls seems to have further alarmed the U.S. embassy in Asunción, and in 2008 diplomats sent a lengthy cable to Washington analyzing the Misión Milagro program.  In truth, the Americans suspected that the initiative was secretly a propaganda tool.  "Many, perhaps a majority, of the program's participants," U.S. diplomats explained, "…are students who do not need eye surgeries but rather travel to Venezuela for long-term training to expand the 'Bolivarian Revolution.'"


Moving From the Venezuelan to Brazilian Threat


Though it's no secret that the Bush administration was an implacable foe of the Chávez regime, WikiLeaks cables reveal the true extent of U.S. paranoia.  Though Chávez was arguably more of a nationalist politician than a true revolutionary, Washington was nonetheless fearful of leftist contagion and, in an insufferable waste of U.S. taxpayer money, made sure to monitor Venezuelan activities throughout the region, even in remote and economically disadvantaged countries. 


Now that Chávez finds himself in a state of ailing health, some within the U.S. State Department may heave a sigh of relief.  At the very least, they will not have to absurdly chase after Venezuelan military students at the Paraguayan War College, tail the head of the Uruguayan President's security detail in search of Chávez infiltrators, analyze Quechua-inspired publications in Peru, or shadow the movements of journalists associated with South American news network Telesur.


Yet, no sooner than Venezuela fades from the political scene, U.S. diplomats will no doubt find other "bogeymen" to report on.  Most likely, the next focal point of State Department attention will be rising star Brazil.  Though the South American juggernaut hasn't been nearly as confrontational toward Washington as Venezuela, WikiLeaks cables reveal U.S. diplomats' fearful concerns. 


Take, for example, American ambassador to Lima Curtis Struble, who, as early as 2005, warned his superiors that Washington was now embroiled "in an undeclared contest" with Brazil to see which country could preserve the most influence in Peru.  "We are winning on most issues that count," Struble explained, "but the government of Brazil is still very much in the game."


If they are not doing so by now already, American diplomats are probably monitoring Brazil in an effort to preserve U.S. hegemony in the wider region.  In the not too distant future, State Department officials may believe it is imperative to sit down with their counterparts in Peru, Bolivia, or Paraguay in an effort to thwart not Caracas but Brasilia, and thus the Machiavellian game will start all over again.

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WikiLeaks: Can the Venezuelan Opposition Benefit from Chávez’s Illness?

With a big question mark hanging over the health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the right wing opposition sees opportunity. Though Chávez initially claimed that he was merely suffering from a "pelvic abscess," the firebrand leader subsequently conceded that he had cancer. In a shock to the nation, Chávez announced that he had a tumor removed during a sojourn in Cuba, and that he would "continue battling."

It's unclear how the president's shaky health might factor in the nation's upcoming 2012 election. The populist leader, who has closely identified himself with the so-called "Bolivarian Revolution," has never shown much interest in grooming a successor within his own United Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV, and so if Chávez should falter it is easy to imagine a scenario in which much of his political project could unravel or be derailed by the right.

Reporting over the past several weeks suggests that Chávez might be in worse shape than has been commonly let on. Though he returned to Venezuela after his operation in Cuba, Chávez recently announced that he would pay yet another visit to Cuba in order to undergo chemotherapy. The firebrand leader, however, still refuses to reveal what kind of cancer he has or its severity. Ominously, one medical source reported to Reuters that Chávez's cancer had spread to the rest of his body and was in an advanced stage. Hardly inspiring confidence, Chávez remarked "I have faith in God, science and our Cuban and Venezuelan doctors, all the people who attend to me and finally myself and this will to live."

On the surface at least, Chávez's illness would seem to represent a political boon to the Venezuelan opposition. On the other hand, rightist forces have been incredibly disunited and fractured. In 2002, the opposition failed to dislodge Chávez through a military coup d'etat, and shortly thereafter an oil lockout went down to similar defeat. At the polls, the right has fared abysmally: in 2004, opposition efforts to remove Chávez through a constitutional recall proved unsuccessful and led to the implosion of a political umbrella group known as Coordinadora Democrática. The following year, the opposition boycotted the electoral process altogether, thus providing handy victory to Chávez forces in legislative elections. As if it could get no worse, in 2006 Chávez trounced rightist candidate Manuel Rosales by almost 30% in Venezuela's presidential election.


The Impact of WikiLeaks

U.S. diplomatic cables recently declassified by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks underscore the complete ineptitude of the Chávez opposition. In the run up to the 2006 presidential election, for example, U.S. diplomats noted that Venezuela's largest opposition party, Acción Democrática or AD, was "going nowhere fast." Mincing no words, the American embassy noted that the party's secretary general Henry Ramos Allup was "unimaginative, overconfident, and even repellent" as well as "crude, abrasive and arrogant."

The problem, diplomats noted, was that Ramos did not seek unity within the Chávez opposition, preferring instead to plead for international assistance while insulting other party officials. Politically bankrupt, AD failed to advance an effective party platform or address the needs of the Venezuelan poor. In the long-term, U.S. officials noted, AD was unlikely to progress because officials professing alternative views were rarely given a voice. "As a result," the embassy wrote, "AD's voter base, which consists of people who vote for the party out of tradition, is quickly dwindling."

Perhaps, "cable gate" will wind up benefiting Chávez if the Venezuelan leader overcomes his illness and runs in the 2012 election [it would not be the first time that WikiLeaks has had a political impact upon a Latin American election, as evidenced by recent developments in Peru]. For years, Chávez has sapped the opposition's strength and credibility by pointing to the latter's links to the United States, and WikiLeaks cables give the Venezuelan yet more ammunition.


Indeed, under Ramos's leadership, AD became a crass party which repeatedly requested "funds and favors" from the U.S. embassy. Public opinion polls show Ramos with very low popular support, and if the politician winds up becoming a leading opposition candidate then revelations stemming from WikiLeaks documents will no doubt figure in the election.

A Fractured Opposition

Despite these setbacks, U.S. cables suggest that the right failed to learn from its own mistakes. As recently as 2009, in fact, the embassy remarked that the opposition was considering coordinating its messages and actions to a greater degree, but "was still a long way from doing so." Frustration within AD ranks continued unabated, though one party member opined hopefully that a former party member, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, might one day rise to national prominence and challenge Chávez in future.


Even as the Venezuelan president succeeded in eliminating term limits and concentrating more power in his hands, the right was "fractured" and could not develop a strategy or common vision. Once again not mincing words, the embassy wrote "opposition parties do not now possess the cohesiveness, grassroots strength, or public support to constitute a real check on the Venezuelan president's ongoing efforts to 'accelerate' his Bolivarian Revolution."

Within the ranks of the opposition Un Nuevo Tiempo or UNT party, petty rivalries complicated the right's prospects of ever making political inroads against Chávez. Reportedly, mayor of Maracaibo and former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales was only interested in claiming power for himself rather than grooming "rising stars in the party." Because of internal dissension, it was unlikely that younger and more charismatic leaders within the UNT such as former mayor of Chacao [a district of Caracas] Leopoldo López would ever gain notoriety. In a critical speech directed at his colleagues, López declared that the opposition needed to "renew itself by conveying more hope and less confrontation."


In June, 2009 the opposition encouraged greater cohesion by creating the so-called Coalition for Democratic Unity, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, a kind of successor group to the earlier failed Coordinadora Democrática. Despite such moves, a further WikiLeaks cable paints a similarly bleak picture of Chávez foes. Commenting on an opposition conference, the Americans noted that "among the 50 or so leaders on camera…there were just two female faces visible and very little enthusiasm."


Notably, some of those who attended the conference paid more attention to their Blackberries than speeches delivered on the floor, and overall the event contrasted starkly with "Chavez's enthusiastic, color-coordinated PSUV rallies."  Fundamentally, the UNT continued to suffer from internal rivalry between Rosales and López, and younger generation figures such as Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski were absent from the conference.


The Opposition Field

With one opposition figure already tarnished by the WikiLeaks scandal, other possible contenders within the presidential field may hope that further disclosures will not derail their chances in 2012. Those contenders include Ledezma, a hard line right winger who once went on a hunger strike against Chávez when the president sought to strip the Caracas mayor of much of his political power.


Then there is López, a 40-year old young Turk with a radiant Hollywood smile who is the bane of the old guard anti-Chávez folk. The former Chacao mayor has been accused of corruption and currently the politician is prohibited from seeking public office though López hopes to overturn the ruling.


Rosales, former Mayor of Maracaibo and two term governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia, faces a similar uphill climb: when the authorities accused the pro-business populist of corruption, the anti-Chávez figure fled to Peru. Though he would likely win any primary to take the fight against Chávez, Rosales would first have to return to Venezuela and confront his daunting legal challenges. If Rosales fizzles as a candidate, then UNT colleague and governor of Zulia state Pablo Pérez might step into the breach.


Potentially the most dangerous political foe for Chávez, however, might be the less ideological Capriles. An energetic and youthful governor of the country's second most populous state of Miranda, Capriles claims to represent a more moderate, Brazilian-style leftist current in contrast to Chávez's populism. Hoping to emulate some of Chávez's popular social programs, Capriles has set up free health clinics in poor neighborhoods and provides subsidized food to poor families.

In February, 2012 the opposition will settle on a candidate and, assuming the government does not change the timetable, the election will proceed in December. Surveying the political landscape and Chávez's frail physical health, many of the leading presidential contenders may sense opportunity. They had better hope, however, that they can avoid the fate of colleague Ramos and that further revelations stemming from WikiLeaks don't undermine their standing or credibility.

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Lingering Questions for Chomsky on Venezuela

On the U.S. left, there are certain sacred cows that one should never take on directly.  For years, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has been, for the most part, sacrosanct and immune from criticism.  The underlying reasons for this kid glove treatment are hardly mysterious or difficult to surmise, particularly in light of Chávez's hostility to George Bush, the great bane of progressive folk.  Such sympathy would only increase over time, heading into high gear after the U.S.-supported coup of 2002 which was directed against Chávez. 


When the coup rapidly unraveled and ended in fiasco, with right wing forces crumbling in disarray, the Venezuelan leader was returned to power in triumph.  Later, in 2006, Chávez was greeted warmly by the New York left after he lambasted Bush in a confrontational speech delivered on the floor of the United Nations.  Speaking from the same lectern that Bush had occupied just a day before, Chávez quipped "The devil came here yesterday, right here. It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of."


When leftists want to know what to think about foreign affairs, many of them consult the views of celebrated academic Noam Chomsky.  For some time, the leftist MIT professor has provided sympathetic commentary on Venezuela, and in 2009 Chomsky even met personally with Chávez in Caracas.  It came as a slight surprise, therefore, when the professor of linguistics recently criticized Chávez for the latter's handling of a case related to María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who was arrested in December 2009 by the president's secret intelligence police.  The Venezuelan president had ordered Afiuni's arrest after the latter freed a businessman incarcerated on charges of circumventing the country's currency controls.  


In her defense, Afiuni claimed that the businessman's pretrial detention had exceeded Venezuela's legal limits, and that she was merely following United Nations protocol on such matters.  Chávez, however, was hardly convinced and proclaimed on national TV no less that the judge would have been subjected to a firing squad in a previous era.  Following her arrest, Afiuni was locked up in a women's prison where she was subjected to cruel and demeaning treatment.  Indeed, other inmates threatened to kill her and even sought to force her into sex.  Earlier this year, Afiuni was moved to house arrest after she underwent an abdominal hysterectomy at a local cancer hospital.


With much fanfare, the New York Times reported on the falling out between Chávez and his former supporter, noting that "Mr. Chomsky's willingness to press for Judge Afiuni's release shows how the president's aggressive policies toward the judiciary have stirred unease among some who are generally sympathetic to Mr. Chávez's socialist-inspired political movement."  In a telephone interview, Chomsky told the Times that he was requesting clemency for Afiuni on humanitarian grounds, and claimed that the judge had been treated very badly.  Though Afiuni's living conditions had improved somewhat, Chomsky noted, the charges against the judge were thin.  Therefore, Chomsky argued, the government should release Afiuni.


Chávez and Chomsky: A Warm History of Rapport


The recent spat between Chávez and Chomsky may put an end to a historically warm rapport.  Indeed, the Guardian of London recently wrote that "Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise for Venezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism."  In his speeches, Chávez frequently quotes Chomsky and the MIT professor has provided the Venezuelan leader with a degree of intellectual and political legitimacy.  Chávez has said that he is careful to "always" have not just one copy of Chomsky's books on hand but many.


The relationship dates back to 2006, when, during his celebrated speech at the United Nations, Chávez held up Chomsky's book entitled Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, and suggested that Americans read the work instead of "watching Superman and Batman" movies.  Speaking to the crowd, Chávez urged the audience "very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it."  Going even further, Chávez said the MIT professor's work was an "excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century."  Chávez added, "I think that the first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States, because their threat is right in their own house."  


Chomsky's book immediately rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon's best-seller list.  Speaking to the New York Times, a Borders Bookstore manager remarked "it doesn't normally happen that you get someone of the stature of Mr. Chávez holding up a book at a speech at the U.N." Book sales notwithstanding, Chomsky told the New York Times that he wouldn't describe himself as flattered.  For good measure, the academic added that he wouldn't choose to employ Chávez's harsh UN rhetoric. 


On the other hand, Chomsky added, Chávez's anger with Bush was understandable.  "The Bush administration backed a coup to overthrow his government," the professor declared. "Suppose Venezuela supported a military coup that overthrew the government of the United States? Would we think it was a joke?"  The linguist added, "I have been quite interested in his [Chávez's] policies.  Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive."


The Circumspect Professor


In the meantime, the MIT professor conducted a somewhat cautious interview with pro-Chávez supporter Eva Golinger.  During the discussion, which took place against the heated political backdrop of constitutional reform in Venezuela, Chomsky weighed his words diplomatically.  When asked, for example, whether Chávez's reform could promote genuine popular power, Chomsky said "Yes it 'could,' but it depends how it is implemented. In principle it seems to be a very powerful and persuasive conception, but everything always depends on implementation."


An academic who has historically espoused anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist views, Chomsky framed the debate over constitutional reform in anarchist terms.  "If there is really authentic popular participation in the decision-making and the free association of communities, yeah, that could be tremendously important," Chomsky remarked.  "In fact," the academic added, "that's essentially the traditional anarchist ideal. That's what was realized the only time for about a year in Spain in 1936 before it was crushed by outside forces…[so] if it can function and survive and really disperse power down to participants and their communities, it could be extremely important."  Chomsky however wondered whether the constitutional reform would be directed by the people or "fall into some sort of top-down directed pattern."


The Media Minefield


From there, Chomsky weighed into the dicey subject of media in Venezuela and the case of RCTV, a station which supported the brief coup d'etat against the Chávez regime in 2002.  When asked what he thought about the government's decision not to renew RCTV's license, Chomsky remarked frankly that he thought "it was a tactical mistake."  Moreover, the linguist added, "you need a heavy burden of proof to close down any form of media so in that sense my attitude is critical."  Further pressed by Golinger on the question of corporate ownership of the media, Chomsky declared "I think you just have to ask what's replacing it…And the population should have a voice in this, big voice, major voice…Are you really going to get popular media, for example?"


At this point, Chomsky sought to make a rhetorical point by comparing the Venezuelan experience with that of other countries.  "If there had been anything like RCTV in the United States or England or Western Europe," Chomsky remarked, "the owners and the managers would have been brought to trial and executed – In the United States executed, in Europe sent to prison permanently, right away, in 2002. You can't imagine the New York Times or CBS News supporting a military coup that overthrew the government even for a day. The reaction would be 'send them to a firing squad.'"


At the time, Chomsky probably would not have imagined that his ideas would later be used for political ends.  In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Chávez defended his democratic credentials, remarking that "no television channel has been closed despite the fact that in many cases the television channels supported a coup d'etat.  Noam Chomsky ... was asked in an interview what would happen if Fox News or CNN had supported a coup against a president. Chomsky replied that not only would those channels have been closed, but their owners would have been sent to the electric chair."


The Political Role of the Intellectual


In Latin America, there has been a long time history of well known writers developing rapport with leftist leaders.  Take, for example, the case of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who established a friendship with Fidel Castro.  On the occasion of Fidel's eightieth birthday, Márquez wrote this rather fawning [and that is putting it mildly] piece about the Cuban leader.  Then there's the case of English writer Graham Greene, who was invited to Panama by leftist dictator Omar Torrijos during the 1970s.  When the Panamanian later died in a plane crash, Greene penned a friendly homage to his idol entitled Getting to Know the General. "I have never lost as good a friend as Omar Torrijos," Greene later noted, referring to the man who he had unabashedly "grown to love."


The Chávez-Chomsky relationship, such as it is, doesn't go nearly as far as these earlier questionable dealings.  Yet, writes an unnamed editorial board member of El Libertario, an anarchist paper based in Caracas, "it would appear that Chávez has taken advantage of Chomsky…to gain intellectual respectability."  As for Chomsky, the El Libertario member adds that the MIT professor and many leftists from the U.S. "concentrate so much on American imperialism that they wind up glossing over and even excusing other forms of oppression and injustice that can be equally terrible" [in an e-mail the individual --- let's just call the person X --- explained candidly "I'm not going to give my name because the aggressive and intimidating policies of the Venezuelan government toward those who express dissident opinions are well known"].


Hedging and Hawing


While it might be a stretch to say that Chomsky has ever "stepped over the line," another interview granted by the MIT professor raises eyebrows.  Commenting on Chávez's enabling law and term extensions, Chomsky remarked "well, those laws were passed by the parliament…I don't like those laws myself. How they turn out depends on popular pressures. They could be steps towards authoritarianism. They could be steps towards implementing constructive programs.  It's not for us to say, it's for the Venezuelan people to say, and we know their opinion very well [my italics]."


Here Chomsky is confoundingly frustrating.  At first, the academic expresses displeasure at Chávez's measures, but then seems to backtrack and seemingly implies that gringoes don't have the right to express an opinion.  While such a political tactic is somewhat common amongst the Stalinist left, it's not as frequent within anarchist circles which Chomsky claims to be a part of. 


Not surprisingly, Chomsky has wrankled some anarchists in Venezuela who had hoped that the MIT professor would exhibit more of an independent streak.  However, El Libertario claims that Chomsky was always "rather discreet with regards to the growing authoritarianism of the Sandinistas during their turn in power in the 80's in Nicaragua and the Castro dictatorship during several decades. And this is so in spite of the fact that among the victims of the latter are many who shared a lot with the militant pro-Cuban anti-imperialists of Latin America."


Chomsky's Trip to Caracas


Though careful to come off as somewhat circumspect when discussing the Bolivarian Revolution, Chomsky let it be known that he was interested in going to Venezuela and would be "happy to meet" with Chávez. The Venezuelan leader for his part announced on state television that "Chomsky is soon coming here. We are communicating through common friends."  In the meantime, Chomsky participated in an MIT forum sponsored by the Venezuelan Consulates of Boston and New York which focused on the need for greater grassroots democracy.  Perhaps somewhat iconoclastically in light of his anarchist penchant, Chomsky stressed the need for the state to play a greater role in fostering new economic and social models.  At the end of the talk, Chomsky was presented with the "Order of Popular Power" from a former Venezuelan mayor.


At long last, the meeting between Chomsky and Chávez took place in 2009 when Chomsky traveled to Caracas.  During their visit, the two discussed hemispheric politics during a nationally televised forum.  Hoping to flatter his guest, Chávez remarked [in a reference to Chomsky's book] "hegemony or survival; we opt for survival."  Lauding the MIT professor, the Venezuelan compared Chomsky's arguments to those advanced by German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, author of Socialism or Barbarism. 


Laying it on a bit thick, Chávez heralded Chomsky as "one of the greatest defenders of peace, one of the greatest pioneers of a better world."  Addressing Chomsky at the gates of the Miraflores presidential palace, Chávez continued with the love-fest and remarked that his guest was "one of the most assertive intellectuals in the struggle against the elite which governs the United States."  Finally, the Venezuelan leader wished Chomsky a long life so that he might "continue to produce those marvelous ideas which nourish those who struggle against imperial hegemony and the capitalist model."


In a video posted to you tube, Chomsky looks a little awkward and uncomfortable as he stands next to Chávez.  After the Venezuelan finishes his remarks, the professor declares "What's so exciting about coming to Venezuela is that I can see how a better word is being created and speak to the person who's inspired it."  Chomsky then seems to force a smile and shakes Chávez's hand.


Looking back on the Chomsky/Chávez meeting, X of El Libertario is somewhat critical.  "Chomsky's comments are so favorable to Chávez and his government that they have been widely circulated by official propaganda," X remarks. "On repeated occasions in the past, we have sought to communicate with Chomsky to inform him of our points of view, but we were met with silence."


X adds, "as far as Chomsky's trip to Venezuela…he did not express any interest in meeting with us.  We know he has gone to other places in Latin America (like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico), and that once there he has taken part in activities that were either organized by anarchists or where anarchists were present.  But even in those cases, Chomsky concentrated on advancing his critique of U.S. imperialism while avoiding complicated issues like his support for Chávez."


The Guardian Controversy


In the wake of Chomsky's visit, Chávez continued to court the MIT linguist.  Just earlier this year, in fact, the Venezuelan leader said he'd like Washington to name Chomsky as U.S. ambassador to Caracas no less.  Whatever good will might have existed, however, was put into some doubt over the Afiuni affair.  Speaking to the Guardian, Chomsky said "concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances such as fighting world war two, is an assault on democracy. You can debate whether [Venezuela's] circumstances require it: internal circumstances and the external threat of attack, that's a legitimate debate. But my own judgment in that debate is that it does not." 


In a letter, Chomsky stated that judge Afiuni had suffered enough and that Chávez had intimidated the judicial system.  In another rebuke to the Venezuelan leader, Chomsky criticized Chávez for adopting enabling powers to go around the National Assembly.  "Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo [authoritarianism] and it has to be guarded against," Chomsky wrote.  "Whether it's over too far in that direction in Venezuela I'm not sure, but I think perhaps it is. A trend has developed towards the centralisation of power in the executive which I don't think is a healthy development."


At this point, the whole controversy might have died down but subsequent coverage of the affair has led to even more questions.  In an article posted to the pro-Chávez web site aporrea, Golinger claims to have conversed with Chomsky over the Afiuni imbroglio.  Muddying the waters, aporrea quotes Golinger as saying that Chomsky was "victimized" by the Carr Center for human rights policy at Harvard University, an entity linked to the United States Agency for International Development.  According to aporrea, it was the Carr Center, and its director Leonardo Vivas, that persuaded Chomsky to take up the Afiuni case in the first place. 


The Old "Bait and Switch"


Complicating matters yet further, Chomsky is quoted as saying that the piece in the Guardian was "deceptive."  In an e-mail, Chomsky noted to aporrea that the Guardian, a rather left paper from England to begin with, had omitted crucial points mentioned during his interview which served as the later basis for the article.  Chiming in, Golinger says that Chomsky was victimized by the media establishment.  "Nothing escapes media manipulation!" she exclaims.


What seems to have raised the professor's ire?  In the original article, the professor makes a rather tangential comparison between the U.S. and Venezuelan judicial systems.  After mentioning Chomsky's support for Afiuni, the Guardian notes that the professor  "remains fiercely critical of the U.S., which he said had tortured Bradley Manning, alleged source of the diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks, and continued to wage a 'vicious, unremitting' campaign against Venezuela."


After Chomsky protested the Guardian's coverage, the paper opted to print the entire interview online.  In the original version, the professor goes into the U.S.-Venezuela comparison in more depth.  "It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial," Chomsky says.  "And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened."


Continuing, the professor noted, "Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss."


Going yet further in the aporrea article, Chomsky claims that Manning has been subjected to worse conditions than Afiuni.  Perhaps, but after reviewing both pieces in the Guardian as well as the aporrea article, one wonders what Chomsky is so upset about.  What is so relevant about Bradley Manning, and why can't Chomsky bear to mention Venezuela on its own terms without bringing the United States into the picture?  Apparently, there is something in Chomsky's DNA which prevents him from discussing Latin America outside of the context of U.S. imperialism.  Thus, everything which transpires politically in the region must be compared with Washington's actions.  It's a familiar game of "bait and switch" which is common to the Stalinist left, a constituency which Chomsky ironically claims to abhor.   


For a Venezuelan anarchist perspective on this controversy, I caught up with X.  "Without a doubt," comments the member of El Libertario, "prison is hell wherever you go, but with all certainty and through direct evidence one can say that Venezuelan prisons are worse than what one can ever imagine."  It is ironic, X adds, that Chomsky is muddying the waters at the precise moment when prison conditions in his country are being exposed, for example at the infamous "El Rodeo" facility.


Venezuela in the Post-Chávez Future


Though Chomsky is something of a Johnny-come-lately, waiting until fairly recently to issue critical statements of Venezuela, the linguist has no doubt shaken up the debate in the U.S. about the course of the leftist "Pink Tide" in Latin America.  Still, there are confounding signs that Chomsky still views events outside of the U.S. through an outmoded leftist framework. 


For clues as to the professor's thinking, consult the original Guardian interview.  At one point, Chomsky says that the left may be reluctant to criticize Venezuela because the country has come under attack by the United States and the mainstream media.  "I think it's natural," the academic adds, "that the leftwing commentators won't want to join in it." 


Yet here, Chomsky seems to be abdicating any kind of critical self-reflection or rigorous analysis, characteristics which the linguist presumably regards highly and has attempted to encourage as an educator.  Put simply, one need not agree with Fox News and its right wing spin machine on Venezuela to bring independent judgment to bear on world events.


Moving to the future, and particularly in light of Chávez's recent debilitating illness, one wonders how Chomsky may view his role far afield.  Even if the Venezuelan leader manages to overcome cancer, there is no guarantee he will win reelection in 2012.  Indeed, if Chávez's condition worsens much of the Venezuelan electorate may believe that a vote for his populist style of leadership is too risky.  Yet, because Chávez has never demonstrated much of an interest in grooming a successor, a big question mark now hangs over the fate of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution.


In the event that Chávez vanishes from the scene, either for health reasons or a drubbing at the polls, Venezuela will have to deepen the process of social transformation which has been under way for some time.  It is here where Chomsky might be able to map out his vision for grassroots democracy more succinctly.  What anti-authoritarian measures would Chomsky like to see and how should they be advanced?  How should Venezuela seek to distinguish itself from rising star Brazil, which may rival the U.S. for regional hegemony in the not too distant future?  What are Chomsky's specific recommendations for South American integration and what types of international anti-imperialist initiatives would be most advisable?  How can South American leftist nations break out of the extractivist trap and move toward more equitable economic arrangements?  If Chomsky, a North American, believes he has a right to express views on such weighty matters, then now would be a good time to speak up.

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