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."
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.