In Oliver Stone's recent documentary South of the Border, leftist regimes in Latin America are depicted rather idealistically. In country after country, Stone interviews the region's leaders, who criticize the United States and present a common anti-imperialist front. Yet, while it's certainly true that politics has taken a decisive leftward shift from Venezuela to Bolivia and beyond, many differences and tensions remain. That, at any rate, is the impression I got when I read U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistleblower Wikileaks. Previously, in a couple of online articles, I analyzed internal political fissures within the top echelons of the Brazilian political leadership. U.S. cables reveal that some members of the Lula administration harbored suspicions about Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and, more often than not, saw eye to eye with Washington when it came to wider South American geopolitics. While these revelations are surely eye opening, it now appears as if they may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Take, for example, the case of Argentina. Publicly, the nation's power couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, has embraced Hugo Chávez and the region's leftist "Pink Tide." Yet in 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires noted that Néstor was engaged in a kind of diplomatic double game: on the one hand, the Argentine president sought to "stake out a position for himself close to Chávez," while also maintaining a close working relationship with the U.S. on particular issues such as counter-terrorism. The U.S. Embassy saw Kirchner as a kind of latter-day, independent Charles de Gaulle, a politician who would maintain a "balance" in relations between Venezuela and the U.S.
Néstor: A Paper Tiger?
From the beginning, American officials noted, the Kirchner style "has been combative in the face of real, imagined and fabricated challenges from sources as varied as the Catholic church, neoliberalism and the 'Washington consensus,' the World Bank and IMF, parasitic foreign multi-nationals, the press and political opponents (whether from within or from outside the Peronist party) and — indirectly stated — the U.S. This style has stood him in good stead. As the economy boomed, buoyed by favorable external factors, his popularity ratings have soared, and have remained high, due in no small part to his pugnacious character." Wikileaks cables reveal U.S. diplomats by turn as either cynical, supercilious or blasé toward the South American left, so one must take the documents with a certain grain of salt. In this case, however, it would appear that the Americans had a bead on Kirchner. Indeed, even as Néstor struck an anti-imperialist pose, senior Argentine officials were meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for discussions on counter-terrorism and counternarcotics efforts. What is more, in conversations with Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, Gonzales brought up the "the situation in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the need for strengthening stability in the region." Hardly confrontational, the Argentines placed great importance on attracting U.S. investment.
Despite his rhetorical bluster, U.S. officials had little fear of Néstor. Though U.S.-Argentine relations took a nosedive as a result of the November, 2005 Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas, in which leftists leaders, Kirchner included, showed up George Bush, Néstor was at heart an opportunist and would not move against the U.S. In fact, the Mar del Plata episode "perhaps convinced Kirchner he had gone a bit too far down the populist route. Since then, we have seen a gradual and steady improvement in relations with an increasing willingness by senior-level officials in engaging in dialogue with us and in identifying areas where we can strengthen cooperation.
Cristina: She's No Rebel
Cristina Kirchner proved similarly pliable. On the presidential campaign trail, the Argentine first lady touched base with the U.S. ambassador and "expressed a strong desire to promote foreign investment, increase scientific and educational exchange with the United States, and 'tell it like it is' with American policymakers." Cristina's conciliatory tone convinced the Americans that she would be a "reliable, trustworthy, and accessible partner of the United States."
In another 2009 cable, U.S. diplomats report on Argentina's mid-term elections in which the Kirchners lost badly. Discussing the post-electoral milieu, the Americans expressed skepticism that Argentina's power couple would radicalize the country, preferring instead a "reform-lite" agenda which would seek "to recapture political space without significant policy concessions."
Moreover, on the foreign policy front diplomats did not expect Cristina to embrace a more "Bolivarian" agenda. The Argentines, U.S. diplomats noted, had "become much less eager to criticize the U.S. directly since Barack Obama became President. CFK [Cristina] wears her affection for our Commander-in-Chief on her sleeve." Furthermore, Argentina was unlikely to embrace Bolivarian politics more generally, since Brazil was a much more important economic partner than Venezuela. "Lula and his associates will remain an important moderating influence on the Kirchners," diplomats noted.
Chile: Bachelet Placates U.S. Diplomat
Judging from the cables, the U.S. had little to fear from Chile, either. During a luncheon meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela at La Moneda Presidential Palace, Bachelet exclaimed that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. Fortunately, Bachelet remarked, there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez. Then Bachelet dished on the Kirchners, remarking that Argentina "has problems with credibility as a country." The country's Peronist ideology, Bachelet said, "can lead to paranoia" and undermine political and economic stability. In contrast to orderly and reliable Chile, Bachelet said, "Argentines tend to live from crisis to crisis...rather than pursuing stable, long-term policies." In a particularly damning aside, Chileans at the meeting agreed that Cristina was emblematic of Argentina's problems.
The more populist regimes could use a bit more diplomatic support from the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Yet as the Wikileaks documents reveal, that is extremely unlikely since moderate leaders throughout the region are politically compromised by the United States and, even worse, criticize their peers in private with American diplomats. Even worse, some leaders even lobby the U.S. to take a harder line with Chávez. At one meeting in 2009, for example, Mexico President Felipe Calderón urged U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to increase U.S. presence in the wider region, and in particular to engage Brazil in an effort to isolate Venezuela.
Faced with dwindling support, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia have become very embattled and take a no holds barred, combative approach toward Washington. It's a battle of nerves which has become much more intense than commonly portrayed in the media. As early as 2006, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that "Cubans cooperate extensively with Venezuelan intelligence services." Indeed, diplomats reported that "Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chávez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting unvetted by Venezuelan officers."
U.S. officials fretted about the situation, remarking that "The impact of Cuban involvement in Venezuelan intelligence could impact U.S. interests directly. Venezuelan intelligence services are among the most hostile towards the United States in the hemisphere, but they lack the expertise that Cuban services can provide. Cuban intelligence routinely provides the BRV [Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela] intelligence reports about the activities of the USG [U.S. government]."
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas struck back in kind. Two years later, American officials requested assistance from the Department of Defense in executing a "strategic communications plan...to influence the information environment within Venezuela. The strategy's goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the U.S. and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries." Hardly amused by the Americans and their propaganda efforts, Venezuela reportedly conducted intelligence operations against the U.S. Embassy as recently as January, 2010.
Bolivia: A Pawn in Wider Geopolitical Chess
Faced with domestic political unrest and hostility from Washington, Bolivia has also engaged in a battle of nerves with the United States. Yet unlike Venezuela, Bolivia is very poor and perhaps as a result has relied on extensive foreign assistance in charting its political destiny. In Wikileaks documents, Bolivia emerges as a kind of political pawn in the midst of larger geopolitical forces.
In 2006, the U.S. Ambassador in La Paz wrote that "President Morales... lacks confidence in his economic and international relations abilities." As a result, Morales relied on a group of Cuban and Venezuelan advisers "who seem to have growing influence with the President." U.S. sensitive reporting meanwhile revealed that Morales met with his foreign advisers many times a week without any domestic advisers present. "Morales," the ambassador continued, "likely sees the Cuban and Venezuelan advisers as non-threatening to his domestic power." The following year, a U.S. report claimed that Venezuela had greased the political loyalty of Bolivian military commanders. However, these Venezuelan "bonuses" had "created much resentment in the mid- and lower-ranks and cost the high command significant legitimacy." U.S. cables suggest that Morales may be somewhat sensitive to the notion that Bolivia is being overrun by foreign interests. In one communication, it is mentioned that "Morales sees environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez." An animated Morales reportedly declared that "he was surrounded by well-wishers in [the international climate summit at] Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."
How much can we trust these sensitive documents dealing with Bolivia, let alone Venezuela? Perhaps, U.S. officials in both countries painted an unflattering portrait of both countries because they thought that was what their superiors wanted to hear, or alternatively the intelligence is just plain shoddy. However, one cannot discount that the accounts have some basis: recently some Latin American leaders failed to show up for a summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Perhaps, the Wikileaks scandal is causing embarrassment.
Wikileaks and its Significance for the Hemisphere
Though the U.S. certainly doesn't emerge very rosy from the Wikileaks scandal, coming off more often than not as manipulating, imperious and supercilious toward the Latin American Pink Tide, the recent torrent of released documents doesn't reflect well on South American leaders either. Far from presenting a united anti-imperialist front, the Pink Tide is internally divided and frequently compromised. Additionally, some reports reveal certain leaders as somewhat vain or petty. It's too early to say what the likely impact of the Wikileaks scandal will be on the hemisphere, though hopefully it will prompt South American political leaders to take a more critical stance toward the United States and to cease their useless and counter-productive backbiting.