Read my article, "Space Race, Electric Cars and Climate Change: Elon Musk's Misguided Bid for South American Access and Resources."
Space Race, Electric Cars and Climate Change: Elon Musk’s Misguided Bid for South American Access and Resources
To read the article, click here.
To read my piece, here.
As if the political situation in the Middle East could become no more volatile, we now have not just WikiLeaks but another document scandal, this one pertaining to the failed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Dubbed the "Palestine papers," the documents represent the largest leak in the history of the Middle East conflict, comprising a whopping 1,600 confidential records.
Spanning successive White House administrations, the Palestine Papers were leaked to Al Jazeera and the Guardian of London and have already created a firestorm of controversy for the Palestinian Authority which gave away key political demands to the Israeli side. In the long-term, however, the documents could wind up shaming not just the Palestinians, Israelis and the United States but also countries as far afield as Chile.
That is because Palestinian negotiators seem to have caved when it came to standing up for their people's historic "right of return." Since Israel expelled Palestinians in 1948, refugees have been floating around various corners of the Middle East hoping to one day return to their ancestral homes. Yet, according to leaked documents, Palestinian negotiators agreed to the mere return of 10,000 people over the course of 10 years, a minuscule fraction of the overall number of refugees totaling more than 5 million.
According to reports, Palestinian president Abu Mazen remarked that it would be "illogical" to expect that Israel would accept five million refugees as this would signify "the end of Israel." If true — and needless to say the Palestinian authority has derided the papers as false, taken out of context or manipulated — then the document release sorely discredits negotiators. What is even more bizarre, however, was a scheme launched by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to relocate Palestinian refugees to South America.
The surreal discussion took place in June, 2008 when Rice met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Berlin. At the time, Rice was following up on the Annapolis peace conference of the previous year and final status negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert. According to minutes from the meeting, Rice remarked "maybe we will be able to find countries that can contribute in kind. Chile, Argentina, etc (ie, give land)." Though the suggestion was certainly outlandish, Rice may have been influenced by a previous decision to transfer 117 Palestinian refugees to Chile between March and April, 2008, shortly before the Berlin negotiation.
Grim Conditions at Al Tanf
The 2008 transfer, a truly dramatic exodus, brought Palestinian refugees from far-flung Middle Eastern camps all the way to South America. The Palestinians had long been stuck in the miserable makeshift Al Tanf camp located in a bleak no man's land along the Iraqi-Syrian border. For years, the refugees had sought a stable home without success. The majority of Palestinian refugees who arrived in Iraq came from the city of Haifa in 1948, and their children grew up in the new adopted country. Under Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians were treated favorably but after the dictator's fall the refugees once again came under persecution. In the midst of war and instability, some were deprived of their residency papers which made it impossible for the refugees to come and go from Iraq.
The Syrian Al Tanf camp, which received aid from the UNHCR and its partners - mainly UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), UNICEF, the World Food Program, the Palestinian Red Crescent and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, had been set up originally to harbor Palestinians fleeing persecution in Iraq as no other nation would take them in. When they first arrived, the refugees thought their stay in Al Tanf would be merely temporary but they ultimately wound up having to stay there for nearly four years, during which time they had to endure pests such as snakes and scorpions, not to mention extreme temperatures, sandstorms as well as snowstorms, floods and inadequate access to medical care.
Bachelet to Palestinians: "I Know What It Means to Be a Refugee"
Coming to the aid of the Palestinians, Chile offered asylum to some of the refugees in response to a UN appeal. Though the refugees were relieved to be leaving Al Tanf, they were apprehensive about their uncertain future. In Chile meanwhile, the authorities undertook an ambitious program aimed at reinserting the Palestinians into national life, while providing crucial assistance in the areas of housing, food, clothing, education, health, language skills and employment. After forty hours of grueling travel from Damascus, the refugees arrived in La Calera, a small farming town north of the Chilean capital of Santiago. "Leave your suffering in the past and let Chile be the fountain of your newfound happiness," declared Deputy Interior Secretary Felipe Harboe.
In certain respects, Chile was an agreeable and logical destination for the refugees. The country has large tracts of sparsely populated land and has Latin America's largest Palestinian population, estimated at some 350,000 people. The Palestinian community in Chile dates back a century: the first to make the trek to South America fled the Ottoman Empire and the First World War. Today, most Palestinians are middle class textile merchants and have integrated well into Chilean society.
The town of La Calera has long been home to Chileans of Middle Eastern descent, and as the refugees arrived they were greeted by local residents waving Palestinian flags and singing the Palestinian anthem. Later, the town served Arabic food, played local folk music, and danced to Chile's national dance, called the "cueca." The refugees, relaxed but exhausted, smiled and nodded while murmuring "gracias" to the crowd. "We are confident that here we will be able to live in peace," one refugee remarked through an interpreter. After the ceremony the exhausted migrants were escorted to their apartments.
As I discuss in some detail in Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was herself a political exile in her youth: fleeing Chile during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet, she found shelter in communist East Germany. As the Palestinian refugees arrived, the socialist politician harked back to her own past. "I want to tell you that I know exactly how it feels to arrive in a new country as a refugee," Bachelet remarked during a reception for the Palestinians.
What about "The Right of Return"?
For the Palestinians, undertaking a new life in Chile was infinitely superior to languishing at the Al Tanf refugee camp. Yet, this outlandish story raises fundamental questions about the Palestinian struggle and its long term political prospects. By accepting Chile's invitation, the Palestinians sacrificed their "right of return." For Israel, it must have seemed like a sweet deal: if the Palestinians carved out a home 8,000 miles away in the Andes, this could relieve pressure on Israel to return land.
For the Palestinian community in Chile, relocation of their compatriots to South America gave rise to some mixed feelings. While the local community thanked the Bachelet government for its generosity, it maintained the Palestinian historic right of return under United Nations Resolution 194. The local Palestinians argued that Chile, which had already signed the resolution, would be violating the principle of right of return by agreeing to the refugee relocation.
The Chilean authorities, activists argued, should continue to lobby the Israelis and the international community so as to relocate the Al Tanf refugees to their legitimate homes. It would not be until later that the Palestinians would come around, reluctantly, to the Chilean plan. Mauricio Abu-Gosh, president of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, remarked that the right of return should be upheld but that the first priority should be to rescue the refugees from their plight.
Two years later, in the wake of the release of the Palestinian Papers, Abu-Ghosh was outraged when he read of the revelations. Israel, he remarked, was "making the rules" in defiance of UN Resolution 194. Ghosh added that Chile was certainly a desirable country for foreign immigration but Rice's notion of turning the Andean nation into a new homeland for Palestinians was "impractical." Daniel Jadue, vice president of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, declared that the news was "completely unacceptable." Rice's suggestion, Jadue explained, indicated that the negotiation was "dishonest," and "clearly inclined toward Israel."
What is behind the Palestinian-Chilean connection? Perhaps, Rice was inclined to suggest Chile as a possible relocation point given that the Bachelet government was a pliable U.S. ally in the wider region. Though the Chilean president was a socialist and publicly declared her support for other leftist governments in South America, her government pursued friendly relations with the United States. Indeed, as I have written, Bachelet did her utmost to convince Washington that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. According to documents released by WikiLeaks, Bachelet told U.S. diplomats that there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez.
The Palestinian Papers raise some provocative questions. Did the Bush administration ever broach Rice's idea officially with Chile and Argentina? If WikiLeaks has any documents pertaining to this issue, then Julian Assange should consider releasing any information which would fill in the gaps from the Palestine Papers. If there are further revelations, this could cause severe embarrassment not only to the U.S. and Israel, but also to the Palestinian Authority. What is more, further reporting could discredit the Chilean government which publicly supports the creation of a Palestinian state but which privately may seek to hide any skeletons lurking in the closet.
If Wikileaks documents are any indication, Chinese investors might have a big surprise in store as they continue their push into Latin America. In their effort to extract raw resources, the Chinese have fared relatively well in such areas of the globe as Africa. However, recently disclosed U.S. cables hint that Latin America may not prove as pliable for the Chinese. Indeed, during private discussions with U.S. diplomats in Shanghai, Chinese experts candidly admitted they faced a “public relations challenge” in Latin America, and that local residents viewed Chinese businessmen as “locusts” intent on “extracting minerals and natural resources and leaving very little of lasting value behind.”
China is a relative newcomer in Latin America, yet the Asian powerhouse has made a big splash. In its drive to dominate Latin American markets, China is primarily motivated by economic and not political considerations. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have understood that native industry must be provided with adequate supplies of energy, minerals, and other basic raw materials if the Asian powerhouse is to sustain continued economic growth. In tandem with such desires, China has moved aggressively to become Latin America’s second largest commercial partner after the United States.
For their part, the Latin Americans have been content to export their raw materials to China, though many countries have uncomfortable memories of U.S. economic enclaves and may wonder whether the Asian powerhouse will encourage sustainable development and social equity. While China is willing to help construct ports and railroads, such infrastructure projects will be linked to the transport of raw materials and in this sense the Asian tiger is little different from the United States, which historically sought to promote the type of “development” which would merely facilitate the extraction of South America’s resources.
Latin America is Not Africa
In Africa, China found that it could import its own labor, ignore environmental standards and essentially adopt a colonialist approach toward local peoples and resources. Compliant political elites, who displayed scant regard for human rights, made life easy for Chinese investors. But Latin America, having recently witnessed a tectonic shift to the left, is less willing to embrace untrammeled economic development if this comes at a high social and environmental cost.
In contrast to Africa, Latin America has a much more dynamic political culture characterized by combative political parties, labor unions and non-governmental organizations. Though many within Latin American civil society may have looked upon China as the champion of “Third World-ism” at a certain point, some will be less than impressed by the Asian tiger’s shedding of any ideological pretensions in the name of promoting a more politically neutral “multi-polar” world.
WikiLeaks documents shed fascinating light on the many difficulties and contradictions in the incipient Chinese-Latin American relationship. Speaking with officials at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, Chinese experts said their nation’s leaders were interested in paying more attention to large emerging countries like Brazil and Mexico “amid the changing global economic balance of power.” Chinese companies, however, had difficulty understanding the Latin business milieu, and complained about “strong labor unions and cultural conflicts.”
Fundamentally, experts noted, “Chinese investors think Latin America and Africa are the same…but it is easier for them to do business in Africa since Africa's institutions and regulatory environment are less well-developed than Latin America’s.” Chinese workers, meanwhile, had a “different work ethic” from their Latin American counterparts, and as a result many companies had chosen to import their own laborers which had in turn fed “local resentment.” Conscious of the need to improve its public image, China encouraged its companies to take on more local employees, and the Asian tiger had become a substantial donor to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Differing Views on China
Despite these many problems, it is also clear from WikiLeaks cables that Latin America’s view of China depends very much on the individual country. Indeed, while China is viewed as a friend in some nations, in others it is viewed as a threat. In recent years, China has signed free trade agreements with Peru and Chile, two countries which don’t have competitive industries to defend. China has failed to negotiate accords with some of the other larger countries, however, because certain Chinese exports are viewed as more direct threats.
One country which has been particularly wary of the Asian tiger is Mexico. In early 2009, U.S. diplomats at the American embassy in Mexico City wrote Washington that “Mexico’s trade deficit with China and concerns over China’s approach to investment continue to color Mexico’s perception of China as a true partner.” While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was well received in Mexico, officials were “reluctant to push too strongly for increased Chinese presence.” One top Mexican businessman confided to the Americans, “We don’t want to be China’s next Africa.”
The entrepreneur was referring to “the oft-cited criticism that China has pursued a strategy of seizing the continent’s huge natural resources while dumping cheap industrial manufactured products into Africa’s markets.” “We need to own our country’s development,” the businessman added. Judging from WikiLeaks documents, the Chinese are aware of Mexico’s skittishness. Speaking to U.S. officials in Shanghai, Chinese experts pointed to the “similar industrial structure” between China and Mexico, adding that the Asian powerhouse should “invest more in the Mexican oil industry to counter Mexican concerns about China's growing trade surplus with the country.”
Seeking a South American Gateway
Another nation with mixed feelings toward the Asian tiger is Colombia. In WikiLeaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Beijing remarked that Colombia was actively seeking new economic partners but was still “wary of Chinese motives.” Speaking to the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing, Colombian businessmen expressed their concern that China might “walk all over” Colombia and its people much as the Asian powerhouse had done in Africa. In addition, the Colombians were wary of Chinese investment in mining and hydrocarbons given the Asian tiger’s awful track record on environmental and labor practices [such talk is rather ironic in light of Colombia’s own horrible standards on these counts].
Because Colombian exports compete with those from China, the Andean nation is mainly interested in investment as opposed to signing a free trade agreement with the Asian powerhouse. Originally, China had directed its companies to invest in neighboring Venezuela, but the firms had “dragged their feet.” Reportedly, Chinese businessmen regarded Colombia as more stable and economically open than Venezuela, and therefore a “better base for targeting the rest of Latin America.”
In the long-term China may find that Colombia, which has a much more repressive anti-labor climate than Venezuela, is a country more to its political and economic liking. Indeed, recent business deals suggest that China sees Colombia as its preferred South American gateway. Take for example a Chinese plan to build an auto assembly plant in Colombia. The factory will manufacture light vehicles for export to different regional markets. The Chinese chose Colombia over Chile, Brazil and Mexico and the factory will begin production in 2012.
Brazil: “We Don’t Want to Be Colonized Again”
While Colombia and Mexico are certainly economically important within the overall Chinese strategy, it is the South American powerhouse of Brazil which has become the most indispensable linchpin. China has already displaced the U.S. as Brazil’s chief trading partner and experts predict that between now and 2014 the Asian tiger could invest an average of about $40 billion a year in Brazil. As they establish their key beach head in South America, the Chinese will target specific economic sectors such as telecommunications, infrastructure, farming, oil, biofuels, natural gas, mining and steel.
The most visible sign of burgeoning Sino-Brazil ties is the Açu complex, a mega port which is being constructed near Rio de Janeiro. The vast $2.5 billion facility will open in 2012 and its piers will host fleets of cargo ships including the ChinaMax, a huge vessel capable of holding a whopping 400,000 tons of cargo. In the nearby city of São João da Barra, the local town hall is providing free Mandarin lessons to those who wish to work with an anticipated wave of Chinese guests.
Though the new economic relationship has proven beneficial to both China and Brazil, it is rather lopsided. Indeed, China’s needs have begun to alter the Brazilian economy in fundamental ways. Take, for example, the Brazilian footwear industry which has been decimated by Chinese imports. Caught by surprise by China’s economic rise and burgeoning manufacturing sector, Brazilians worry that they haven’t laid the ground work for a sufficiently balanced relationship, one which will result in sustainable growth and not just small enclaves of prosperity.
Información Selectiva, a Mexican company providing financial news from around the region, recently reported on an eye-opening business meeting which brought together Latin and Chinese executives. During the summit, which took place in Chengdu, Brazilian investor Nizan Guanaes remarked “We were already colonized once and we don’t want to be colonized again. We want to be partners.” It’s unclear whether the Chinese have the patience to put up with such insolent independence. Frustrated by everything from Brazilian bureaucracy to strong labor unions to a more vigilant media culture and stringent environmental laws, the Chinese have found that Brazil is no pushover.
To be sure, the Chinese relationship has brought tangible economic benefits for Brazil. Take for example the local soybean industry which has thrived amidst booming exports to China. For the Asian tiger, soya is a versatile product which is utilized from everything from soy flour to tofu to soy sauce. In my recently published book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) I discuss the rise of soy boom towns in Brazil and accompanying infrastructure such as highways which are designed to facilitate exports to China. Even here, however, local development has been a mixed bag: while the soybean industry has brought economic gains it has also led to severe environmental downsides and pressures on the Amazon. Meanwhile, paved roads linking Brazil to Pacific ports of call and onward to Asia have cut through the rainforest and exacted a high ecological toll.
Wikileaks cables underscore underlying tensions in the Sino-Brazilian relationship. Speaking with American officials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, Brazilian diplomats expressed some concern about growing imbalances in bilateral trade. Although Brazil exported some small commercial aircraft to China, in general the South American nation was a mere provider of commodities to the Asian tiger and received higher value-added machinery in exchange. Meanwhile, Chinese investors failed to adequately understand the local Brazilian market and regulations.
As history has shown, the Latin American people do not take kindly to outside powers coming in to the region and reaping maximum economic advantage while failing to encourage equitable social development. For years, it was the United States which raised the political ire of many countries throughout the hemisphere as it set up economic enclaves and propped up compliant elites. So far, the Chinese interest in Latin America has been primarily economic though the Asian giant may be obliged to become more involved in local politics as its interests grow. If China expects, however, that it will get its way in Latin America as easily as it did in Africa then the Asian tiger may find that it has another thing coming.
If anyone had any doubts about WikiLeaks' potential to exert profound political change, recent events in Tunisia may serve to undermine such skepticism. As the civil unrest unfolds, some will wonder what actually caused the fall of the despotic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime. While it would be a stretch to argue that Tunisia represents the first "WikiLeaks revolution," it's clear that some U.S. cables emanating from the American Embassy in Tunis severely tarnished the local government's reputation. The documents, which reported on embarrassing corruption plaguing the Ben Ali regime, were widely discussed amongst Tunisian bloggers and fueled long-simmering tensions within civil society.
Perhaps, then, WikiLeaks represented the straw that broke the camel's back. As he observes the volatile political scene in North Africa, Julian Assange might feel as if his wildest expectations have been superseded. Indeed, some are already discussing the possibility of unrest crossing over into neighboring countries, exerting a kind of "domino-like effect" throughout the autocratic Arab world. How many other damaging documents from U.S. embassies around the Middle East have yet to be released, and what are the ramifications? As they watch Ben-Ali flee from Tunis, many despotic leaders may worry about their fate.
Progressive forces should cheer events in Tunisia, yet I would argue that on balance "cablegate" has failed to live up to its greatest potential. As it seeks to fundamentally alter power relations, WikiLeaks should take stock of the past two months or so of "cablegate" and figure out what has worked and what has, to the contrary, fallen flat. If it wants to maximize its impact, WikiLeaks might consider a) releasing documents that complement critical, breaking stories; b) prioritizing certain regions of the globe over others; c) concentrating on specific instances of U.S. government malfeasance so as to fundamentally alter the terms of Washington's foreign policy, if such illegality is demonstrated through the documents; d) releasing more politically relevant cables and saving the less important documents for later; e) reassessing its overall media strategy in the United States.
I would be the last one to downplay WikiLeaks' many journalistic coups and accomplishments, Tunisia being only the most recent and noteworthy, but the fact is that cablegate has failed to prompt serious debate within the U.S. about the way in which Washington conducts its foreign policy. If it seeks to alter this equation and exert an impact where it matters most, WikiLeaks should become shrewder about what documents it releases and the actual proportion of such releases. The debate is not over whether to release all of the documents at once, which as Wikileaks correctly points out would fail to do the cables justice, but how such a staged release might work. Thus far, the whistle-blowing group has opted for a geographically diverse approach in which separate portions of the globe receive relatively equal and fair exposure. Yesterday, for example, I noticed that all of WikiLeaks' cables related to Holland whereas a mere four days ago the cables pertained to Iceland.
On the positive side, such a strategy grabs the attention of diverse media outlets all over the world. The approach will appeal to WikiLeaks volunteers who are based in many different countries and who strive for greater political transparency at home. Assange, who has been criticized as overly autocratic, may have felt that such a modus operandi was desirable given the diffuse nature of his organization. I don't know how decisions are reached within WikiLeaks, but if one region was favored above all others then volunteers might have become discouraged and, needless to say, Assange can ill afford additional problems with morale at this point.
Rethinking Media Strategy for the Middle East
On the other hand, Assange's strategy thus far has lacked political focus: as soon as the media reports on one story, WikiLeaks releases another batch of documents from a different part of the globe. A more sensible approach would be to declassify relevant documents pertaining to just one or two regions, and for my money the Middle East makes the most sense. In terms of sheer urgency, Iraq and Afghanistan should be a top priority, though releasing sensitive documents from North Africa would be surely welcome right now. In hindsight, releasing the Ben Ali cables at the exact moment that the democracy movement was taking off in Tunisia was a stroke of genius, and by declassifying further sensitive documents from around the region WikiLeaks could give a leg up to nascent democracy movements. In this sense, it is more desirable for WikiLeaks to be flexible and improvise depending on the news cycle, as opposed to simply rotating the geographical focus every few days or so.
For insight into cablegate, head to WikiLeaks own website. If we are going by simple numerical importance, Baghdad is second only to Ankara in terms of actual cable volume. In a bar graph, cables are organized into separate colors without further explanation, though presumably green refers to "unclassified," orange stands for "confidential" and red stands for "secret." It's difficult to make out the exact numbers on WikiLeaks' bar graph, but it appears as if the whistleblowing group holds about 7,000 cables from Baghdad, of which only 30 have been released. It would seem that Baghdad alone sent a whopping 1,000 secret cables to Washington, the greatest number recorded for any foreign U.S. embassy. The U.S. embassy in Kabul meanwhile is less prolific but still substantial with about 3,500 cables, of which only 50 have been released.
What's with the long hold up here, and why have the releases slowed to a trickle? It would seem that WikiLeaks banked on the New York Times and expected that America's most influential paper would help it sift through many of the State Department's most important documents. It's understandable that WikiLeaks would turn first to the Times, one of the few outlets which actually pursues investigative journalism and sets the bar for wider media coverage. Clearly, however, that strategy has proven unsatisfactory as the Times hasn't published many stories based on cablegate. It's anyone's guess as to why the paper failed to take advantage of WikiLeaks scoops, but I suspect that the Times simply cannot bring itself to question the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy.
Understandably, WikiLeaks wants to be scrupulous in vetting its material, but by the time all relevant cables are disclosed from Kabul, the war in Afghanistan will have claimed many more lives. Perhaps, WikiLeaks simply lacks the capacity to evaluate all of the documents in its possession. What, then, are WikiLeaks' options? One strategy would be to join forces with assorted media activists in an effort to pressure the Times to move faster. The alternative is to partner with other media outlets and foreign policy experts, from The Nation to Mother Jones to The Huffington Post to Juan Cole to the National Security Archive. From there, news and analysis would flow to progressive TV and radio such as Democracy Now! or the Rachel Maddow show.
Coming to Terms With America's "Informal Empire"
In terms of sheer urgency, the Middle East takes priority over other regions of the globe. Yet, if WikiLeaks truly seeks to have an impact on the tenor of U.S. foreign policy, then it should consider devoting more time and resources to Latin America. Arguably, the region still constitutes America's "informal empire," though much of the U.S. public seems apathetic or oblivious to this fact. TV outlets haven't helped much, either: though MSNBC briefly covered WikiLeaks revelations that Hillary Clinton requested personal information about Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, including psychological details and medications, in general the media hasn't shown much interest in cables emanating from U.S. embassies around Latin America.
One possible reason why is that WikiLeaks, to my knowledge, has not uncovered any overt illegalities on the part of the U.S. government. Perhaps, Washington has cleaned up its act in Latin America and there is no "smoking gun" that would incriminate high level State Department officials. Given the U.S. track record in the region, however, I find this difficult to believe. What is more probable WikiLeaks that Wikileaks, for whatever reason, has simply glossed over its most damning evidence or is biding its time before releasing sensitive material.
Whatever the case, I find WikiLeaks' approach to Latin America baffling. According to its own site, the whistleblowing group holds about 3,000 cables each from U.S. embassies in Bogotá and Caracas. Yet, to date WikiLeaks has only released 28 and 27 cables, respectively, from both diplomatic posts. That is perplexing given that U.S. diplomats were concerned about Chávez's wide-ranging influence over South America's leftist "Pink Tide" (officials were even concerned about Venezuelan influence as far afield as the Falklands Islands).
Though the left would like to claim that the U.S. played a significant role in Chávez's brief ouster in April, 2002 the concrete evidence is lacking. For Assange, documenting this period should be a top priority, though to date WikiLeaks has only published certain Caracas cables from 2004 to 2010. Presumably, there would have been much correspondence between Caracas and Washington in the early years of Chávez's reign and throughout 2002-03 when political destabilization was at its highest.
WikiLeaks could focus on this period, yet instead the organization has chosen, inexplicably, to concentrate on Brazil. According to WikiLeaks, there are more cables pertaining to the U.S. embassies in Bogotá, Caracas, and even Tegucigalpa than Brasilia [to date, WikiLeaks has released 219 cables from Brasilia compared to just 2 from Tegucigalpa]. Furthermore, with the exception of early cables released by WikileWikiLeaksaks which document relations between Washington and the Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, the Brasilia documents don't reveal anything too earth-shattering.
Shaking Up the U.S. Public
WikiLeaks needs to get its Latin America material out to the U.S. public, but so far its media strategy hasn't proven very effective. The only paper that has been consistently running stories on the region is Spain's El País, an outlet which had earlier partnered with WikiLeaks. For whatever reason, however, even El País has been tapering off in recent weeks. The Norwegian paper Aftenposten also got its hands on WikiLeaks cables, but to date editors at the publication have chosen to concentrate their resources on European documents. At one point, Aftenposten asked its readers for research suggestions, and a couple of days later looked into such conspiratorial topics as the Bilderberg society and U.F.O.'s.
The New York Times, meanwhile, only writes about Latin America when WikiLeaks cables reinforce the notion of Third World corruption. Take, for example, the case of rightist Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli who reportedly asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA to help him carry out illegal wiretaps on his political foes. Last month, the Times published a story on Martinelli in which the DEA was portrayed as a somewhat beleaguered agency forced to deal with shady and unsavory characters throughout the Third World. Though the Times mentioned that Martinelli may have wanted to spy on his leftist opponents, the paper failed to contextualize the wider political backdrop which pitted a pro-corporate and pro-U.S. president against combative organized labor.
Similarly, the Times passed when it came to other important stories which have cast the United States in an unflattering light. Take, for instance, U.S. cynicism toward Bolivia and Cuba, nations that have been pushing for a more radical agenda at international climate change summits. One would think that WikiLeaks cables might create a furious "climategate" scandal, yet the Times chose to ignore the matter. Furthermore, the Times failed to report on cables that revealed that the FBI kept tabs on the Mapuche, a Chilean indigenous group fighting for its ancestral lands and against the pro-corporate and pro-U.S. regime in Santiago. In yet another oversight, the Times ignored additional cables showing that the U.S. and Costa Rica may have shared high level intelligence in an effort to thwart Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
To be sure, none of these revelations expose blatant illegalities, yet they reveal U.S. foreign policy as deeply immoral and crass. Is the U.S. public ready for a wholesale debate about these cables and changing the way business is done at the State Department? Recently, the Daily Show had a rather witty if somewhat cynical take on WikiLeaks. During a monologue, comedian Jon Stewart suggested that the U.S. public is already aware of previous coup d'etats in such diverse nations as Guatemala, Chile and Iran, and as a result is totally jaded.
For WikiLeaks, which has worked hard and taken risks, the U.S. certainly provides a dispiriting picture. Given that the New York Times is an unreliable partner, the whistleblowing group might calculate that the progressive media is more likely to run stories about the U.S. cables. Yet, even as some commentators loudly proclaim their socialist credentials, MSNBC pundits rarely provide any coverage of foreign events, preferring instead to dwell on Sarah Palin and refute whatever Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck said over the course of the afternoon.
What is it going to take for the U.S. public to sit up and pay attention to cablegate? Perhaps it will be a hard sell any way you look at it, though WikiLeaks might want to consider becoming more creative and innovative in its media strategy.
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