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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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WikiLeaks: Great power rivalry at the UN

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WikiLeaks and the Peruvian Presidential Election

Despite soaring rhetoric about the need for an equal partnership in U.S.-Latin American relations, the Obama White House is still intent on halting the leftist contagion spreading throughout the wider region. Over the past few years, a more radical bloc of countries including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have emerged to contest U.S. hegemony. In response, Washington has cultivated the support of wavering Brazil and Chile as well as the more rightist Colombia. Yet another country that hangs in the political balance, Peru, holds the first round of its presidential election on Sunday and the U.S. surely wants the keep the country in the ideological fold.

Under the outgoing Alan García regime, which originally took power in 2006, Washington had little to fear. A political scoundrel and opportunist, the formerly leftist García morphed into a great supporter of U.S. corporatism and free trade. Peru’s raw resources were thrown up to the highest bidder and the country witnessed polarizing social and environmental conflict. In 2009, for instance, the police killed at least 25 civilians in the Amazonian town of Bagua when several thousand indigenous peoples protested the president’s free trade policies and land law allowing for corporate access to communal territories.

Judging from cables recently released by the whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. may fear that Amazonian Indians are becoming radicalized by the likes of Hugo Chávez. In one memo, U.S. embassy staff in Lima remarked that “While a series of government miscalculations and missteps was largely to blame [for the violence in Bagua] radical and possibly foreign interference also played a role.”

Read further in the cable, and U.S. priorities become clear. “We have built a strong bilateral relationship with Peru in recent years, partly embodied in the Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA),” wrote one diplomat. “We also share a similar strategic vision, namely that the region's foremost security threats originate from transnational and non-state criminal actors such as narco-traffickers and terrorists, as well as resurgent populism and the meddling of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his allies.”

While one might expect such combative commentary from the likes of diplomats in the Bush era, bear in mind that this particular cable was sent in the first year of the Obama administration, thus refuting the notion that Washington had somehow turned a new leaf in its hemispheric attitudes. Indeed, diplomats noted with approval how García had “played a constructive role in the region and sees challenges and opportunities through a similar policy prism.”

The Americans could not have been happier about Peru’s willingness to play a key geopolitical role. “Under Garcia,” diplomats declared, “Peru has helped to counter Bolivia and Venezuela's efforts to blame the U.S. for rising regional tensions. Relations with Bolivia have also been strained over alleged Bolivian political meddling, and personal insults between Presidents Garcia and Morales. The government of Peru remains concerned that Venezuela is trying to sow instability in the region through its covert support of radical and indigenous groups in Peru and elsewhere.”

Sunday’s Election

Now that the García era is coming to an end, Washington may fear that Peru might waver in its political allegiances. Yet, judging from the lackluster roster of candidates, the Obama administration doesn’t have much to fear. Take, for example, Alejandro Toledo, who preceded García as president from 2001 to 2005. An academic free market economist who had a stint working at the World Bank, Toledo has been a long-time darling of international capital. Under his “neo-liberal” presidency, Peru negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States which gave American corporations expanded access to the Andean nation’s raw resources.

The other three conservative candidates offer little substantive difference to Toledo. Former Lima mayor Luis Castañeda, who has met with the Americans behind closed doors to discuss politics [see below] is one contender. Then there’s Pedro Pablo Kucyzynski, a former World Bank official and lobbyist for mining and oil companies who served as prime minister under Toledo.

Lastly, in a bizarre blast from the past we get Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori. At 35 she is the youngest candidate in the field and is running on experience --- that is to say, the experience of her father. Keiko says that if is she is elected president she will seek to secure Alberto’s release from prison. Currently, disgraced Fujimori Sr. is serving a 25-year sentence for embezzlement and directing death squads.

Keiko’s political story is probably the most surreal of all the candidates. In 1994, Alberto named Keiko first lady after fighting with his wife Susana Higuchi. When the details of the acrimonious divorce were publicized, including inflammatory accusations that Alberto had even tortured Higuchi, Keiko sided with her Dad. Perhaps justifiably, many Peruvians view Keiko’s relentless pursuit of politics at all costs as shameless and crass.

Countering the Humala Threat

Most likely, any of these questionable candidates would suit the United States. There is one contender, however, who may have raised some eyebrows within the Obama White House. Ollanta Humala has said he would rewrite Peru’s constitution and retool the economy in favor of the poor who have been left out of the recent economic boom promoted by Alan García. A nationalist and former lieutenant colonel, Humala led a failed revolt against Fujimori’s electoral fraud in 2000 and even kidnapped a general [he later received a congressional pardon]. Humala would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and mining companies and, according to the Financial Times, investors are nervous about the emerging candidate. Indeed, Peru’s markets have taken a hit as the brash Humala rises in the polls.

It’s not the first time that Humala has stoked concern amongst the Peruvian elite. In the 2006 presidential election, Humala ran against García on a nationalist platform. After meeting with Chávez and Morales, Humala declared himself part of “a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted.” In an incendiary move, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and declared his strong opposition to the free trade agreement which his country had signed with Washington.

WikiLeaks cables reveal the Bush administration’s concern over Humala and diplomatic currying of favor with up and coming conservative luminaries. In the midst of the 2006 election cycle, U.S. ambassador Curt Struble met with Lima mayor [and current presidential contender] Luis Castañeda. Struble characterized Castañeda as “a driven man…who certainly aspires for the top office.” Speaking privately with the ambassador, Castañeda told Struble that he expected to be “the rallying point for the opposition if Humala wins the Presidency.”

On another occasion, Castañeda elaborated at greater length with the Americans about the Humala threat. A shrewd player who was apparently willing to play dirty, Castañeda believed that a useful tactic “would be to create confusion regarding the four Humalas currently involved in politics: Ollanta…his imprisoned brother Antauro (charged with responsibility for the death of five people in the January 2005 Andahuaylas uprising) and his father Isaac (most
recently talking favorably about the possibility of war with Chile).” Apparently, the Americans saw Castañeda as a useful asset: the Lima mayor’s “views on the basis for Humala’s popularity,” remarked ambassador Struble, “and on the ways to undermine it [my italics] are worth paying attention to.”

Fear of Venezuelan Contagion

Judging from the cables, the 2006 election in Peru had taken on wider geopolitical implications. In Venezuela, Chávez was already taking notice of events on the ground and came out strongly for Humala. For his part, García countered that Morales and Chávez were spoiled children and “historical losers” for criticizing Peru’s free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency had been marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a “thief” and a “crook.” “I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru,” Chávez declared. “To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!” the Venezuelan leader added.

Chávez’s comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country’s internal affairs. García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When García painted his opponent as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive.

When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. “Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty,” García said. “They have defeated the efforts by Mr. Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no,” García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that “the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate.”

Humala Round Two

Despite the rhetorical triumphalism, however, WikiLeaks cables reveal that the Americans continued to monitor Chávez’s influence in Peru. In 2007, for example, Struble declared that Venezuelan agents might have been involved in stoking unrest in the largely indigenous department of Puno. In light of Washington’s previous concern, it is not a stretch to imagine that the Obama administration may be slightly concerned about a Humala upset on Sunday.

Yet, peer a little deeper and it would seem that the U.S. has little to fear. Indeed, the Humala of 2011 bears little resemblance to the military man’s previous political incarnation. The brash candidate no longer sports red campaign shirts, instead opting for grey suits and dark blue ties. What is more, Humala speaks warmly of free markets, has pledged to support investors’ rights and cites World Bank reports when making his points. In addition, even if he did win the presidency, it’s doubtful that Humala would have enough support in Congress to inaugurate momentous change.

Moreover, any lingering threat of Venezuelan contagion can probably discounted as Humala has done his utmost to distance himself from the more radical crowd including Chávez, Morales and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Determined to avoid the red baiting pitfall, Humala has bent over backward to prove that he is a responsible statesman. When Chávez described Humala as a “good soldier,” one of Humala’s own congressional candidates even threatened to launch a lawsuit against the Venezuelan president. Humala chimed in for good measure, telling Chávez to butt out of Peruvian affairs. “The Venezuelan model is not applicable in Peru,” commented a tamer Humala.

Humala is the only leftist candidate in the field, but he lacks something to be desired. In a disappointing development, the Peruvian has turned to strategists linked to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a political centrist. There may be other reasons to believe that Humala is not an ideal standard bearer for the left: for years, he has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses. The charges, none of which have ever been formally proven, stem from Humala’s stint as a commander in a remote army post during Peru’s civil war. In a wry but macabre aside, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has remarked that choosing between candidates like Keiko and Humala is like opting between cancer and AIDS.

Not to worry, though, as some observers are predicting that even though Humala may very well pass through the first round that he has little chance of ultimately prevailing. Though the former army man is surging in the polls, surveys suggest that Humala would not fare well in a second presidential runoff to be held on June 5th. That is certainly an electoral outcome that would satisfy Washington, since Keiko, Toledo and Kuczynski are all tied for second and none of them pose an ideological challenge to the U.S. (Castañeda is trailing but not fully out of the running yet).

The Leftist Quandary

Given the great likelihood that Peru’s next president will continue Alan García’s investor-friendly policies, we can surely anticipate more social conflict in troubled Peru. What is more, this campaign has been quite short on environmental debate centering on such vital issues as melting glaciers in the Andes [for more on this, be sure to check out my recent book]. There is some danger, too, that Peru will become something of a Brazilian satellite and subject to boondoggle development projects slashing through the Amazon rainforest. In recent years, green parties have emerged in other parts of South America and in some cases have even fared relatively well, though so far the Peruvian left has failed to launch a serious environmental candidate.

In a wider geopolitical sense, the election in Peru is likely to enhance the notion that the region’s “Pink Tide” to the left may be running out of steam. Much like the Middle East right now, South America seemed to be headed toward revolutionary ferment just a few years ago. While the unrest is likely to continue in North Africa and the vicinity, the South American left is now facing a dilemma. With Chávez and his allies looking like something of a spent force, Brazil is fast emerging as the principal power in the neighborhood. Politically crass and lacking a compelling progressive vision of the future, Brazil is mostly interested in promoting stability and its own business investments [for anyone who would doubt such an interpretation, see my detailed articles since late November 2010 on the WikiLeaks cables]. In the coming months and years, we’ll see whether the Pink Tide has any staying power or will simply cave in to U.S. pressure, corporate interests and a politically bankrupt Brazilian juggernaut.

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Kozloff article on Al Jazeera

To read my article about WikiLeaks, Brazil and Cuba in the post-Castro era, click here.

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WikiLeaks: Feudal Social Relations in the Brazilian Countryside

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WikiLeaks: More Evidence of Brazil’s Rise on World Stage

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WikiLeaks: Brazil’s Military on the World Stage

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WikiLeaks: Lula’s Dislike of Pesky Leftist Diplomats

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WikiLeaks: Lula’s Secret Dealings with Chávez and Morales

When will Brazil throw its weight around on the world stage and actually start to challenge Washington? Judging from Wikileaks documents, that day may be very off indeed. Far from taking a stand against the United States, Brazilian diplomats serving in Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s administration sought to appease the Americans behind closed doors or, at most, express mild criticism. Since Wikileaks documents end in late 2009, we don’t know if incoming president Dilma Rousseff will choose to mimic her predecessor’s non-confrontational foreign policy, but most observers expect continuity. For the South American left, Wikileaks documents serve as a sobering wake-up call and underscore the difficult political work which lies ahead.

Recent cables pick up in 2005, at the height of the Bush administration’s diplomatic difficulties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. In Brasilia, U.S. ambassador John Danilovich expressed Washington’s “growing concern” about “Chávez’s rhetoric and actions” during a meeting with Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim. Going further, Danilovich sought to set up a joint U.S.-Brazilian operation which would gather intelligence on Chávez. Amorim rejected Danilovich’s entreaties, remarking that Brazil did not see Venezuela as a threat.

Nevertheless, Amorim said the Lula government would be interested in “any intelligence [the U.S.] wished to provide unilaterally.” What was behind Amorim’s interest, and might the diplomat have shared sensitive U.S. intelligence with Venezuela? Like Chávez, Lula came out of South America’s new left and the two shared cordial diplomatic relations, at least publicly. Perhaps, Brazil’s foreign minister hoped to double cross Washington, though frankly such an interpretation seems unlikely given that Lula had reportedly told Chávez to “tone down his rhetoric.”

Furthermore, Lula had “personally persuaded Chávez not to go swimming at a Chilean beach where Chávez intended to proclaim to gathered press that he was bathing in a spot which should be Bolivia's coastline on the Pacific.” Ever since the 1879-1904 War of the Pacific, La Paz has claimed that Chile denied Bolivia rightful access to the ocean and the issue strikes a nationalist chord in the impoverished and landlocked Andean nation. Historically, Chávez has been a leading critic of the more pro-U.S. Chile and a champion of leftist political movements in Bolivia.

The Petrobras Affair

The Danilovich-Amorim détente took place against the backdrop of political instability in the Andes. In Washington, the Bush administration was concerned about coca grower and rising political star Evo Morales, who would shortly succeed to the presidency of Bolivia and become Chávez’s protégé. During his meeting with the U.S. ambassador, Amorim sought to depict Brazil as a reliable regional partner. The Lula administration, which was focused on the “economic exposure of Brazilian companies in Bolivia, along with the threat posed to regional stability by unrest there,” sought to persuade Morales that the Bolivian needed “to act in a democratic fashion.”

Compared to the politically volatile Andean region, Brazil is certainly an island of tranquility and it is understandable that the Lula administration would seek to promote regional calm within its own “near abroad.” There’s always a fine line, however, between promoting stability and diluting South America’s common leftist front. Wikileaks cables suggest that, more often than not, Lula opted for the latter in his dealings with Bolivia. Shortly after the Danilovich-Amorim meeting, the Americans checked in with Lula’s Institutional Security Cabinet and asked if Brazil had a contingency plan “if the Bolivia political situation deteriorates into instability or radicalization that threatens Brazilian interests, especially Petrobras [a mixed private/state Brazilian energy company which had operations in Bolivia] and energy resources from Bolivia that are critical to industry in southern Brazil.”

Brazilian officials frankly admitted that they were “banking on ‘a strategy of hope,’ i.e., that despite fiery nationalist rhetoric during the elections, sensible leaders in Bolivia will not allow radical new government policies or general instability to damage Brazilian energy industries which contribute so massively to Bolivia's economy.” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Phillip Chicola remarked that Lula’s security apparatus was particularly concerned “about the potential for increased cocaine flows into Brazil from Bolivia in the event of a Morales victory.”

In the wake of Morales’ electoral victory, Lula and Amorim announced they would maintain “strong relations” with Venezuela and Bolivia, but did not seek to “abandon” or “contaminate” Brazil’s bilateral ties to the Bush White House. Writing to Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, Chicola suggested that the U.S. seek to exploit Brazilian-Bolivian tensions in upcoming meetings. It would be wise, Chicola advised, for Shannon to bring up “the grittier, real-world worries of Brazilian law enforcement and intelligence services about the increased threats a Morales presidency may bring in the arenas of narcotrafficking and other cross-border criminal activities.”

In mid-2006, Lula was placed in a further quandary when Morales nationalized foreign oil and gas investments in Bolivia. Publicly, U.S. diplomats noted, the Brazilian president “issued a stunningly bland public statement…recognizing Bolivia's sovereignty to act as it did but reaffirming that Brazil would act to protect the interests of…Petrobras.” In a private meeting with the Americans, however, deputy foreign affairs advisor Marcel Biato painted a more intricate picture. According to him, Bolivia and Petrobras had been involved in “what appeared to be relatively positive discussions.” Later, however, Morales abruptly broke off the talks and “there was a lot of Morales interaction with Chávez.”

At a meeting in Brasilia, Lula was scheduled to “register his concern” about “Venezuelan involvement with Morales on the hydrocarbons issues.” The Brazilians, it seems, were angered when Morales dramatically sent in the army to occupy Bolivian gas fields. In the final analysis, American diplomats noted, Morales was emboldened by Venezuelan support “after hearing that Chávez would (a) provide technical help to get gas out of the ground if Petrobras bails…and (b) buy the product.”

Writing to his superiors in Washington, Chicola noted that “Lula and his foreign policy team could not look worse at this moment. The image of Bolivian soldiers moving into Petrobras installations is vivid and offensive for Brazilians of all classes, and will appear to many as a massive rebuke to the Lula administration's theology of a Brazilian-led new era of ‘regional integration.’ Indeed, in the Brazilian press and popular imagination, Lula is increasingly seen as outmaneuvered, manipulated and flim-flammed by his ‘hermanos,’ Chávez and Morales.”

Adding insult to injury, on the same day that Morales announced the gas nationalization the Bolivian president also stated his intention to carry out agricultural reforms which could affect Brazilian farmers residing within the Andean nation. Numbering some 15,000-strong, the farmers had been gradually moving into Bolivia where they had taken to cultivating soybeans. Chicola noted that “any action taken that would threaten the rights of those farmers would occasion a public outcry in Brazil, probably worse than that caused by the spectacle of Bolivian soldiers occupying Petrobras facilities.” Needless to say, as I point out in my recent book, soybean farming has been highly damaging to the environment and in this sense Brazilian interests run contrary to social progress in the Andes.

‘Managing’ Morales

All in all, Brazilian officials were exasperated by Morales, a politician who was intent on playing poker with Brasilia but who had no sense of “logic and rationality.” When Chicola “challenged” Biato “about the growing public perception in Brazil that Morales and Chávez are in cahoots at Lula’s expense,” the Brazilian was “laconic.” “What are we supposed to do?” Biato lamented. “We can’t choose our neighbors. We don’t like Chávez’s modus operandi or Morales’ surprises, but we have to manage these guys somehow, and keep the regional integration idea alive.”

The idea that Brazil might have to “manage” pesky Bolivia, much as the U.S. has sought to oversee political developments in, say, Central America, proved irksome to the Lula administration. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Brazilian presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told the Americans that Bolivia’s instability stemmed in large measure from Morales’ highhanded attitude. The coca leader, Garcia declared, had come into office “as if it were a revolution.” Prolonged instability in neighboring Bolivia, the diplomat added, could worsen “like a flammable gas in the air.”

Many Brazilians, Garcia continued, were frankly surprised by Morales’ “confrontational posture” toward Brazil early on and the Lula administration had been compelled to warn Bolivia, like Venezuela before, to “tone down the rhetoric” and to “cease provoking the United States.” Fundamentally, Garcia opined, Bolivia would have to get its political house in order if the country sought to attract foreign investment and maximize its energy potential. A further cable from late 2009, now well into the Obama era, suggests that relations failed to improve over time. Speaking to the Americans, Brazilian diplomats characterized their relationship with Morales as “frustratingly difficult to manage” and expressed ongoing interest in joint counter-narcotics operations with Bolivia and the United States.

Brazil’s Ambiguous Role

Though Brazil has refused to ostracize its leftist neighbors at the behest of Washington, South America’s biggest political and economic powerhouse has acted rather cynically more often than not. Publicly, Lula expressed solidarity with his leftist colleagues in Brazil’s near abroad, but behind the scenes diplomats worked to dilute a common anti-imperialist front. Putting on airs in private, Brazilian diplomats evidently feel their own country is superior and more “mature” than neighboring nations where rabble-rousing populist regimes hold sway. As the U.S. loses geopolitical influence in South America, will Brazil expand its own regional sphere and what are the larger implications? If Wikileaks cables are any indication, promoting revolutionary change could not be farther from the minds of Brazilian officials. Rather, narrow-minded energy and economic interests will guide Lula’s successors.

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Endgame: Could Lula’s Support for Wikileaks Translate into Brazilian Asylum for Assange?

According to Spanish newspaper El País, Julian Assange might be looking for political asylum in Brazil, and the Wikileaks founder is reportedly even interested in basing some of his organization’s operations in the South American nation. Brazil, Assange explains, “is sufficiently large so as to resist U.S. pressure; the country has the requisite economic and military means to do so.” The Wikileaks marked man adds that Brazil “is not like China or Russia which are intolerant toward freedom of the press.”

What could have prompted Assange to consider asylum in South America? In recent days, outgoing President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been one of Wikileaks’ most prominent defenders, remarking that Assange is a champion of free expression. Interrupting a run-of-the-mill speech about infrastructure development, Lula declared “What’s its name? Viki-leaks? Like that? To WikiLeaks: my solidarity in disclosing these things and my protest on behalf of free speech.”

The Brazilian president added, “I don’t know if they put up signs like those from Westerns saying, ‘wanted dead or alive.’ The man was arrested and I’m not seeing any protest defending freedom of expression…Instead of blaming the person who disclosed it, blame the person who wrote this nonsense. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the scandal we now have.”

Assange has praised Lula for speaking out about Wikileaks, and promises to release more cables relating to U.S.-Brazilian relations. Relatively speaking, Wikileaks has already published a great number of documents from the U.S. consulate in São Paulo and the American Embassy in Brasilia. Assange says some members of his organization are Brazilian, and “it would be great to receive an offer” of political asylum from Lula.

Lula Might Want to Read the Cables

So, just how likely would it be for Brazil to extend asylum to Assange? It is one thing to praise Wikileaks for shedding light on U.S. foreign policy and quite another to welcome such a whistleblower to Brazilian shores. On the face of it, such an endgame would seem unlikely: though Wikileaks cables have proven to be a severe embarrassment to Washington, the documents aren’t too flattering toward Brazil either.

Political idealists may have hoped that Brazil, which forms part of the regional “Pink Tide” which has come to power in recent years, would move the leftist agenda forward in South America. Yet, Wikileaks documents seem to dash any such hopes. As I discussed in an earlier article, the Brazilian political elite is divided with some senior figures in the security apparatus opposing Venezuela’s Chávez and negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors.

While Wikileaks cables suggest that the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry, also known as Itamaraty, disagrees with the nation’s defense establishment when it comes to setting policy toward the U.S., it can hardly be said that Lula diplomats are a radical bunch intent on overturning Washington’s goals. Indeed, Itamaraty has sought to portray itself as a valuable geopolitical partner to the U.S., willing to promote “political stability” in the immediate regional neighborhood.

Bush Years and Brazil’s Double Game

Perhaps, after scrutinizing some of the recently released Wikileaks cables, Lula will think twice before backing Assange. In tandem with earlier documentation, the cables confirm the overall cynical nature of Brazilian foreign policy during the Bush era. They show that even as Lula was extending warm ties to Hugo Chávez, Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu was meeting with White House Special Envoy for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich. A staunchly anti-Chávez figure, Reich expressed “deep concern” with the political situation in Venezuela. Dirceu was critical of Chávez, remarking that Lula was “uncomfortable” with the Venezuelan’s behavior at a recent meeting of the G-15 in Caracas. Since the meeting, Lula had refused to take any of Chávez’s calls, though the Brazilian might agree to do so “as unpleasant as it may be.”

Shortly after the Reich-Dirceu tete-a-tete, Brazilian officials expressed “grave concerns” about the “seismic changes” occurring in Bolivia. Evo Morales’ electoral victory was still some two years off, and the Andean nation was going through a period of severe political instability. On the one side was the Carlos Mesa government, intent on ramming through a neo-liberal economic agenda, and on the other a rising tide of Indian opposition. Far from expressing any solidarity with Morales, Brazilian authorities said they were “disturbed” by the “energized indigenous movement” and sought to preserve political “moderation” at all costs in the neighboring Andean country.

If the Bush administration had any qualms about the political allegiances of the Lula regime, Dirceu sought to alleviate such concerns, remarking to U.S. ambassador John Danilovich that both Washington and Brasilia shared a common interest in promoting regional stability. The Lula government would seek to “ameliorate tensions” in Venezuela, Dirceu said. Another cable from the following year of 2005 lays even more bare Brazilian intentions toward Venezuela. According to the document, Dirceu said he planned to travel to Caracas to deliver a blunt message to Chávez to “stand down from his provocative rhetoric,” “do his homework” and “stop playing with fire.”

Specifically, the Brazilians were upset with Chávez for pursuing useless provocations against the United States. Moreover, by pursuing an escalating war of words with Washington, Chávez was adversely affecting the course of commercial integration with Brazil. Dirceu’s mission was cleared at the top level by Lula, who sought to meet with Bush “at the earliest opportunity” so as to “clear the air” on Venezuela. When Danilovich asked Dirceu whether Brazil was in reality pursuing a strategic alliance with Chávez behind Washington’s back, the Brazilian assured the U.S. ambassador that there was “not a single item of anti-American intent” in Lula’s “regional policy matrix.” In the long term, Dirceu added, Brazil hoped to draw Venezuela into more moderate and practical economic integration.

Perhaps, Lula’s erstwhile leftist supporters within his own Workers’ Party would have been surprised by what came next. According to the documents, Dirceu said it was “crucial” for Bush to meet personally with Lula so that the two might discuss the future of the Free Trade Area of the America or FTAA, a corporate free trade scheme backed by Washington but widely reviled by the South American left. Brazil, Dirceu remarked, could not “afford to create the impression that it lacks interest in the FTAA.” The Brazilian added that his government ought to increase its commercial relations with the U.S. “one hundred fold.” In five to ten years, Dirceu continued hopefully, South America might constitute one market under Brazilian dominance, and U.S. firms based in Brazil would certainly want to export their goods throughout the region.

From Bush to Obama: Brazil Reluctant to Challenge U.S. Interests

Four years after Dirceu’s meeting with Danilovich, Brazil was still reluctant to challenge U.S. hegemony in the wider region. When democratically elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup, Brazil strenuously protested. Yet, again Wikileaks cables show Lula as a timid player and fundamentally unwilling to counter the U.S. in its traditional sphere of influence. Perhaps, Brazil was afraid of being too closely identified with Zelaya, a Chávez protégé, for fear of jeopardizing its cherished ties to the newly installed Obama White House.

The Honduran imbroglio was all brought to a head when, in the midst of political hostilities, Zelaya made a surprise visit to the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. According to cables, Brazil had no hand in the matter and was caught off guard by the ousted Honduran leader. Though Brazil graciously welcomed Zelaya inside, the Lula government had no idea how to handle the subsequent standoff. When Honduran security forces surrounded the premises in a show of force, Lula requested U.S. assistance in helping to supply its embassy and head off any potential violence.

The Brazilians grew apprehensive of what might happen, and asked for diesel fuel to run their generator. Unfortunately, Brazilian officials noted, they did not have “the type of protection the U.S. Embassy has, the Marines,” and as a result could not defend their embassy. The Brazilians added that they believed Chávez was behind Zelaya’s appearance at their embassy, a maneuver which they apparently did not welcome. Perhaps somewhat incensed by Chávez, Brazil did not coordinate with Venezuela during the crisis, preferring instead to check in with Secretary of State Clinton who declared that Zelaya should behave himself and act in a peaceful manner.

Writing to her superiors, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Brasilia Lisa Kubiske summed up the crisis succinctly. “Having been vocal in its support for Zelaya’s return and dragged--almost certainly without advance warning--into an unaccustomed place at the center of the crisis,” she wrote, “Brazil appears to be at a loss as to what to do next. It is remarkable that the government of Brazil has apparently made no effort to reach out within the region or taken a more assertive role in seeking a resolution. Instead, planted firmly in the back seat, it appears Brazil is looking to the United States, the OAS, and the United Nations to safeguard its interests and, it hopes, navigate toward a long-term solution.”

In the end, Honduras held elections under extremely dubious circumstances and political repression against Zelaya supporters continued, accompanied by rampant human rights abuses. According to cables, however, the Lula government refrained from asserting itself too much. Brazilian officials told the U.S. that they were displeased about the situation in Honduras but did “not want this issue to create difficulties” with Washington. Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister at Itamaraty, added that the U.S. and Brazil should continue to pursue close ties even when the media sought to exploit the two countries’ differences. The diplomat declared that Brazil was not ready to recognize the recent election in Honduras as valid, but the Lula government was “done harping on this point.”

Wikileaks Endgame?

Clearly, Brazil has not emerged from the Wikileaks scandal smelling like a rose. Far from standing up for the progressive left in the wider region, the Lula government has more often than not acted timidly while negotiating with U.S. diplomats behind closed doors. It’s a sorry spectacle, and there may be more unflattering revelations in the pipeline: Assange has declared that Wikileaks possesses a whopping 2,855 cables related to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, of which only a few have been disclosed thus far.

Lula has publicly defended Wikileaks, but there may be limits to the Brazilian’s magnanimity. Thus far Lula has not addressed any of the leaked cables specifically, preferring instead to simply criticize Washington’s heavy handed use of foreign policy. For his part, Assange has been praising Lula to the skies, remarking that the Brazilian leader is brave for defending Wikileaks. Whether such flattery will work is another matter, however. If the Lula administration were to grant political asylum to Assange, this would create a diplomatic firestorm and seriously damage U.S. relations.

It seems unlikely that incoming president Dilma Rousseff, who takes office on January 1st, would want to risk such a fallout. Lula, however, might be another matter. The legendary president leaves office with a record-breaking 83% popularity, and Lula might think he can afford to make a controversial move on Wikileaks. That, at any rate, is what Assange clearly hopes for: recently, the Wikileaks founder remarked that Lula was nearing the end of his second term and as a result “he can speak more freely about what he genuinely thinks.”

I suspect that Assange may be overestimating Lula’s willingness to confront the U.S., but you never know. In any case, if Brazil does provide refuge to Assange the announcement will have to come in the next few days, as the window of opportunity for the Wikileaks founder is likely to close very shortly.

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