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

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


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


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


The Caracas Cables


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


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


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


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


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


The Kirchner Connection


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


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


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


Southern Cone Conundrum


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


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


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


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


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


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


Glossy Propaganda Tools


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


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


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


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


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


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


Paraguay Paranoia


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


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


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


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


Moving From the Venezuelan to Brazilian Threat


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


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


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


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


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

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WikiLeaks: So Much for Left Wing “Solidarity” in South America

In Oliver Stone's recent documentary South of the Border, leftist regimes in Latin America are depicted rather idealistically. In country after country, Stone interviews the region's leaders, who criticize the United States and present a common anti-imperialist front. Yet, while it's certainly true that politics has taken a decisive leftward shift from Venezuela to Bolivia and beyond, many differences and tensions remain. That, at any rate, is the impression I got when I read U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistleblower Wikileaks. Previously, in a couple of online articles, I analyzed internal political fissures within the top echelons of the Brazilian political leadership. U.S. cables reveal that some members of the Lula administration harbored suspicions about Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and, more often than not, saw eye to eye with Washington when it came to wider South American geopolitics. While these revelations are surely eye opening, it now appears as if they may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Take, for example, the case of Argentina. Publicly, the nation's power couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, has embraced Hugo Chávez and the region's leftist "Pink Tide." Yet in 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires noted that Néstor was engaged in a kind of diplomatic double game: on the one hand, the Argentine president sought to "stake out a position for himself close to Chávez," while also maintaining a close working relationship with the U.S. on particular issues such as counter-terrorism. The U.S. Embassy saw Kirchner as a kind of latter-day, independent Charles de Gaulle, a politician who would maintain a "balance" in relations between Venezuela and the U.S.
Néstor: A Paper Tiger?

From the beginning, American officials noted, the Kirchner style "has been combative in the face of real, imagined and fabricated challenges from sources as varied as the Catholic church, neoliberalism and the 'Washington consensus,' the World Bank and IMF, parasitic foreign multi-nationals, the press and political opponents (whether from within or from outside the Peronist party) and — indirectly stated — the U.S. This style has stood him in good stead. As the economy boomed, buoyed by favorable external factors, his popularity ratings have soared, and have remained high, due in no small part to his pugnacious character." Wikileaks cables reveal U.S. diplomats by turn as either cynical, supercilious or blasé toward the South American left, so one must take the documents with a certain grain of salt. In this case, however, it would appear that the Americans had a bead on Kirchner. Indeed, even as Néstor struck an anti-imperialist pose, senior Argentine officials were meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for discussions on counter-terrorism and counternarcotics efforts. What is more, in conversations with Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, Gonzales brought up the "the situation in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the need for strengthening stability in the region." Hardly confrontational, the Argentines placed great importance on attracting U.S. investment.

Despite his rhetorical bluster, U.S. officials had little fear of Néstor. Though U.S.-Argentine relations took a nosedive as a result of the November, 2005 Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas, in which leftists leaders, Kirchner included, showed up George Bush, Néstor was at heart an opportunist and would not move against the U.S. In fact, the Mar del Plata episode "perhaps convinced Kirchner he had gone a bit too far down the populist route. Since then, we have seen a gradual and steady improvement in relations with an increasing willingness by senior-level officials in engaging in dialogue with us and in identifying areas where we can strengthen cooperation.

Cristina: She's No Rebel


Cristina Kirchner proved similarly pliable. On the presidential campaign trail, the Argentine first lady touched base with the U.S. ambassador and "expressed a strong desire to promote foreign investment, increase scientific and educational exchange with the United States, and 'tell it like it is' with American policymakers." Cristina's conciliatory tone convinced the Americans that she would be a "reliable, trustworthy, and accessible partner of the United States."

In another 2009 cable, U.S. diplomats report on Argentina's mid-term elections in which the Kirchners lost badly. Discussing the post-electoral milieu, the Americans expressed skepticism that Argentina's power couple would radicalize the country, preferring instead a "reform-lite" agenda which would seek "to recapture political space without significant policy concessions."

Moreover, on the foreign policy front diplomats did not expect Cristina to embrace a more "Bolivarian" agenda. The Argentines, U.S. diplomats noted, had "become much less eager to criticize the U.S. directly since Barack Obama became President. CFK [Cristina] wears her affection for our Commander-in-Chief on her sleeve." Furthermore, Argentina was unlikely to embrace Bolivarian politics more generally, since Brazil was a much more important economic partner than Venezuela. "Lula and his associates will remain an important moderating influence on the Kirchners," diplomats noted.

Chile: Bachelet Placates U.S. Diplomat

Judging from the cables, the U.S. had little to fear from Chile, either. During a luncheon meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela at La Moneda Presidential Palace, Bachelet exclaimed that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. Fortunately, Bachelet remarked, there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez. Then Bachelet dished on the Kirchners, remarking that Argentina "has problems with credibility as a country." The country's Peronist ideology, Bachelet said, "can lead to paranoia" and undermine political and economic stability. In contrast to orderly and reliable Chile, Bachelet said, "Argentines tend to live from crisis to crisis...rather than pursuing stable, long-term policies." In a particularly damning aside, Chileans at the meeting agreed that Cristina was emblematic of Argentina's problems.

Embattled Venezuela
The more populist regimes could use a bit more diplomatic support from the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Yet as the Wikileaks documents reveal, that is extremely unlikely since moderate leaders throughout the region are politically compromised by the United States and, even worse, criticize their peers in private with American diplomats. Even worse, some leaders even lobby the U.S. to take a harder line with Chávez. At one meeting in 2009, for example, Mexico President Felipe Calderón urged U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to increase U.S. presence in the wider region, and in particular to engage Brazil in an effort to isolate Venezuela.

Faced with dwindling support, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia have become very embattled and take a no holds barred, combative approach toward Washington. It's a battle of nerves which has become much more intense than commonly portrayed in the media. As early as 2006, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that "Cubans cooperate extensively with Venezuelan intelligence services." Indeed, diplomats reported that "Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chávez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting unvetted by Venezuelan officers."

U.S. officials fretted about the situation, remarking that "The impact of Cuban involvement in Venezuelan intelligence could impact U.S. interests directly. Venezuelan intelligence services are among the most hostile towards the United States in the hemisphere, but they lack the expertise that Cuban services can provide. Cuban intelligence routinely provides the BRV [Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela] intelligence reports about the activities of the USG [U.S. government]."

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas struck back in kind. Two years later, American officials requested assistance from the Department of Defense in executing a "strategic communications plan...to influence the information environment within Venezuela. The strategy's goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the U.S. and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries." Hardly amused by the Americans and their propaganda efforts, Venezuela reportedly conducted intelligence operations against the U.S. Embassy as recently as January, 2010.

Bolivia: A Pawn in Wider Geopolitical Chess

Faced with domestic political unrest and hostility from Washington, Bolivia has also engaged in a battle of nerves with the United States. Yet unlike Venezuela, Bolivia is very poor and perhaps as a result has relied on extensive foreign assistance in charting its political destiny. In Wikileaks documents, Bolivia emerges as a kind of political pawn in the midst of larger geopolitical forces.

In 2006, the U.S. Ambassador in La Paz wrote that "President Morales... lacks confidence in his economic and international relations abilities." As a result, Morales relied on a group of Cuban and Venezuelan advisers "who seem to have growing influence with the President." U.S. sensitive reporting meanwhile revealed that Morales met with his foreign advisers many times a week without any domestic advisers present. "Morales," the ambassador continued, "likely sees the Cuban and Venezuelan advisers as non-threatening to his domestic power." The following year, a U.S. report claimed that Venezuela had greased the political loyalty of Bolivian military commanders. However, these Venezuelan "bonuses" had "created much resentment in the mid- and lower-ranks and cost the high command significant legitimacy." U.S. cables suggest that Morales may be somewhat sensitive to the notion that Bolivia is being overrun by foreign interests. In one communication, it is mentioned that "Morales sees environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez." An animated Morales reportedly declared that "he was surrounded by well-wishers in [the international climate summit at] Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."

How much can we trust these sensitive documents dealing with Bolivia, let alone Venezuela? Perhaps, U.S. officials in both countries painted an unflattering portrait of both countries because they thought that was what their superiors wanted to hear, or alternatively the intelligence is just plain shoddy. However, one cannot discount that the accounts have some basis: recently some Latin American leaders failed to show up for a summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Perhaps, the Wikileaks scandal is causing embarrassment.


Wikileaks and its Significance for the Hemisphere


Though the U.S. certainly doesn't emerge very rosy from the Wikileaks scandal, coming off more often than not as manipulating, imperious and supercilious toward the Latin American Pink Tide, the recent torrent of released documents doesn't reflect well on South American leaders either. Far from presenting a united anti-imperialist front, the Pink Tide is internally divided and frequently compromised. Additionally, some reports reveal certain leaders as somewhat vain or petty. It's too early to say what the likely impact of the Wikileaks scandal will be on the hemisphere, though hopefully it will prompt South American political leaders to take a more critical stance toward the United States and to cease their useless and counter-productive backbiting.

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