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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.”
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.
As the WikiLeaks scandal drags on, a portrait is emerging of Brazil, and suffice it to say it is not too flattering. A rising power with global aspirations, Brazil has a lot more political and economic muscle than, say Venezuela or Bolivia. Yet, time and again the Lula administration takes a very meek approach toward the United States or, even worse, goes along with Washington's geopolitical machinations.
In previous articles, I discussed the Machiavellian scheming of Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who has sought to thwart the Ministry of Foreign Relations, also known as Itamaraty, in an effort to redirect foreign policy toward the United States. After reviewing those documents, I expected upcoming caches to paint a more progressive picture of Itamaraty's dealings. However, recently released cables certainly don't paint Brazilian diplomats as a particularly principled bunch either.
Though American diplomats under Obama fret that "U.S.-Brazil cooperation is often limited by Brazil's unwillingness to speak out against anti-democratic actions in the hemisphere (Venezuela and Cuba)," nonetheless they note that "military-to-military relations are good and growing, and most of the Brazilian military understands the potential benefits of partnership with the United States." Meanwhile, "cooperation on law enforcement issues, such as counternarcotics, container security, and intelligence sharing, is excellent and improving." Diplomats noted other areas of mutual interest including climate change and bio-fuels, neither of which bodes well for the environment [for more on this see my online articles regarding Brazilian obstructionism at the Copenhagen climate summit and its backroom deals with the United States].
Key in solidifying the diplomatic relationship with the U.S. is Minister Jobim, a political figure wielding considerable influence within the Lula administration. During a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela in late 2009, a "friendly and engaged" Jobim said that Brazil had no problem with the United States signing a defense agreement with Colombia. In another separate meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones, Jobim "stressed the importance of regional stability for Brazil, but cautioned that Brazil resists being labeled the regional leader because they do not see it as helpful in resolving problems."
One reason that Jobim may have been reluctant to challenge the U.S. within the Andean region has to do with weapons purchases and the expanding role of the military in Brazilian society. During his meeting with Valenzuela, Jobim expressed interest in purchasing Global Super Hornet F18 fighter planes from Boeing. Though many Brazilians have an unpleasant view of the armed forces as a result of the repressive military dictatorship of 1964-1985, Lula has recently moved the defense industry center stage. In tandem with such desires, "Jobim highlighted the fact that Brazil's new National Defense Strategy was crafted to ensure the defense sector would be an 'enabler of development.'"
García, Amorim and Rousseff: A Machiavellian Bunch
Brazilian diplomats are less partial to the U.S. agenda than Jobim, though they clearly don't want to rock the boat too much. In conversations with Valenzuela, Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio García characterized Hugo Chávez as a politician who "has no sense of proportion." García however did suggest that Valenzuela head to Caracas in an effort to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations. In response, Valenzuela was non-committal, noting that it was "difficult to ignore both the provocative statements by Chávez and his authoritarian tendencies." If García pressed Valenzuela any further on the matter, a cable released by Wikileaks makes no mention. As the conversation continued, García sought to reassure the visiting U.S. diplomat that Brazil was a "responsible" partner and dished on other leftist nations in South America. For example, García "described Ecuador's and Bolivia's political systems as 'rotten'; and called the future of Argentina 'a big question mark,' depending on whether the Kirchners recover or not." In the separate meeting with Jones, García stated that Brazil supported a U.S. free trade deal with Colombia. In a revealing aside, Lula Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff, who succeeds to the presidency of Brazil shortly, remarked that it was "disconcerting" to be confronted with questions from the press regarding United States bases in Colombia. "According to Rousseff," one cable notes, "issues such as this open the door for radicals who want to create problems in the region."
Speaking with Jones, the conversation then turned to the matter of the coup in Honduras. Though García supported the return of ousted leader and Chávez protégé Manuel Zelaya, the Brazilian was quick to add that Zelaya should be of little concern to Washington as he was "not a dangerous revolutionary." There was no need to worry, García added, noting that returning Zelaya to power "will not lead to significant changes." At that point, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim chimed in, proudly announcing that even though Chávez had wanted to make Zelaya into a martyr, Brazil had at long last convinced the Venezuelan leader that "only the United States can influence what happens in Honduras" and needed to be consulted. Hoping to mollify U.S. diplomats on Iran, Amorim characterized Brazil's ties to the Islamic Republic as "not deep, but pragmatic" and dominated by commercial concerns. He said the nature of the alliance should not be "overvalued" as the two nations "were not buddies." Echoing Amorim, García added that Brazil's engagement with the Islamic Republic was merely "a bet" which might not work. García described Lula's reception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "not warm."
What Does Brazil Stand For?
Reading the WikiLeaks cables, it is clear that Brazilian officials are exceedingly fixated on their image and on demonstrating to the United States that their country is a responsible player which stands for political stability, i.e. not leftist radicalization or populist rule. Though Lula pursued a quirky foreign policy at times, Rousseff's aside suggests she may opt for moderation rather than adventurism when crafting her own foreign policy over the next couple of years. For Venezuela and Bolivia, the not so subtle message from the WikiLeaks scandal is clear: while Brazil will not destabilize neighboring countries, neither can it be trusted.
In Oliver Stone's recent documentary South of the Border, leftist regimes in Latin America are depicted rather idealistically. In country after country, Stone interviews the region's leaders, who criticize the United States and present a common anti-imperialist front. Yet, while it's certainly true that politics has taken a decisive leftward shift from Venezuela to Bolivia and beyond, many differences and tensions remain. That, at any rate, is the impression I got when I read U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistleblower Wikileaks. Previously, in a couple of online articles, I analyzed internal political fissures within the top echelons of the Brazilian political leadership. U.S. cables reveal that some members of the Lula administration harbored suspicions about Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and, more often than not, saw eye to eye with Washington when it came to wider South American geopolitics. While these revelations are surely eye opening, it now appears as if they may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Take, for example, the case of Argentina. Publicly, the nation's power couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, has embraced Hugo Chávez and the region's leftist "Pink Tide." Yet in 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires noted that Néstor was engaged in a kind of diplomatic double game: on the one hand, the Argentine president sought to "stake out a position for himself close to Chávez," while also maintaining a close working relationship with the U.S. on particular issues such as counter-terrorism. The U.S. Embassy saw Kirchner as a kind of latter-day, independent Charles de Gaulle, a politician who would maintain a "balance" in relations between Venezuela and the U.S.
Néstor: A Paper Tiger?
From the beginning, American officials noted, the Kirchner style "has been combative in the face of real, imagined and fabricated challenges from sources as varied as the Catholic church, neoliberalism and the 'Washington consensus,' the World Bank and IMF, parasitic foreign multi-nationals, the press and political opponents (whether from within or from outside the Peronist party) and — indirectly stated — the U.S. This style has stood him in good stead. As the economy boomed, buoyed by favorable external factors, his popularity ratings have soared, and have remained high, due in no small part to his pugnacious character." Wikileaks cables reveal U.S. diplomats by turn as either cynical, supercilious or blasé toward the South American left, so one must take the documents with a certain grain of salt. In this case, however, it would appear that the Americans had a bead on Kirchner. Indeed, even as Néstor struck an anti-imperialist pose, senior Argentine officials were meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for discussions on counter-terrorism and counternarcotics efforts. What is more, in conversations with Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, Gonzales brought up the "the situation in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the need for strengthening stability in the region." Hardly confrontational, the Argentines placed great importance on attracting U.S. investment.
Despite his rhetorical bluster, U.S. officials had little fear of Néstor. Though U.S.-Argentine relations took a nosedive as a result of the November, 2005 Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas, in which leftists leaders, Kirchner included, showed up George Bush, Néstor was at heart an opportunist and would not move against the U.S. In fact, the Mar del Plata episode "perhaps convinced Kirchner he had gone a bit too far down the populist route. Since then, we have seen a gradual and steady improvement in relations with an increasing willingness by senior-level officials in engaging in dialogue with us and in identifying areas where we can strengthen cooperation.
Cristina: She's No Rebel
Cristina Kirchner proved similarly pliable. On the presidential campaign trail, the Argentine first lady touched base with the U.S. ambassador and "expressed a strong desire to promote foreign investment, increase scientific and educational exchange with the United States, and 'tell it like it is' with American policymakers." Cristina's conciliatory tone convinced the Americans that she would be a "reliable, trustworthy, and accessible partner of the United States."
In another 2009 cable, U.S. diplomats report on Argentina's mid-term elections in which the Kirchners lost badly. Discussing the post-electoral milieu, the Americans expressed skepticism that Argentina's power couple would radicalize the country, preferring instead a "reform-lite" agenda which would seek "to recapture political space without significant policy concessions."
Moreover, on the foreign policy front diplomats did not expect Cristina to embrace a more "Bolivarian" agenda. The Argentines, U.S. diplomats noted, had "become much less eager to criticize the U.S. directly since Barack Obama became President. CFK [Cristina] wears her affection for our Commander-in-Chief on her sleeve." Furthermore, Argentina was unlikely to embrace Bolivarian politics more generally, since Brazil was a much more important economic partner than Venezuela. "Lula and his associates will remain an important moderating influence on the Kirchners," diplomats noted.
Chile: Bachelet Placates U.S. Diplomat
Judging from the cables, the U.S. had little to fear from Chile, either. During a luncheon meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela at La Moneda Presidential Palace, Bachelet exclaimed that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. Fortunately, Bachelet remarked, there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez. Then Bachelet dished on the Kirchners, remarking that Argentina "has problems with credibility as a country." The country's Peronist ideology, Bachelet said, "can lead to paranoia" and undermine political and economic stability. In contrast to orderly and reliable Chile, Bachelet said, "Argentines tend to live from crisis to crisis...rather than pursuing stable, long-term policies." In a particularly damning aside, Chileans at the meeting agreed that Cristina was emblematic of Argentina's problems.
The more populist regimes could use a bit more diplomatic support from the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Yet as the Wikileaks documents reveal, that is extremely unlikely since moderate leaders throughout the region are politically compromised by the United States and, even worse, criticize their peers in private with American diplomats. Even worse, some leaders even lobby the U.S. to take a harder line with Chávez. At one meeting in 2009, for example, Mexico President Felipe Calderón urged U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to increase U.S. presence in the wider region, and in particular to engage Brazil in an effort to isolate Venezuela.
Faced with dwindling support, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia have become very embattled and take a no holds barred, combative approach toward Washington. It's a battle of nerves which has become much more intense than commonly portrayed in the media. As early as 2006, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas noted that "Cubans cooperate extensively with Venezuelan intelligence services." Indeed, diplomats reported that "Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chávez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting unvetted by Venezuelan officers."
U.S. officials fretted about the situation, remarking that "The impact of Cuban involvement in Venezuelan intelligence could impact U.S. interests directly. Venezuelan intelligence services are among the most hostile towards the United States in the hemisphere, but they lack the expertise that Cuban services can provide. Cuban intelligence routinely provides the BRV [Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela] intelligence reports about the activities of the USG [U.S. government]."
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas struck back in kind. Two years later, American officials requested assistance from the Department of Defense in executing a "strategic communications plan...to influence the information environment within Venezuela. The strategy's goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the U.S. and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries." Hardly amused by the Americans and their propaganda efforts, Venezuela reportedly conducted intelligence operations against the U.S. Embassy as recently as January, 2010.
Bolivia: A Pawn in Wider Geopolitical Chess
Faced with domestic political unrest and hostility from Washington, Bolivia has also engaged in a battle of nerves with the United States. Yet unlike Venezuela, Bolivia is very poor and perhaps as a result has relied on extensive foreign assistance in charting its political destiny. In Wikileaks documents, Bolivia emerges as a kind of political pawn in the midst of larger geopolitical forces.
In 2006, the U.S. Ambassador in La Paz wrote that "President Morales... lacks confidence in his economic and international relations abilities." As a result, Morales relied on a group of Cuban and Venezuelan advisers "who seem to have growing influence with the President." U.S. sensitive reporting meanwhile revealed that Morales met with his foreign advisers many times a week without any domestic advisers present. "Morales," the ambassador continued, "likely sees the Cuban and Venezuelan advisers as non-threatening to his domestic power." The following year, a U.S. report claimed that Venezuela had greased the political loyalty of Bolivian military commanders. However, these Venezuelan "bonuses" had "created much resentment in the mid- and lower-ranks and cost the high command significant legitimacy." U.S. cables suggest that Morales may be somewhat sensitive to the notion that Bolivia is being overrun by foreign interests. In one communication, it is mentioned that "Morales sees environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez." An animated Morales reportedly declared that "he was surrounded by well-wishers in [the international climate summit at] Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."
How much can we trust these sensitive documents dealing with Bolivia, let alone Venezuela? Perhaps, U.S. officials in both countries painted an unflattering portrait of both countries because they thought that was what their superiors wanted to hear, or alternatively the intelligence is just plain shoddy. However, one cannot discount that the accounts have some basis: recently some Latin American leaders failed to show up for a summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Perhaps, the Wikileaks scandal is causing embarrassment.
Wikileaks and its Significance for the Hemisphere
Though the U.S. certainly doesn't emerge very rosy from the Wikileaks scandal, coming off more often than not as manipulating, imperious and supercilious toward the Latin American Pink Tide, the recent torrent of released documents doesn't reflect well on South American leaders either. Far from presenting a united anti-imperialist front, the Pink Tide is internally divided and frequently compromised. Additionally, some reports reveal certain leaders as somewhat vain or petty. It's too early to say what the likely impact of the Wikileaks scandal will be on the hemisphere, though hopefully it will prompt South American political leaders to take a more critical stance toward the United States and to cease their useless and counter-productive backbiting.
Check out this article on al-Jazeera which features a couple of analysts on Venezuela including myself.
Hugo Chávez's geopolitical rivalry with Washington has reached soaring new heights -- literally into space. After meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Caracas recently, the Venezuelan leader remarked that Moscow had offered to assist Venezuela in developing its own space industry including a satellite launch site and a factory. It was Putin's first visit to Venezuela, and the Russian was received with full military honors upon arrival. "This is a truly important day for the country and for Latin America," Chávez said.
Back in Washington, officials wasted no time in dismissing the Chávez-Putin tête-à-tête. "We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages," declared State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. In a caustic reference to Spielberg's E.T. perhaps, Crowley added, "to the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."
What's behind the Chávez-Putin summit? At this point, the true scope of the space deal is unclear and hopefully all future initiatives will be wholly peaceful in nature. Could the discussions have something to do with counteracting U.S. influence? Chávez himself denies it, proclaiming loudly during Putin's visit that "we aren't making alliances here against Washington."
Such claims don't ring particularly true, however. For the past few years, Venezuela's leader has been assiduously courting Russian support. Indeed, just since 2005 he has signed a dozen military agreements with Moscow worth more than $4 billion. Chávez's buying spree has included helicopters, fighter jets, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. In addition, Venezuela has received more than $2 billion in credit lines for more Russian arms including T-72 tanks and an advanced anti-aircraft missile system.
To be sure, the Obama administration has stoked Venezuelan fears by proceeding with planned U.S. military bases in Colombia, a nation which borders Venezuela. Yet, there's something disturbing about Venezuela's turn towards Russia. In 2008, Chávez conducted joint military exercises with Russian vessels in the Caribbean, including the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great. The ship has massive firepower and can deliver conventional or nuclear warheads, as I described in an article at the time.
With Washington warning of a regional arms race, the left has chosen to stay mute about the weapons purchases or alternatively bash U.S imperialism. Within the increasingly more unsettling geopolitical milieu, Chávez rails about the need to create a "multi-polar" world in which the U.S. would not be the only superpower. Which nations are to comprise this Axis of Good? Presumably, those countries which Venezuela is seeking to ally to, including Russia but also others such as China and Iran.
Chávez is sounding increasingly defiant. When asked by reporters how the U.S. might view Venezuela's lavish defense spending, the president remarked, "We don't really care what Washington thinks." For his part, autocratic Putin sounded cynical when discussing the budding new relationship. If the U.S. didn't want to sell arms to Venezuela, he said, "Well, for us that's good."
During their meeting in Caracas, Chávez presented Putin with the so-called Order of the Liberator -- Venezuela's highest honor -- and provided the Russian leader a replica of a sword brandished by South American independence hero Simon Bolívar -- the namesake of Venezuela's socialist-inspired "Bolivarian Revolution." Kissing the replica, Putin remarked, "Russia from the start has supported Latin America's struggle for independence." The Russian added, unconvincingly, "Our objective is to make the world more democratic, make it balanced and multi-polar."
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets supported Cuba but it's debatable whether Russia ever took Latin American emancipation very seriously. Today, Russia has no ideological project and its take on Latin America seems even more narrow-minded. The budding geopolitical alliance between Russia and Venezuela, which now looks as if it could reach into space, would seem to be more of a marriage of convenience than anything else.
The same might be said of Venezuela's courting of China, a relationship which has already yielded collaboration in many realms including military. Reuters reports that Venezuela has purchased a network of radars and jet-training aircraft from the Asian nation. Venezuela says the planes will be used to train local pilots and intercept drug traffickers, though the K-8 planes may also be refitted for combat as well as a missile-defense radar system. Chávez, who says he is simply modernizing his armed forces, adds that "China has become one of the biggest allies of Venezuela, and Venezuela is one of the biggest allies of China in the world."
With the launching of Venezuela's Venesat-1 communications satellite in late 2008, that alliance has resulted in big benefits for Chávez. The satellite, also dubbed "Simon Bolívar," was built with Chinese know-how and was Venezuela's first. Chávez hailed the launch as an "act of liberation," designed to eliminate his country's "satellite illiteracy." Venesat-1 was the product of concerted shuttle diplomacy: Chávez has been a frequent visitor in Beijing.
Indeed, Venezuela and China have been collaborating on scientific and technological matters for the past eight years. As with Russia, Chávez hopes that growing ties with China will lead to a new multi-polar model in order "to break" U.S. hegemony. In 2005, both countries signed a contract for Venesat-1 in Caracas, and the next year Chávez went to China personally to oversee the construction of the satellite costing more than $200 million.
The satellite, which is designed to provide radio, television, and internet in three band frequencies, and whose signal will extend all the way from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, will facilitate not only broadcasting but also distance learning and medical services. In southeastern Venezuela, a financially poor and rugged region where land lines are expensive to build and maintain, Venesat-1 will provide welcome telecommunications coverage.
From an economic and social standpoint, that is certainly a welcome development: for years, satellite-based networks have been concentrated in Venezuela's higher-income, more heavily populated regions. Venesat-1 by contrast will help to facilitate distance education and bring the internet to schools and homes across Venezuela.
The orb will also lead to great advances in "telemedicine," that is to say the sending of medical tests of patients from remote areas via internet to medical centers for speedy diagnosis. This is particularly helpful for Warao Indians, a tribe residing in an easterly region of the Orinoco River Delta. Through telemedicine, the Warao will be able to consult specialists working in Venezuela's best hospitals.
Venezuela's Houston Mission Control
Let's not kid ourselves however: Venesat-1 also fulfills some valuable political objectives. Chávez himself has remarked that "a satellite at the service of capitalism is launched to make money, but Simón Bolívar will benefit development and the integration of our people." A satellite will help Chávez proceed with his agenda of politically integrating like-minded regimes throughout the region.
Reportedly, the first users of Venesat-1 have included the very vocally pro-Chávez public station Canal 8, as well as Telesur, an interesting pan-Latin American TV channel based in Venezuela [for those interested in exploring the politics surrounding Telesur and the media in Venezuela, see my chapter on the subject in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left]. Chávez says Venesat-1 will strengthen Venezuela's sovereignty by overcoming the constant U.S. "media bombardment."
El Sombrero is a town lying some 200 miles south of Caracas in Central Venezuela. Recently, rolling farming landscape has been transformed by the arrival of satellite technology. Chávez's version of Houston mission control, El Sombrero houses satellite dishes as well as a radar facility which has employed both Venezuelan and Chinese scientists. Above the entrance of the facility there's a massive sign reading "Patria, Socialismo o Muerte" -- Fatherland, Socialism or Death. Nearby lies an air force base where Russian Sukhoi fighters take off constantly from a landing strip.
Daniel Varnagy, a telecommunications expert from Simon Bolívar University, told the BBC that Venesat-1, which followed the nationalization of Venezuela's telecommunications sector, could give the government the possibility of interfering with communications. "Chávez is trying to protect his political project and his own person. He believes he's being pursued and spied on by other countries," Varnagy said.
Venezuelan authorities, however, insist their intentions are peaceful and rule out any military or espionage uses. Venesat-1, Chávez asserts, is designed to lead toward the "construction of socialism." The Venezuelan leader adds that Latin countries "spend millions of dollars in satellite services, almost all of them monopolized by big international companies. It is the domination of space." Hardly amused by such fiery rhetoric, Washington reportedly requested that China suspend the launch of Venesat-1, a plea which Beijing flatly disregarded.
Another Space Race?
Chávez is correct in criticizing the excesses of U.S. foreign policy and his concern about American dominance over the space industry is understandable. In light of U.S. high handedness in Latin America, it's reasonable that countries like Venezuela would want to build up their own space industry in an attempt to rival the technological edge of their northern neighbor. To be sure, Venesat-1 will also be put to some beneficial logistical and social uses [though it could also be abused].
The problem is not there, but in the overall geopolitical context in which Venezuela finds itself. In an effort to build up his "multi-polar world," Chávez has allied himself with anti-democratic countries like China and Russia. Chávez's relations with these two have a technological component, but the alliances have taken on an increasingly diplomatic and political hue and it is here where Venezuela gets into ideological contradictions.
In an effort to satisfy China, Chávez has been making bizarre statements backing up Beijing's repression in such far-flung corners of the globe as Tibet [for more on this, readers can go to my website and read this article]. Though the world would be a better place without a sole superpower like the U.S., Chávez's multi-polar vision is problematic and could very well make things worse. What's more, in a political sense Venezuela's alliances are making a mockery of Chávez's calls for "21st century socialism."
Another undesirable result of these alliances has to do with military strains. Tensions on the high seas between Russia and Venezuela on the one hand and the U.S. on the other are bad enough. Could we now see a similar drama in space? The last space race, which pitted the Soviet Union against the United States, exacerbated superpower tensions and made the world a very unsafe place to live.
NASA, beset with fluctuating budgets and the political whims of ever-changing administrations and congresses, has experienced a relative decline in recent years. While such a decline was not such a huge concern following the end of the Cold War, America's once-clear dominance of space is now being challenged by other nations. Russia has been a leader in space launches, but currently China is a key player in human spaceflight. Indeed, China became just the third nation after the United States and Russia to send its own astronauts out on a spacewalk.
Evan Ellis, a consultant with technology firm Booz Allen Hamilton, told the Los Angeles Times that Venesat-1 was an example of "strategic relationships" China had been able to acquire because the United States no longer "closely defends its exclusive presence" in Latin America.
"Traditionally, Chinese diplomacy has been cautious there for fear of provoking us and endangering its U.S. trade relationship," Ellis declared. "But it's become bolder in its affairs, not just with relatively neutral countries, but even with a country like Venezuela, which is openly hostile to the United States."
The new competition has some on Capitol Hill growing concerned. During a hearing of the House's subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last year, ranking Republican of Texas Pete Olson remarked, "We should never ever cede American leadership." With Russia and now China promoting space ties with many new nations such as Venezuela, there is sure to be much hand wringing in Washington in the not too distant future.
All of a sudden, the space industry has become pretty fluid. It's a situation with unforeseen consequences for the traditional players but also for up and coming countries like Venezuela, a medium-sized nation which has now chosen to insert itself into the wider geopolitical milieu.