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January-February 2011
Vol. 36, No. 1

Latin America: Wikileaks revelations, part 1

While most press coverage of the U.S. State Department cables revealed by the website Wikileaks has centered on the Middle East, a number of cables have been from and about Latin American countries. Information contained in some messages confirmed suspicions about political leaders, providing new details. Others have brought new information showing internal contradictions in the policies of the U.S. and other governments. Cables from countries considered to be “oppositional” like Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, show how embassies often use biased information from untrustworthy sources. So far, though, the cables leaked are unlikely to cause any major diplomatic problems in the Americas.

Bolivia: Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera has publicly supported the Wikileaks organization and posted all U.S. diplomatic cables released that pertain to Bolivia on his official website. He said that he wants people to know the “barbarities and insults” of what he called Washington’s “interventionist infiltration.” The released documents show the biased view of Bolivian reality held by many embassy staff as well as their paternalistic attitude toward indigenous Bolivians. A January 23, 2009 cable gave an analysis of the political situation leading up to the referendum on the new Constitution, saying most of the support for the document came from “disinterest, blind faith in [President] Evo Morales’ political project, and illiteracy.” The cable makes no reference to the fact that the Constitution was a response to the long term demands from the same supporters that the cable disparages.

Many of the cited sources are conservative, often opposition forces, whose views are repeated without counterbalance. For example, one cable about supposed election fraud by Morales’ political party, Movement for Socialism (MAS), uses the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, the central opposition force at the time, as a source. In contrast, international observer organizations like the Organization of American States, the United Nations and the Carter Center approved of the elections without reservations.

A description of an attack on indigenous protestors in the Pando department also shows bias in the embassy’s information. A cable quotes a redacted source who claimed that the MAS set up the assault in order to arrest local political leaders and win the vote in that department. This claim had no basis in fact and should not have been repeated by the embassy as a legitimate analysis of the situation.

Brazil: Other than confirming the Brazilian government’s extreme concern over control of the Amazon and the U.S. diplomatic corps’ almost fawning admiration for the country, documents leaked by Wikileaks have brought little new information. One interesting exception is documents showing internal division in the Brazilian government in relation to Venezuela. While President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva refused to go along with U.S. requests to help isolate Venezuela, one cable shows that the Lula administration offered to support Su’mate, a Venezuelan NGO working in opposition to Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, in exchange for U.S. authorization to sell a Brazilian training aircraft, the “Supertucano,” to other South American countries.

Like Bolivian Vice President Garcia, Lula has also spoken out in defense of Wikileaks: “The guilty person is not the one who did the reporting, but the person who wrote silly things.”

Chile: Cables from Chile show that relations with the indigenous Mapuche people were an important and difficult issue for President Michelle Bachelet’s administration. Some cables show that the Chilean government asked for help from the U.S. to investigate whether the Mapuches were receiving funding from “foreign terrorist groups and/or Venezuela.”

Another cable shows that, in contrast to the embassy in Bolivia, the U.S. embassy in Chile distinguishes between biased and non-biased sources of information. “Despite sensationalist press coverage and a popular image of bloody conflict in [the] Mapuche heartland, [policy officers] found that relations between indigenous and non-indigenous communities were largely nonviolent, if often tense and distrustful,” stated one official in a leaked cable.

Colombia: Leaked cables from Colombia are an example of diplomatic actions that are perhaps better to be kept secret. The documents show that former president Alvaro Uribe secretly sought to dialog with leadership of Colombia’s rebel forces, the FARC. This contradicts his public statements that he would never negotiate with them until they stopped kidnapping civilians, freed all of their captives and stop laying land mines. Various cables make reference to attempts to meet with FARC leaders, sometimes through the mediation of Switzerland. One cable also shows that U.S. embassy officials met with Pablo Catatumbo, a member of the FARC’s seven-person command. Governments should be able to hold secret meetings with adversaries if this is the only way to obtain such a connection. By leaking these documents, Wikileaks and other news outlets may cause set backs in important negotiations.

El Salvador: Leaked cables from the San Salvador embassy confirm and provide more detail about how President Mauricio Funes faces increasing division and even subterfuge from his own political party, the Farabundi National Liberation Front (FMLN). Funes’ decision to distance himself from more progressive leaders and focus on relations with Brazil has disappointed some FMLN members who were hoping for more significant engagement with the eight Latin American and Caribbean countries who comprise the ALBA coalition.

This led one U.S. embassy official to describe the Funes government as “schizophrenic.” Further quoting that cable, “The part of the government Funes controls is moderate, pragmatic, responsibly left-of-center and friendly to the (U.S. government)… The part he has ceded to hard-line elements of the [FMLN] is seeking to carry out the Bolivarian Chavista game-plan, including implacable hostility toward the [U.S. government.]”

One message says that Funes “suspects hard-line FMLN elements are intercepting Funes’ and his inner circle’s telephone calls” while another blames these same FMLN members as being behind street protests against a hydroelectric dam. The U.S. Embassy warned that “if things continue to deteriorate, we could see an open break between the two sides” ahead of legislative elections scheduled for 2012.

Guatemala: Only one cable from the U.S. embassy in Guatemala was released; it deals with first lady Sandra Torres de Colom’s intentions to run for president in 2011. This was not breaking news, but the cable’s analysis of her “abrasive personality” being difficult for the country’s “male-dominated society” to accept didn’t win any friends for the embassy.

In a cable from Mexico, U.S. diplomats describe the situation at the Mexico-Guatemala border as “dramatic” with little police presence and high levels of drug and arms trafficking.

Honduras: A cable sent a month after the coup that unseated President Manuel Zelaya shows how the U.S. embassy had no doubt about the illegitimacy of the coup despite State Department reluctance to act on that fact. The July 24 message, titled “Open and shut: The case of the Honduran coup” and signed by Ambassador Hugo Llorens, states clearly that the coup was unlawful. From the cable: “[T]here is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup ..., while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution. There is equally no doubt from our perspective that Roberto Micheletti’s assumption of power was illegitimate.”

After listing the principal arguments of coup supporters, the cable states, “In our view, none of the above arguments has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution. Some are outright false. Others are mere supposition or ex-post rationalizations of a patently illegal act.”

Despite this clear analysis, the State Department refused to acknowledge the coup and to impose required sanctions. A month after receiving this report, the State Department still had not cut off assistance to Honduras as is required by law, by creating a technicality over whether it was a “military coup” or not. The Obama administration continues to support Micheletti’s illegal government.

Mexico: Released cables from Mexico show that, despite public praise from U.S. officials toward Mexican police and military, they have great concern that the poorly trained and corrupt security forces are unable to deal with drug cartels.

Confirming the worries of many human rights organizations about the inappropriate use of military personnel for police work, one memo says that the Mexican army “has taken a serious beating on human rights issues from international and domestic human rights organizations, who argue with considerable basis, in fact, that the military is ill-equipped for a domestic policing role.”

The cables paint a fairly bleak picture of the police situation, citing more than just a lack of coordination between security forces or with prosecutors, but actual competition between them so that “one agency’s success is viewed as another’s failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of…”

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