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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2


Wikileaks and Latin America, part 2

In the last edition of NewsNotes, we looked at Wikileaks cables about some of the countries where Maryknoll works in Latin America. This edition, we look at Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela.

Nicaragua

The few documents released so far include three cables containing a long list of accusations against the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government and President Daniel Ortega. The accusations, which date from the 1980s to the present, include corruption, mismanagement, human rights abuses, media censorship, drug trafficking, anti-Semitism and even promoting terrorism and destabilization in neighboring countries. One oft-repeated charge describes Nicaraguan officials returning from Venezuela with suitcases of money used to bankroll political campaigns.

Another cable indicates the difficulty that opposition parties may have in confronting FSLN candidates in elections on November 6, 2011. "We often come away bemused from meetings with rural mayoral candidates who appear oblivious of the need to develop platforms and campaigns," Paul Trivelli, former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, wrote in May 2008. "Many such candidates, several of whom could be described as 'charisma-challenged,' seem to believe that simply being non-FSLN will be enough to get them elected."

What surprised many commentators was that the information listed contained nothing that had not already been alleged and reported in public news sources. As Ortega's former vice president Sergio Ramirez stated, the cables are "just a collection of information that people already talk about on the street. But there's nothing new here…This isn't intelligence, it's gossip."

The lack of new information has prompted some to say that the leak may play into Ortega's hand, showing that the U.S. has such limited intelligence sources.

Panama

The Latin American country where Wikileaks documents have uncovered the most controversial and damaging information is Panama. The cables reveal high-level corruption surrounding a July 2009 contract to add a third set of locks to the Panama Canal, as well as an alleged illegal wiretapping operation by President Ricardo Martinelli.

On December 16, 2010 Panama's ambassador to the U.S., Jaime Aleman, resigned after cables were released showing that the decision to award a $3.2 million Panama Canal contract to Spanish firm Sacyr was mired by corruption on many levels.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) administrator, Alberto Aleman Zubieta, allegedly gave preference to Sacyr in order to enrich himself and family members. Before becoming the ACP administrator, Alberto Aleman was the general manager of CUSA, a Panamanian construction company and member of the Sacyr consortium. His cousin Rogelio Aleman replaced him as general manager while another cousin, now resigned ambassador Jaime Aleman, provided legal representation for the consortium. Alberto Aleman's sister Vicky is a founding partner of Jaime's law firm. So by rewarding the contract to Sacyr, Alberto Aleman also provided well for his family.

The deal also affected U.S.-Spain relations; in one cable, U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson wrote, "We strongly suspect that the financially troubled Sacyr was able to offer a surprisingly low price due to backing from the Spanish government … Sacyr's win over consortia led by Bechtel and ACS [also from Spain] complicates our bilateral relationship on both political and economic levels."

Another scandal revealed by the Wikileaks cables involved President Martinelli allegedly pressuring and even blackmailing the U.S. embassy to help him spy on political opponents and unions. One cable paints an interesting picture of a meeting between Martinelli and Ambassador Stephenson during which he allegedly pressures for wiretapping assistance. Stephenson wrote, "[Martinelli] made reference to various groups and individuals whom he believes should be wiretapped, and he clearly made no distinction between legitimate security targets and political enemies. Martinelli suggested that the USG [U.S. government] should give the GOP [government of Panama] its own independent wiretap capability as 'rent' in exchange for the use of GOP facilities."

According to the cable, when Martinelli "made an implicit threat to reduce counter-narcotics cooperation if the USG did not help him on wiretaps" the U.S. ambassador replied that she "would readily inform Washington and we would all see Panama's reputation as a reliable partner plummet dramatically … Martinelli immediately backed off, and said he did not want to endanger cooperation."

Martinelli has denied any request for assistance in illegal wiretapping saying that "any such interpretation of that request is completely mistaken." Another government official commented that it was "a mistaken interpretation by U.S. authorities of the request made for assistance in combating drug trafficking, crime and organized crime."

Venezuela

A key learning from Wikileaks cables regarding Venezuela is the extent of the campaign by a number of regional government leaders to undermine Hugo Chavez and diminish Venezuelan influence in the area. The cables also show that, rhetoric aside, the U.S. government is not actually concerned about Venezuela providing uranium to Iran or Russia.

From U.S. embassies in a number of countries around the region, released cables refer to government leaders plotting with U.S. officials to weaken Venezuelan influence. Perhaps the boldest is a cable from the U.S. embassy in Santiago, Chile in June 2007 written by Craig Kelly, who was then ambassador to Chile and is currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. In the memo, Kelly delineates a six-point strategy for "the U.S. government to limit Chavez's influence" and "reassert U.S. leadership in the region." The six points include "Know thy Enemy" (increase information sharing among U.S. embassies regarding Venezuelan initiatives), "Change the Political Landscape" (enhance the influence of Argentina and Brazil in the region to counteract Chavez), "Play to Our Mil-Mil Advantage" (augment trainings and peacekeeping missions with regional militaries), and "Stress Our Winning Formula" (tout benefits from free trade as a way to diminish Chavez's popularity among the region's poor).

It is not only the U.S. that is interested in weakening the Chavez government. In January 2008, the president of neighboring Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, reportedly asked the U.S. to initiate a "public campaign against Chavez" in order to counter Chavez's "Bolivarian expansionist dreams." Mimicking some of the populist rhetoric heard in the U.S., Uribe is reported in one cable to have "likened the threat Chavez poses to Latin America to that posed by Hitler in Europe." Released cables also show that Uribe authorized Colombian military incursions into Venezuelan territory during operations against the FARC rebel group.

A cable from October 2009 describes a meeting between Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and U.S. National Intelligence director Dennis Blair during which Calderon reportedly said that Mexico was working to isolate Venezuela through the Rio Group, an international organization of Latin American and Caribbean countries.

From within Venezuela, political opponents also have asked for the U.S. to work to undermine Chavez. Many opposition groups receive funding from the National Endowment for Democracy. Venezuelan Archbishop Baltazar Porras asked the U.S. government to "contain the regional aspirations" of Chavez, according to a January 2005 cable. Porras reportedly offered to organize a joint effort by the U.S. and Venezuela's Catholic hierarchy and private business sector to try to win over poor communities that had benefitted from the Chavez regime. Porras, the vice president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, has denied saying any such thing, classifying the leaked cable as "a science fiction movie script."

Cables from 2005, 2006 and 2008 show that the U.S. has repeatedly approached Brazil to take a leading role in isolating Chavez in the region, with little effect. Brazil foreign minister Celso Amorim's response in 2005, "We do not see Chavez as a threat," indicates the success of those requests.

Finally, a number of released cables show that, despite publicly announced concerns of Venezuela aiding Iran and Russia (referred to as VIRUS in U.S. diplomatic circles) by providing them uranium for their nuclear projects, there are no substantial uranium deposits in Venezuela. One candid nuclear scientist quoted in a cable said -- of those spreading rumors about Venezuela helping countries develop atomic bombs -- they are "full of (expletive)."

A June 2009 cable also finds that "there is no indication of any interest on the part of the government to resume uranium exploration or exploitation." A cable from January of the same year quotes a Venezuelan nuclear scientist saying, "Even if the government of … Venezuela were serious, it would take 10 to 15 years to make substantial progress towards developing a nuclear energy program using domestic resources."

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