Wikileaks and Latin America: Same Old Imperious U.S. Diplomats

As more and more documents become available from Wikileaks, the public has gotten a novel and close up view of U.S. diplomats and their operations abroad.  I was particularly interested to review heretofore secret documents dealing with Latin America, a region which has absorbed the attention of Washington officials in recent years.  While it’s certainly no secret that the Bush administration, not to mention the later Obama White House, have both sought to isolate the so-called “Pink Tide” of leftist regimes in South America, the Wikileaks documents give us some interesting insight into the mindset of U.S. diplomats as they carry out their day to day work.

Needless to say, the picture that emerges isn’t too flattering.

Take, for example, a 2005 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia which details a high level conversation which took place between the American ambassador, John Danilovich, and Brazilian General Jorge Armando Felix.  A longtime businessman, Danilovich spent 20 years in the shipping industry in London and it was there that the American organized voters for George Bush and his father.  A big time GOP donor, Danilovich proved a loyal lieutenant at his post in Brasilia, specifically by opposing the left turn in South America.

In 2005, Hugo Chávez was at the height of his political powers, challenging the unpopular Bush regime throughout the region.  Over in Bolivia meanwhile, Washington fretted that an erstwhile coca farmer, Evo Morales, might win his country’s presidential election.  For Washington, Brazil had become a country of vital geopolitical importance: if President Lula could be persuaded to drop his support of neighboring Venezuela, then the U.S. would certainly be more successful at halting the region’s leftist advance.  In the effort to turn back the Pink Tide, Danilovich was a key figure.

Speaking with the Brazilian daily O Estado de São Paulo, the diplomat accused Chávez of actually funding political forces within Bolivia.  Seeking to foster a common U.S.-Brazilian front, Danilovich said the funding was a concern for Washington and ought to preoccupy officials in Brasilia as well.  When reporters asked Danilovich whether he was accusing Chávez of directly funding Morales’ campaign, the diplomat would not specify [Morales himself denied the U.S. allegations].

Behind closed doors, Danilovich continued his diplomatic offensive.  After lunching with General Felix, the ambassador broached the subject of Venezuela, noting that Chávez was “disrupting Brazil’s efforts to play a leading role politically and economically in South America.”  It’s unclear from the cable what Felix might have thought about the ambassador’s comments, though reading between the lines it seems the military man may have been sympathetic toward the U.S. and disagreed with his own government’s official policy toward Venezuela.

Since we don’t have the full text of Danilovich’s cable, it’s unclear whether the diplomat approached other figures in the Lula government about Venezuela, let alone military officials.  To be sure, at the time of this meeting Felix was working as Lula’s own Minister of Internal Security and as such no longer occupied an official post within the ranks.  Yet, there are some disturbing parallels to the historic past here.  Consider that it was not too long ago that Washington collaborated with the anti-Communist Brazilian military which overthrew democracy in a coup.  Later, the armed forces hunted down leftists both within the country and abroad through so-called “Operation Condor.”

From Brazil to Argentina

Elsewhere in South America, the U.S. has faced political opposition from some unlikely quarters.  Take for example Argentina, up until recently a fairly reliable U.S. ally which followed the Washington economic consensus.  With the coming to power of Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner however, U.S.-Argentine relations have taken a nosedive.  A fierce critic of the International Monetary Fund, Néstor also pursued an unprecedented diplomatic alliance with leftist Venezuela.

Wikileaks cables document the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Buenos Aires and show U.S. diplomats as imperious and scheming.  Take for example a diplomatic spat between Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs Arturo Valenzuela and Argentine officials, an incident that I wrote about at the time.  An American of Chilean descent and a Chavez critic, Valenzuela made his way to Buenos Aires late last year.    Causing a diplomatic firestorm, Valenzuela declared before the local media that Argentina lacked adequate legal protections. When the government protested that such was not the case, Valenzuela clarified that he had personally spoken with representatives of American companies through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who were upset about management of the economy. They were reluctant to invest due to lack of legal protections, Valenzuela added.

As if he had not annoyed the government enough already, Valenzuela then declared that he personally had detected a change in the investment climate between 1996 [the height of Argentina’s flirtation with neo-liberal economics] when “there was a lot of enthusiasm to invest,” and the present day. In a communiqué, the Argentine foreign ministry angrily retorted that the government “had not received complaints from U.S. companies which had interests and investments” in the country.

The irate chorus continued with Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo regretting that some U.S. officials had gone back to “the old practices” even though “there was an expectation in Argentina of the inauguration of a new U.S. foreign policy” during the Obama era. The Minister of Justice added that Valenzuela’s remarks were “very unusual and unjustified.”  By far however the most incendiary remarks came from former president Néstor Kirchner who accused Valenzuela of behaving like a “viceroy.”

Far from feeling contrite toward Argentina, U.S. diplomats treated the Valenzuela episode rather flippantly and superciliously.  In a cable sent to Washington, recently released through Wikileaks, American officials in Buenos Aires wrote that the local press had “sensationalized” and over dramatized the incident.  “Once again,” diplomats remarked, “the Kirchner government has shown itself to be extremely thin-skinned and intolerant of perceived criticism.”  Downplaying the tenor of Valenzuela’s remarks, the authors added that many Argentines routinely complain about the weakness of governing institutions and the rule of law.

It’s difficult to parse what Washington’s policy might be toward Argentina in the Obama era.  Judging from another cable released byWikileaks, U.S. officials are still trying to sort it all out and seek to acquire as much information about the Kirchners as possible.  Prior to Néstor’s recent death, Secretary of State Clinton personally wrote to the American Embassy in Buenos Aires, remarking that the U.S. was drawing up “a written product examining the interpersonal dynamics between the governing tandem.”

Clinton added that State had a pretty “solid understanding” of Néstor’s style and personality, but Cristina remained a mystery.  Specifically, Clinton wanted to know how Cristina managed “her nerves and anxiety.”  Somewhat bizarrely, Clinton then asked her subordinates whether Cristina was taking any medications.  Again and again, the Secretary of State pressed for details about Cristina’s psychological and emotional profile.

Though certainly intriguing, the Wikileaks cable fails to answer a vital question: why would Clinton seek a psychological evaluation of Cristina in the first place?  Perhaps, the United States government simply lacked information about the Argentine president and wanted to know who it was dealing with in South America.  Another darker reading however is that the U.S. does not trust Argentina and is seeking to manipulate Cristina or uncover some dirt.  A Machiavellian if there ever was one, Clinton is surely capable of playing political hardball and engaging in diplomatic intrigue.

For far too long, the U.S. public has remained ignorant of its government’s overseas efforts to turn back Latin America’s leftist Pink Tide.  Though scant thus far, Wikileaks’ release of documents pertaining to Latin America is telling.  From Brazil to Argentina, American officials have emerged as an imperious and cynical lot.  Hopefully in the days ahead we may learn more about the Bush and Obama administration’s handling not only of Brazil and Argentina but also Venezuela, Bolivia, and Honduras.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008).  Visit his website,