Monday, September 22, 2014
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The Non-Smoking Gun

MEXICO CITY – Everyone these days, it seems, has their own favorite American diplomatic cable – or will soon – given that the 250,000 documents obtained by WikiLeaks include references to almost every country in the world. For Latin America, Wikileaks has so far provided enticing tidbits of both gossip and substance about Brazil and Argentina; interesting, first-rate analysis regarding Honduras, Bolivia, and Mexico; and a few intriguing notes about regional politics and international relations.

Nothing extraordinary has been revealed, but the cables now available allow readers and analysts to draw some preliminary conclusions about the Obama administration’s views of the region; about Latin American leaders’ attitudes toward the United States; and about the quality of US diplomatic and intelligence-gathering activities in the hemisphere. Nothing to write home about, but a lot to write about.

There have been some notable documents, though not many. One is clearly the note written by Hugo Llorens, US Ambassador to Honduras, on July 24, 2009, immediately after the coup d’état that exiled President Manuel Zelaya. The American envoy got right what happened, its implications, and how to enable Barack Obama’s incoming administration to deal intelligently – and differently from the past – with one of its first crises in Latin America. A coup was a coup, could not be accepted, and, however provocative Zelaya had been, the only possible US position was his unconditional return to power.

Another impressive cable was sent on November 17, 2009, by Charles H. Rivkin, US Ambassador to France, regarding the competition between French companies and Boeing for a contract worth tens of billions of dollars to provide advanced fighter planes to Brazil. The authors got it right: French President Nicolas Sarkozy was pulling out all the stops to close the deal, including support for Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on issues of interest to him, and acceptance of technological, legal, and military conditions imposed by Brazil on French firms, mainly the armaments manufacturer Dassault.

Perhaps the reports were somewhat naïve in omitting any reference to the many rumors in Brazil regarding widespread corruption in relation to the contract (of course, US diplomats may have mentioned these issues elsewhere). Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that Dassault and France will probably win the contract, and that this will be seen as a milestone on the road to US irrelevance in South America.

Another good example of interesting and competent reporting lies in the cable sent from La Paz, Bolivia on March 30, 2006, by Ambassador David Greenlee, highlighting the tensions between the Cuban and Venezuelan advisers and security personnel surrounding President Evo Morales, as well as the circles of elites around him. While not terribly new, Greenlee put his finger on one of the ongoing challenges facing Morales – ensuring the loyalty of the Bolivian Armed Forces to his “revolution” – and his main tool for addressing it: Cuban and Venezuelan security backing to deter a military coup.

Then there are cases of stridency or severe irritation. Cables from Managua between 2006 and 2009 rehash old stories about Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s ties to drug traffickers like Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, including mention of a video purportedly showing Sandinistas off-loading cocaine from planes in 1984, and dwell on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s off-the-books financial backing for Ortega. There is also a quaint anecdote regarding Nicaraguan prizefighter Ricardo Mayorga, who was caught by Sandinista security while raping or harassing a young woman in his hotel; according to the cables, Ortega blackmailed Mayorga into sharing his boxing proceeds with him and supporting him in the elections that year.

None of this is especially earth-shattering or original, except insofar as it seems to suggest the persistence of a Cold War mentality in US foreign-policy thinking about Latin America.

Similarly, a cable concerning a Mexican-sponsored attempt earlier this year to create something like the Organization of American States, but without the US and Canada, is chockfull of largely accurate but excessive rhetoric blasting Mexican diplomacy. Backing the creation of a “Community of Latin American and Caribbean States,” according to the cable, is logical for a would-be regional hegemon like Brazil, but somewhat absurd for Mexico, which does 90% of everything (trade, investment, tourism, immigration) with the US and Canada, and depends on US support in fighting the country’s drug cartels.

Obama plunged into Mexico’s drug war at the outset of his administration, and now faces perils that are barely touched upon in Washington, except in cables originating in Mexico. Regarding the execution of Arturo Beltran Leyva, a leading drug kingpin, late last year, US Ambassador Carlos Pascual wrote that the “refusal” by SEDENA (the national defense secretariat) “to move quickly reflected a risk-aversion that cost the institution a major counter-narcotics victory.” He then describes the utter lack of cooperation between intelligence agencies and the military, because many US and Mexican officials fear that whatever information they share with the army will be handed over to the cartels.

The logical conclusion of all this is evident: since Mexican President Felipe Calderón himself cannot be both president and drug czar, and is rightly unwilling and logically unable to carry out the necessary day-to-day interagency coordination in Mexico, the void will be filled by someone else. Increasingly, it is being filled by the US Embassy in Mexico City, staffed by first-rate diplomats who may be biting off more than they can chew.

There is no smoking gun in WikiLeaks’ releases about US policy toward Latin America (not yet, at least). But there is a rich lode of information, confirmations, reflections, and teachings that the region will be mining for insight for years to come.

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