Latin America After Cablegate: What Changed?
To better understand the impact of the WikiLeaks cables throughout Latin America, The Nation convened a forum, moderated by guest editor Peter Kornbluh, of veteran reporters from Peru, Argentina and Chile—all of whom were directly involved in obtaining and reporting on the cables in their respective countries.
Gustavo Gorriti, Peru’s leading investigative reporter, is the founder of IDL-Reporteros, a Web-based investigative news agency that he also directs. Santiago O’Donnell, international editor of the Argentine daily Página/12, is the author of ArgenLeaks: Los cables de Wikileaks sobre la Argentina, de la A a la Z. Francisca Skoknic is an investigative reporter at the Centro de Investigación e Información Periodística (CIPER), an online investigative media center in Santiago, Chile.
The Nation: What was the most important thing you learned from WikiLeaks about how the United States operates in your countries?
Santiago O’Donnell: The WikiLeaks cables helped us understand a number of things about the US role in Argentina: first, how security arrangements and cooperation on security issues have become the central element in US-Argentine relations. But the cables also illuminate the economic relationship. They contain the rather extraordinary details of which US companies use the US Embassy for lobbying to advance their corporate interests, what issues those companies push and how, behind the scenes, they go about pushing them. Finally, the cables also reveal how Argentine public figures act and talk once they are inside the walls of the embassy—who defends Argentine interests and who sucks up to the US ambassador.
Francisca Skoknic: As you know, Chile has a traumatic history regarding US involvement in its internal affairs—funding and promoting the 1973 coup d’état. So for Chileans, it was a relief to read the new WikiLeaks cables and to confirm that the US Embassy is no longer a relevant political actor in Chile. If you read the details of the secret conversations, you see that some Chilean authorities talked with the US diplomats about internal affairs and that some of their conversations were not “politically correct.” But there is no trace of scandalous US intervention in local politics, as there is in other countries.
Gustavo Gorriti: You know, it was a good experience to be the fly on the wall of the US Embassy, listening in on their conversations, looking over their shoulder as they sent their dispatches. We saw nothing really unexpected. But what you see in the documents at times is the interplay between various US government agencies represented in the cables. That is important to understand, in order to understand US policy.
What story created the biggest uproar?
Gorriti: You have to understand that when we obtained the WikiLeaks cables, Peru was at a historical crossroads: the 2011 election, which pitted progressive candidate Ollanta Humala against former president and now convicted human rights criminal Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori. During the campaign, Keiko was ahead in the polls. All the gangsters from the Fujimori regime were already rubbing their hands thinking that when she won, they were going to go from jail back to power. We published a story—“Alberto Fujimori and the Replacement Candidacy”—based on a series of cables that revealed the secret discussions Keiko and other Fujimoristas had had over the years with US Embassy officers. They demonstrated that, contrary to her campaign declarations that she was a “new” candidate independent of her imprisoned father, he was still pulling the political strings. The Keiko story had a strong impact. Together with a strong pro-democracy activism, it contributed to the unexpected defeat of the plutocrats in Peru.
Skoknic: The most important story CIPER Chile published was not about politics but about US business interests. Two WikiLeaks cables from 2009 revealed how a subsidiary of a giant US construction company, AES Gener, pressed the US Embassy for help to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling that the building permit for a thermonuclear power plant had been issued illegally. The company lobbied the embassy to communicate its concerns to the Chilean government and to emphasize the importance of “fast-tracking” the changes to the building zoning law. Despite official public denials from the Bachelet government, the cables revealed the responsiveness of her administration to the embassy’s lobbying on behalf of AES Gener. From the documents the Chilean public learned, step by step, how the US corporate/embassy lobby works. What caused more controversy, however, was the revelation that the Chilean government had yielded to US business interests and tailored the regulation for AES Gener.
O’Donnell: We also ran a major series of articles on US corporate lobbying, by the agribusiness giants Monsanto and Cargill. Cargill asked the embassy to launch a covert lobbying campaign on its behalf during a farm strike that potentially threatened Cargill’s position as one of the leading grain wholesalers in Argentina. Monsanto, the cables revealed, launched a massive secret lobbying campaign through the US Embassy to obtain payments for the sowing of transgenic “Roundup” seeds that it had not patented in Argentina. The behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign, the cables revealed, included the US secretary of agriculture, the head of the US Senate Agriculture Committee, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, as well as influential Congressmen from the Midwest and three sitting ambassadors, among other US officials.
Another series that made a strong impact revealed US influence over the judicial investigation into the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association’s Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed eighty-five people and injured more than 200. The attack was believed to have been orchestrated by agents of Hezbollah and Iran. The cables revealed multiple meetings and phone calls between the lead prosecutor and US Embassy officials and a degree of US influence over the investigation that stunned Argentine citizens. One cable recorded the FBI attaché instructing the prosecutor to stop investigating certain subjects and to concentrate on the Iranian suspects; the prosecutor promised to comply. Another cable showed that the prosecutor had called up the embassy to apologize for not alerting them in advance that his office had issued an arrest warrant for former President Carlos Menem for covering up evidence in the bombing.
Other cables that caught the public’s attention in my country, and which would be of interest in the United States, told how the US followed—and recorded—Argentina’s internal debate on decriminalizing the consumption of illegal drugs. The cables revealed which advisers and ministers were in favor, which were against, and which ones sat on the fence. US officials opposed the initiative but respected and worked closely with the Argentine officials who carried it through.
Julian Assange has said that WikiLeaks is an “organization opposed to government abuse of secrecy.” Did the WikiLeaks revelations have an impact on the debate over secrecy versus transparency in your country? Did the release of the cables advance and empower the concept of citizens’ “right to know”?
Skoknic: Well, I’d like to view WikiLeaks as an episode that opens the doors to citizens and organizations to look for new ways to access public information. And, of course, the release of the documents advanced the concept of citizens’ right to know in Chile—but just as a concept. After WikiLeaks, everything seems to remain the same. The US government is actually more secretive than it used to be and is prosecuting whistleblowers more than ever!
Gorriti: In Peru, we already have a strong history of investigative journalists obtaining leaked documents from government sources. So I’d have to say that the debate over transparency was not really advanced.
O’Donnell: While the WikiLeaks revelations did not inspire a debate on transparency and the public’s right to know, they were widely accepted as legitimate journalistic information. In fact, more than an interest in open government and public access to information, the WikiLeaks experience generated a great deal of interest in the profession of journalism, and a debate among journalists and the media community about the handling of this vast amount of material.
In that case, how well do you think the Latin American media did in reporting on the cables?
Gorriti: In Peru’s case, WikiLeaks first gave the cables to the leading newspaper, El Comercio. The owners of that paper were staunchly pro-Fujimori in last year’s election, so they were quite selective, politically speaking, in the stories they chose to publish. In the end, despite the efforts of a number of their journalists, I think they only published five or six stories from the whole collection. When I obtained the cables for IDL-Reporteros, we published a number of stories that were politically relevant, including ones on the arrogant, insulting way the US Embassy had treated our new president, Ollanta Humala, in the past. Publishing some of the things they had said about him put the US Embassy in a very uncomfortable position now that he is president. Had he been Rafael Correa instead of Ollanta Humala, he would have sent the US Ambassador packing
Skoknic: I do think that the cables could have received a bit more coverage. But in Chile, as elsewhere, media outlets are reluctant to quote other media stories, and in this case CIPER had the exclusive. The cables used in our stories were published and made available online to the public and to journalists. In a couple of cases, a Chilean newspaper quoted a news agency that used the cables instead of quoting CIPER directly, even though we had published the information several days earlier.
O’Donnell: It is an amazing fact that much of the WikiLeaks content was not published either by pro-government or opposition newspapers. In general, opposition newspapers only published stories that would be harmful to the government and its allies, and the pro-government newspapers only published stories that damaged opposition figures and their allies. The reason I wrote my book, ArgenLeaks: The WikiLeaks Cables on Argentina, From A to Z, is that my own paper chose not to publish dozens of stories I wrote derived from the cables.
Another key point: the WikiLeaks cables recorded not only politicians talking to US Embassy officials but well-known reporters going in and out of the embassy as well. Yet neither the pro-government nor opposition newspapers published anything related to embassy conversations with journalists and media personalities from the leaked documents. The industry’s self-censorship placed corporate solidarity above the public’s right to know.
A year after the diplomatic dust has settled from “Cablegate,” what do you think is the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience in Latin America?
Skoknic: For me, the most important consequence is that WikiLeaks showed that new technologies can make much easier the access to information that might be relevant for citizens. It also showed that an advocacy group like WikiLeaks can play an important role in making government or private institutions more transparent.
O’Donnell: In my opinion, WikiLeaks’ biggest legacy is not what it revealed about the US role in Latin America but what it reveals about the limitations of the “free press” in the region. Despite access to the cables and their newsworthiness, in Argentina so much information was kept from our readers for one political or commercial reason or another. The very newspapers that were born as watchdogs of the big corporations have become big corporations themselves, with too many conflicts of interest and thus too much to hide. They can no longer act as effective watchdogs. The long-term impact from “Cablegate” is a loss of credibility for the traditional news media and the growing importance of social, alternative and citizen media, as dramatically reflected by the WikiLeaks phenomenon.
Gorriti: Over the long term, we have a large set of documents that will serve as a major database for many stories to come. But a key legacy of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is the fact that American diplomacy stood naked before the eyes of the world, at least for a while. It was an involuntary nakedness for a country usually very well dressed—well covered up, shall we say. That provided a short thrill.