WikiLeaks: The Latin America Files
Editor's Note: On August 16, Ecuador announced that it would grant asylum to Julian Assange, citing the danger of political persecution by the United States if he is sent to Sweden. The decision followed the announcement that Assange has hired a renowned international human rights jurist, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, to lead his defense against extradition to Sweden. Garzón, who spent more than a year in the late 1990s attempting to get Gen. Augusto Pinochet extradited from England to Spain for crimes against humanity, issued a statement calling the Swedish sexual misconduct allegations against Assange “arbitrary and baseless,” and declared: “There is clear political intentionality behind this affair, which explains his current situation.”
On June 19, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange slipped into the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, seeking sanctuary and asylum from extradition to Sweden for questioning on alleged sexual misconduct. If and when the government of Rafael Correa grants his request—a decision that had yet to be made as The Nation went to press—Assange will become a resident of Latin America, where the trove of US State Department cables he strategically disseminated has generated hundreds of headlines, from Mexico to the Southern Cone.
“Cablegate,” as the revelations have come to be known, has had a different degree of impact in each Latin American nation—on politics, the media, and the public debate over transparency and government accountability. In two countries it led to the forced departure of the US ambassador; in another it helped change the course of a presidential election. In some countries, the documents revealed the level of US influence in domestic affairs; in others they detailed criminal activities and corruption within a number of host governments. In many nations, the cables disclosed the parade of local political, cultural and even media elites who lined up to divulge information—or gossip—to US Embassy officers, never suspecting that their discussions would become front-page news.
Collectively, the Americas have been treated to a mega– civics lesson in globalized whistleblowing. And US citizens have also peered into the foreign policy abyss of our bilateral and regional ties. A year after the diplomatic dust has settled on the WikiLeaks phenomenon in Latin America, it seems appropriate to assess—drawing attention to the experiences of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia—what the biggest leak of US documents in history has left in its wake.
Leaking to Latin America
Although Assange initially gave the cables to four major European news outlets, he always intended to distribute the documents beyond the media organs of the North. Latin America was the perfect region to make a splash with the leaks. Historically, the “Colossus of the North” has exercised an imperious—if not imperial—economic, military and political influence in its “backyard.” This interventionist past created a nationalist appetite for revelations on the hidden truths of US policies and operations.
The decade covered by most of the cables—2000 to 2010—also encompassed major changes in the region and in US–Latin American relations: the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the resurgence of the populist left; the advent of “Plan Colombia”; Brazil’s emergence as a world power; the disputed 2006 election in Mexico; the transfer of power from Fidel to Raúl Castro in Cuba; and the June 2009 coup in Honduras. Moreover, a growing number of nations passed freedom of information laws, reflecting a popular interest in access to government documents and an expanding right-to-know movement that Assange hoped to advance. As he explained in an interview with Semana in Bogotá, WikiLeaks is an “organization opposed to government abuse of secrecy.”
In November 2010, Assange invited well-connected journalists, like Brazil’s Natalia Viana, to come to London and work on a regional dissemination plan. WikiLeaks selected news agencies in almost every Latin American country: La Jornada in Mexico, Página/12 in Argentina; El Comercio and later IDL-Reporteros in Peru; the newspaper El Espectador and the magazine Semana in Colombia; El Faro in El Salvador; and CIPER, the Internet investigative journalism center in Chile, among others.
Journalists from each media group were invited to furtive rendezvous in London. At WikiLeaks headquarters, they were handed a pen drive filled with encrypted files; once they had safely returned to their own countries, they received a code to decrypt the collection. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls the foreign editor of Página/12, Santiago O’Donnell. “Two thousand five hundred cables to and from the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, all organized on an Excel spreadsheet.”
Of the quarter-million diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks’ source, Bradley Manning, downloaded from a US military database in Iraq, some 30,386 traveled to or from embassies and consulates in Latin America. More than half were unclassified or “limited distribution” cables; they reported on articles in the local press, public forums, the chit-chat of diplomatic functions and the routine of consular affairs. The majority of the cables, Carlos Eduardo Huertas notes in his article on Colombia, “disclosed how the US diplomatic corps tends to official business.”
But almost 900 cables were stamped “Secret” and 10,000 “Confidential.” Many of those revealed policies, operations, sources and classified assessments that inflamed, at least temporarily, US bilateral relations with a handful of countries.