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.
In Mexico, as Blanche Petrich Moreno reports, US Ambassador Carlos Pascual’s critical commentary on the Mexican Army’s lack of action on US-provided intelligence targeting drug kingpins proved politically embarrassing for President Felipe Calderón. La Jornada’s stories on the ambassador’s candid critique contributed to a breach in US-Mexican relations; in March 2011, Pascual was forced to resign.
In Ecuador, Rafael Correa expelled US Ambassador Heather Hodges after the press reported on a secret cable revoking the US visa of former National Police chief Jaime Aquilino Hurtado, who had “used his office…to extort cash and property, misappropriate public funds, facilitate human trafficking, and obstruct the investigation and prosecution of corrupt colleagues.” Some embassy officers, according to the cable, “believe that President Correa must have been aware” of Aquilino Hurtado’s corruption, but appointed him anyway because he wanted a National Police chief “whom he could easily manipulate.”
Despite those flaps, as Latin American journalists examined the cables, they found a more nuanced picture of the US role in the region than they expected—and an incomplete one. By bureaucratic definition, State Department records are the least scandalous of US foreign policy documents; the dark side of US policy is reported elsewhere, by the covert operatives of the DEA, the Defense Department and the CIA.
The State Department documents did reveal that diplomats were instructed to assist “Washington analysts”—an apparent euphemism for the CIA—by gathering intelligence on Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, including her “mental state” and what kinds of medication she took to manage “her nerves and anxiety.” And there were other insidious spying-related revelations. In Bolivia, the government of Evo Morales ejected thirty Drug Enforcement Administration officers on espionage charges; the US Embassy in Brasilia, Natalia Viana reports, then circumvented Brazil’s foreign ministry to transfer them into the country. In Venezuela, according to Carlos Huertas, US consular officers recruited a key source from the visa line to obtain economic intelligence on Chávez’s programs.
But the cables also provided less sinister, and often useful, information. In Honduras, secret post-coup dispatches make clear that Washington did not sponsor the overthrow of President José Manuel Zelaya—even though US officials later acquiesced to it. “The actions taken to remove the President were patently illegal,” US Ambassador Hugo Llorens reported in a cable titled “Honduran Coup Timeline.”
From Havana, where US relations with the government of Raúl Castro remain hostile, the US Interests Section repeatedly filed cables on Cuba’s desire to expand the areas of dialogue and rapprochement. In a March 2009 cable titled “Keep Your Friends Close and Cuba Even Closer,” one Cuban officer was quoted telling a US official that negotiations “needed to start somewhere.” The US official was reminded that “Cuban President Raúl Castro had offered to talk to President Obama in a neutral place.” Guantánamo Bay, the Cuban suggested, “is a good place” to meet.
Latin America Unveiled
From the Cuba cables, as much can be ascertained about the thinking of Raul Castro’s government as about US policy toward it. This is true for the broader region as well. In Latin America, where declassification of records on internal government deliberations is severely limited, the WikiLeaks cables provide detailed information on official conversations, meetings, national security plans, social policies, foreign policies, economic policies and more.
Readers in Argentina, for example, can track the debate within Cristina Kirchner’s administration on decriminalizing the use of marijuana. Hondurans can listen in as those generals and politicians who overthrew Zelaya plotted to consolidate their post-coup powers. Chileans can better understand how their government alters building codes on the construction of thermonuclear plants at the behest of foreign corporations.
The ability of the US Embassy to issue comprehensive reports on the inner workings of these governments rests on the quality and connections of its local sources. Across the region, US Embassy visitor logs recorded a veritable Who’s Who of Latin American society trying to curry favor with Washington and advance their agendas. Cabinet ministers, ex-cabinet ministers, senators, congressmen, priests, businessmen, judges and even some journalists shared information about matters of state, confiding their unvarnished opinions to US ambassadors within the ostensibly safe confines of the embassy walls. WikiLeaks exposed their identities along with their words.
In Brazil, the cables captured the defense minister repeatedly disparaging the foreign ministry as anti-American. In Argentina, Nestor Kirchner’s former chief of staff reportedly denounced the former president as “perverse,” a “coward” and a “psychopath.” In Peru, the Fujimoristas—political minions of deposed President Alberto Fujimori, including his daughter Keiko, who came close to winning the presidency last year—flocked to the embassy to share their strategies for restoring him to power. Their revealing conversations, published by the Peruvian investigative group IDL-Reporteros during the 2011 election campaign, undermined Keiko’s claims of independence from her disgraced father and helped to swing the election to the populist candidate, Ollanta Humala.
That story might never have reached the Peruvian public because, initially, WikiLeaks provided the Peru cables only to the pro-Fujimori newspaper, El Comercio, whose editors were resistant to publishing damaging stories on Keiko. Acts of political self-censorship crossed borders throughout the region. The long-term impact from “Cablegate” in Latin America, as veteran reporter Santiago O’Donnell tells The Nation, “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.”
Still, information is power. As the ensuing stories of the WikiLeaks phenomenon in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia make clear, the publication of the cable traffic has generated scandals, stirred debates, and exposed government conduct (and often misconduct), policies and power structures throughout the Americas. From the United States to Argentina, communities have been empowered by a better understanding of what our governments are doing—in our names, but so often without our knowledge. What we citizens of the Western Hemisphere do with that power will become the ultimate legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.