What Wikileaks Teaches Us About Obama and Latin America

President Obama has given little indication of the strategy for his upcoming trip through Chile, Brazil, and El Salvador. Will "the great listener" promote cooperation and understanding, or carry on the Bush administration’s approach of fighting against regional alliances?

Words of Wisdom from Past Leaders

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that last year Chilean President Bacheleturged the Obama administration to avoid separating South American nations into ideological pigeonholes:

President Bachelet emphasized the need to understand the nuances of Latin America’s leaders and their countries rather than lumping them into populist and pro-western camps … emphasizing that Morales was very different from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

In prior years, Brazil has urged the US to establish direct dialogue with administrations that have clashed with the US.  In a 2009 visit:

…both [Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor] Garcia and [Foreign Minister] Amorim used the opportunity to encourage the United States to establish ‘a direct channel of communication with President Chavez.’ Amorim suggested that a good USG-GOV dialogue would have an impact on the domestic situation in Venezuela, as well, because much of the opposition to Chavez has ties to the United States.

And in a 2008 visit Brazil went so far as to offer help in establishing dialogue:

Garcia suggested that, “Maybe it is time (for the United States) to have a frank discussion with Bolivia” … Without wishing to be a mediator, he said, Brazil is willing to help in whatever it can, recalling a similar commitment he made to A/S Shannon two years earlier.

A Legacy of Division

If Obama takes either of these leaders’ advice to heart, it will be a dramatic shift from the past.  The Wikileaks cables show us a detailed history of the Bush administration weakening cooperation between Latin American countries.  Not surprisingly, much of these efforts have been focused on separating Venezuela from its regional allies, but they also involved Brazil and Bolivia.

In a 2007 cable entitled “A Southern Cone Perspective on Countering Chavez and Reasserting U.S. Leadership,” Santiago embassy staff develop a 6-point strategy to weaken Venezuela’s regional alliances:

  1. “Know thy Enemy” (information sharing)
  2. “Directly Engage” (more high-level US visits to other Latin American countries)
  3. “Change the Political Landscape” (boosting Argentina’s and Brazil’s influence as counterweights)
  4. “Play to Our Mil-Mil Advantage” (South American military training and peacekeeping operations)
  5. “Stress Our Winning Formula” (aid and corporate social responsibility)
  6. “Getting the Message Out” (public diplomacy)

An earlier cable from 2006 shows the US pushing for Brazil to work against Venezuela’s relationships with other countries:

Ambassador reiterated that the USG hopes more engagement by Brazil will serve to counterbalance Chavez’ pernicious influence.

But the cables also focused on separating Brazil from the rest of the region.  In 2006, this entailed nipping in the bud a relationship between Lula and then-presidential candidate Evo Morales, as well as other leftist governments.  Embassy staff advised Ambassador Shannon:

… you can focus on the GOB’s outlook for what a Morales presidency means for regional integration, political stability and law enforcement. In particular, you can stress with all interlocutors our concerns about a possible dramatic expansion in cocaine production and export. … it will be interesting to press Garcia for explanations of statements by Lula last year that appeared to welcome Morales’ looming “populist” victory, and of how the GOB sees itself now in relation to the “Axis of Evo” (Morales, Chavez, Castro).

This strategy of division was far from successful for Bush. In spite of the Bush administrations’ efforts, Brazil and Venezuela kept their alliance intact.

In 2005:

[Ambassador Danilovich] asked that FM Amorim consider institutionalizing a more intensive political engagement between the USG and GOB on Chavez, and standing up a dedicated intelligence-sharing arrangement. FM Amorim was clear in his response: “We do not see Chavez as a threat.”

And later, in 2008:

Ministry of External Relations (MRE) contacts refuse to admit to us even in private that they are worried about Venezuelan interference in other countries.

And Brazilian diplomats insisted that they would continue their policy of cooperation, as Lula is a man who “believes deeply in South American unity.”

In 2008:

…the USG encourages the GOB to assume greater leadership responsibilities, but the GOB is reluctant to take the controversial stances that go with leadership. Diaz replied that Brazil cannot assume leadership alone in the region, it must have partners, which would naturally be Argentina and Colombia, just as Germany and France are essential to each other in Europe. As a result, Brazil must continue to act in harmony with them and other regional players.

Has Obama Brought Change?

So far, the Obama State Department seems to have continued on the same path.

In 2009, several years after the US denied the intellectual property transfer necessary for Brazil to sell military aircraft to Venezuela, Brazilian diplomats explained to their US counterparts that it would be inconvenient if something similar blocked their sale to Bolivia.

If Bolivia wants Super Tucanos, Lula needs to be able to sell them. Brazil can’t afford the type of embarrassment caused by not being able to sell Super Tucanos to Venezuela.

The status quo appears to be continuing with isolating Venezuela, as well. For example, during the Venezuela-Colombia tensions of 2010 it chose a side rather than choosing to help ensure peace. While Brazil worked on de-escalating the conflict, the Obama administration reacted by agreeing to share intelligence with Colombia on any troop movements within Venezuela.

They did this even though they recognized Colombia’s concern about Venezuela to be “almost neuralgic.” Moreover, they knew that Colombia had intentionally provoked Venezuela into the 2008 border dispute, and that Uribe held that the best reaction to any escalation in tension with Venezuela was “action – including use of the military.”