Thursday, December 2, 2010

Leaked cables rattle the Americas

Argentine politicians defended their leader's mental health, Bolivia denied its president had a tumor and Venezuela accused the United States of dividing the region, as WikiLeaks continued to rile Latin America with the release of some 251,000 confidential and secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
Among the disclosures this week are reports that Cuban spies have a direct line to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- often overshadowing Venezuela's own intelligence agency -- and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires to delve into the psyche of Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Only 290 of the 251,287 diplomatic cables have been released by the controversial, whistle-blower website, but they provide a snapshot of U.S. government interests in the region.

According to WikiLeaks, nations in South and Central America are mentioned 33,805 times, or in about 8 percent of the communications.

Topping the list is Venezuela, which appears 3,435 times, Brazil at 3,070 times and Colombia at 2,896 times.

Among the controversial revelations made so far is a cable dated Dec. 31, 2009 by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research that asked probing questions about the mental health of Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner.

``How is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner managing her nerves and anxiety?'' asked the secret cable. ``How does stress affect her behavior toward advisors and/or her decision making? . . . Is she taking any medications?''

Delving into the personalities of foreign counterparts may be integral to modern diplomatic give-and-take. But the bluntly worded cable asking about the Argentine leader's ``nerves'' and ``emotions'' may further test up-and-down relations between Washington and Buenos Aires.

The cable also suggests that Washington saw Kirchner and her husband, who died Oct. 27, as prone to emotional instability.

On Tuesday, former presidential chief of staff Alberto Fernández blamed a 2006 magazine article -- it suggested the president might be bipolar -- for the State Department's line of questioning.

Venezuela has also been caught in the WikiLeaks cross-hairs.

Late Tuesday, Spain's El País newspaper -- which has been given a preview of the full cache of cables along with a handful of other media outlets -- posted a communication from Jan. 30, 2006 titled ``Cuba/Venezuela the Axis of Mischief.''

The secret memo issued by the U.S. Embassy in Caracas said Cuban spies were so influential in the country that Venezuela's own intelligence services often took a back seat.

``Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chávez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting unvetted by Venezuelan officers,'' the cable posted on El País's website said. ``Cuban intelligence officers train Venezuelans both in Cuba and in Venezuela, providing both political indoctrination and operational instruction. They also may work in other Venezuelan government ministries, unconfirmed sensitive reporting suggests.''

Chávez -- a rabid U.S. foe who has called Cuba's political system worthy of emulation -- has raised the alarm among some of his neighbors.

Buried in a fresh batch of cables published Tuesday on the WikiLeaks website was a series of conversations between the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil and Nelson Jobim, the minister of defense.

A Feb. 20, 2008 cable said Jobim ``shared the ambassador's concern about the possibility of Venezuela exporting instability'' but feared efforts to isolate Chávez ``would lead to further posturing from Chávez and a greater risk of spreading instability among neighboring countries.''

In a cable from Nov. 11, 2009, Jobim ``all but acknowledged'' the presence of Colombian FARC guerrillas in Venezuela, but said raising the issue publicly ``would ruin Brazil's ability to mediate.''

On his website, Chávez blasted the State Department for ordering U.S. diplomats to collect biometric and financial information on regional leaders and United Nations delegates.

``It's a failed state, an illegal state that has thrown its ethics and respect for its allies overboard,'' Chávez wrote. ``The United States doesn't have allies or friends. It has interests.''

In a cable dated Jan. 22, 2009, Jobim also confirmed that Bolivian President Evo Morales had a ``serious sinus tumor'' and had been invited to Brazil to have it treated.

In Bolivia on Tuesday, presidential spokesman Iván Canelas told Bolivia's Red Erbol network of radio stations that it was common knowledge that Morales had been operated on for a ``problem with his nasal septum'' but he denied Morales had a tumor.

With thousands of cables yet to be published, ``cablegate,'' as some media call it, will likely roil the region for weeks.

One of the leaked cables detailed Argentine umbrage at Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela's suggestion in late 2009 that U.S. businesses had concerns over ``rule of law and management of the economy in Argentina.''
``Once again, the Kirchner government has shown itself to be extremely thin-skinned and intolerant of perceived criticism,'' the cable said.

The Argentine anger at Valenzuela contrasted with the good relations it held with his predecessor, Thomas Shannon, an Oxford-educated U.S. diplomat with a smooth demeanor.

According to the Madrid daily El País, a not-yet-public cable dated Sept. 2, 2008, reveals how Shannon convinced Kirchner that Washington did not have anything against Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous leader, and did not seek to break apart his country.

``Evo is not an easy person,'' Kirchner told the U.S. ambassador in Buenos Aires at the time, according to the cable cited by the newspaper.

Whatever does come out next, Latin America will be listening. On Monday, Ecuador's Deputy Foreign Minister invited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has gone into hiding, to set up shop in the country.

``We want to invite him to Ecuador so he can exhibit his work freely,'' Kintto Lucas told El Comercio newspaper. ``Not just over the Internet.''

But on Tuesday, President Rafael Correa said Lucas was speaking for himself and not the government.

McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson reported from Mexico City.

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