Latin American leaders burned by WikiLeaks cables

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazil talks soft on terrorism, Bolivia’s president has a tumor and Venezuelan premier Hugo Chavez is “crazy.”

These and other candid — if unverified — pronouncements on Latin America became public after the whistleblower website Wikileaks began releasing a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables this week.

While a reported cache of Mexico documents has yet to leak, the Latin America disclosures so far have been less than Earth-shattering. (One cable, for example, informed Washington that the conspirators who toppled the president of Honduras in 2009 likely did so without regard to the country’s constitution).

But the messages do offer an unvarnished glimpse into America’s diplomatic priorities and methods as it navigates the hemisphere closest to home.

Brazil

One key U.S. priority is the effort to contain Islamic terrorism — even in countries where it’s unclear just how many Muslims there are. In one of several cables regarding Islam in Brazil, the consulate in Sao Paulo on Nov. 20, 2009 said the number of the country’s Muslims could range anywhere from 27,000 to 2 million, before settling on roughly half a million as the best estimate.

“Muslim community members universally lament the lack of hard data on their own numbers, due, in part, they say to flaws in the Brazilian census methodology,” the cable said.

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The focus on Islam in the Brazil cables was largely directed towards countering any potential radicals in the country — an effort the documents say has achieved mixed results. Brazilian law enforcement agencies have a good record monitoring and cooperating with counter-terrorism efforts on the ground, a cable sent last December said.

Another cable praised the arrest on drug charges of “various individuals engaged in suspected terrorism financing activity,” but gave no further details.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials in more than one cable complained that Brazilian leaders seem reluctant to take tough public stands on terrorism, for fear of alienating immigrant communities at home and associating themselves with unpopular American wars abroad.

In a 2008 message, then-U.S. Ambassador Clifford Sobel groused about Brazilian officials’ general “reluctance to countenance any claims that terrorists could possibly have a presence in any part of Brazil.”

Sobel went on to describe Brazil’s “public rebukes of declarations by U.S. officials and sniping during meetings” between the country’s diplomats.

“This sensitivity results, in part, from their fear of stigmatizing the large Muslim community of Brazil or prejudicing the area's image as a tourist destination,” Sobel wrote. “It is also a public posture designed to avoid being too closely linked to what is seen as the U.S.’ overly aggressive War on Terrorism.”

Bolivia

Another of Sobel’s dispatches — a January 2009 cable detailing a conversation with Brazil’s defense minister — offered a possible revelation about Bolivia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blows a kiss at the military airport in Buenos Aires. (AFP/Getty Images)

The defense minister, Nelson Jobim, said Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was suffering from a “serious sinus tumor.” According to the cable, Jobim said Brazil’s president had offered Morales treatment at a Sao Paulo hospital, but treatment was put off until after a constitutional referendum.

The headaches and other symptoms news reports attributed to sinusitis were, according to Jobim, actually due to Morales' tumor. And he suggested that tumor might explain why Morales has seemed unfocussed and “not his usual self” at recent meetings.

Morales' spokesman, Ivan Canelas, has dismissed the report as “speculation.” Morales never had a tumor, Canelas told reporters in a radio interview after the documents went public, adding that Morales received surgery on his nasal septum last year to correct a problem that was causing him persistent colds.

Argentina

A cable sent from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office to the U.S. embassy in Argentina hints at information gathering methods more akin to those of a novelist than a diplomat.

The December 2009 message expresses U.S. officials’ need to understand not just the actions of foreign leaders but also their motivations. State Department analysts said they were compiling a detailed, written summary of the "interpersonal dynamics" of Argentine President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner and her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner.

In the cable, they asked a series of questions including what if any medication Fernandez takes, how she calms down under stress, whether her husband has become more emotionally volatile, as well as details about how the couple divides their days and the presidential workload.

Venezuela

One of the more eyebrow-raising remarks on Latin America came via France, in a memo detailing a Sept. 16, 2009 conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Jean-David Levitte, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's senior diplomatic adviser.

In the document, Levitte called Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez “crazy,” saying that even Brazil is unable to support him anymore.

According to the document, Levitte in substance said, “Unfortunately, Chavez is taking one of the richest countries in Latin America and turning it into another Zimbabwe.”

Sounding a similar note, a Dec. 14, 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in Caracas described a precipitous decline in the Venezuelan public health system.

The cable cited a redacted source who “described the public hospitals as increasingly dangerous places, where underpaid, undersupplied and understaffed doctors work in unsanitary conditions to provide medical services to Venezuela's poor.

“Due to shortages of basic medical supplies, doctors ask patients to purchase their own needles, disinfectants and gauze,” the document continued. “Doctors sometimes dress wounds with the same dirty bandages.”

A man who seldom misses an opportunity to criticize the United States, Chavez fired back on Monday, praising WikiLeaks volunteers for their "courage" and urging Hillary Clinton to resign.

"I don't know what the United States is going to do," he said at a cabinet meeting. "The empire was left naked."

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