Caracas Nest of Spies: From WikiLeaks to the Snowden Affair

07/12/2013 04:34 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2013
  • Nikolas Kozloff Author, 'Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left'

As the unlikely Snowden saga continues to unfold, further disclosures are eroding the already tense relationship between Washington and Caracas. According to Brazilian newspaper O Globo, the National Security Agency or NSA conducted high level espionage on Venezuela, including the cataloguing of telephone calls and access to the internet, through a program called PRISM. Citing documents leaked by Snowden, O Globo reports that the NSA collected information on everything from Venezuelan military purchases to the South American nation's oil industry.

Though Caracas officials are certainly aware that the U.S. spies on Venezuela, Snowden's specific revelations relating to NSA may have far-reaching consequences. Already, Nicolás Maduro has said he is willing to offer diplomatic asylum to Snowden, and the Venezuelan president adds that the United States has "created an evil system, half Orwellian, that intends to control the communications of the world." Snowden, Maduro adds, is a hero who has unveiled the nefarious machinations of American political elites.

It's unclear whether Snowden can take advantage of Maduro's offer, and traveling to South America could prove logistically difficult for the young whistle-blower. Nevertheless, the Snowden affair represents a huge fiasco for the Obama administration and could lead to Latin Americans undertaking intelligence counter-measures against Washington. As revealed in WikiLeaks documents, Venezuela and Cuba have long collaborated on intelligence matters, and if anything the Snowden episode will probably strengthen such ties.

Low-Level Diplomatic Warfare in Caracas

According to WikiLeaks documents, the late Hugo Chávez was apparently so taken with Havana that he consulted directly with Cuban intelligence officers without bothering to vet the reporting through his own intelligence services. Meanwhile, the Cubans themselves trained and advised Chávez's security detail. Furthermore, the Cubans openly trained Venezuelan intelligence officers in "both political indoctrination and operational instruction" and some Venezuelan military officers underwent "ideological training" in Cuba itself.

Even if Chávez was unaware of recently disclosed NSA espionage, the authorities must have suspected the Bush administration was spying on Venezuela. In light of such pressures, it's certainly not surprising that Chávez would take countermeasures. Ridiculously, however, U.S. diplomats constantly played the victim while complaining of high level harassment. In 2006, for example, the U.S. embassy in Caracas claimed the Venezuelan National Guard had seized and opened "part of an inbound U.S. Military Group shipment" consisting of "household effects and commissary rations." According to the Americans, the authorities' handling of the incident "quickly spiraled out of control, with senior Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) officials accusing the United States of wrongdoing."

"Unique Threat Environment" at the U.S. Embassy

Perhaps, Chávez officials suspected that Embassy personnel was secretly working for the NSA or collecting intelligence, and the situation in Caracas continued to deteriorate in subsequent years. By early 2009, Venezuela was openly refusing to issue visas to new embassy personnel, including the Defense Attaché and USAID representative. American diplomats continued to play the victim, writing Washington that in the absence of a "credible commitment by the GBRV to normalize visa issuance for personnel assigned to Caracas, we should convey to them the potential consequences of continued harassment." Further cables suggest that, far from improving, the atmosphere became more and more toxic. One year later the embassy even requested a "Defensive Security Coordinator" or DSC to manage "defensive planning." The embassy, U.S. officials noted, had a "very unique threat environment."

Not surprisingly, Washington's political and diplomatic pressure on Caracas continued to drive Chávez closer to Havana, though the Americans seemed clueless as to why Venezuela would want to conduct an independent foreign policy. The Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassy staff noted, had fallen under Cuban influence. U.S. diplomats fretted that the politicization of the Ministry was "nearly complete" and complained about Chávez's policy of sending young Venezuelan diplomats to Cuba for training. The same individuals, Americans noted, were later promoted rapidly and "often act as ideological watchdogs" or "commissars" within BRV embassies.

U.S. diplomats also worried about Chávez's intelligence apparatus. Not mincing any words, the American embassy declared that joint Cuban-Venezuelan intelligence gathering "could impact U.S. interests directly." Chávez's intelligence service was among "the most hostile towards the United States in the hemisphere," but fundamentally lacked experience and expertise. With the help of the more seasoned Cubans, however, Chávez would have more routine access to the activities of the U.S. government.

Snowden Fallout

Fast forward to the present and far from deterring Cuban-Venezuelan ties, the NSA scandal has led to greater diplomatic solidarity between the two nations. In Havana, Raúl Castro has stopped short of offering asylum to Snowden but nevertheless supports Venezuelan moves to harbor the young whistle-blower. Castro, who says he's long been aware of secretive NSA programs, added that Cuba has been "one of the most harassed and spied-upon nations on the planet." If Snowden ever makes it out of the Moscow airport, Cuba will likely play an important part in the former NSA employee's travel plans. Indeed, Snowden's most straightforward route to Latin America would be on a direct Aeroflot flight from Russia to Havana. From there, the whistle-blower could continue on his way by catching a flight to Caracas.

How has the Obama administration managed to single-handedly turn much of Latin America against the U.S.? Prior to the Snowden affair, it looked as if Secretary of State John Kerry might have brokered a thaw in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. If anything, however, the Snowden affair will probably exacerbate the poisonous atmosphere so vividly described in WikiLeaks cables. Recently, the U.S. probably exerted pressure on Western European governments to divert Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane to Vienna on suspicion that Snowden was squirreled somewhere aboard. Morales, who had been traveling en route from Moscow to La Paz, denounced U.S. interference and many Latin American nations have rallied to his defense.

Perhaps, the Obama White House might have minimized diplomatic damage over the Snowden affair by not making such a deliberate attempt to apprehend the young NSA whistle-blower. In a rapidly unraveling fiasco, Obama has furthermore sought to bully and intimidate many countries who would dare to harbor Snowden. One can only guess that presently diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas are possessed with a siege-like mentality and may fear the Maduro administration will resort to counter-measures. Perhaps, even as we speak U.S. diplomats are complaining to their superiors about joint Cuban-Venezuelan intelligence which is harassing American officials and unfairly targeting the U.S. embassy.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.