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Wikileaks: Psychologically Profiling Latin American Leaders

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In graduate school I came upon an interesting book called Latin America in Caricature. A work which is practically devoid of text, the book is full of U.S. newspaper cartoons depicting metaphorical images of Latin America and the Caribbean. The images, which date back to the age of gunboat diplomacy, are extremely demeaning. They show a paternalistic Uncle Sam stretching out his hand to help rescue recalcitrant, black-faced children.

While it would be a stretch to argue that these racist images caused Washington to behave in an imperialistic manner, nevertheless the cartoons surely helped to mold public opinion, not to mention the views of U.S. diplomats operating out in the field. A hundred years later it would be unthinkable for newspapers to publish such material, yet apparently it's not so easy for U.S. diplomats to rid themselves of the old mindset. That, at least, is the impression I've gotten from reading recently released U.S. documents linked to the WikiLeaks scandal.

Hillary's Obsession With Psychological Detail

Take, for example, a recent cable authored by Hillary Clinton in which the Secretary of State refers to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a volatile and emotional character. Going even further, Clinton asked U.S. diplomats to investigate whether Kirchner was taking any medications to help the Argentine "calm down." "How does stress affect her behavior toward advisers and/or her decision-making?" Clinton asked. "What steps does Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner or her advisers/handlers take in helping her deal with stress?"

When Argentine officials categorized the cable as "shameful," Clinton phoned Kirchner personally in an effort to explain her missives. Yet, evidence suggests that Clinton's interest in psychological matters was not restricted to Argentina: in a leaked cable from early 2009, the Secretary of State wrote to U.S. diplomats in Brazil, remarking "we especially value information on leaders' operating styles, demeanors, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, relationships with superiors, sensitivities."

Venezuela: Crackpot Psychology

Though the Clinton imbroglio was certainly damaging to U.S. foreign policy, I figured that other cables wouldn't be nearly as embarrassing. In light of subsequent leaks however it's becoming increasingly clear that Clinton's approach to Latin America doesn't differ substantially from other U.S. diplomats. Indeed, when speaking to one another American officials refer to Latin leaders as childish, immature or even mentally unbalanced.

The tone is almost always condescending, and reporting frequently relies on crackpot psychological analysis which would not have been out of place in the 1890s. Whether American diplomats are dealing with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Honduras' Manuel Zelaya, leaders are referred to as petulant children holding naïve ideas about the world.

Take for instance U.S. Ambassador in Caracas William Brownfield, a diplomat who resorted to pop psychology when discussing Venezuelan politics. In a 2006 cable, Brownfield reported that Chávez employed a leadership style predicated on exploiting long-standing resentment felt by the masses. For insight, Brownfield turned to "anti-Chávez psychiatrist" Roberto de Vries. Speaking with Brownfield, the grandiose de Vries claimed that prior to Chávez's political rise Venezuelans were psychologically "happy" and as a result ignored the decaying social environment around them. Chávez, however, was able to instill a sense of "happiness in anger," as Venezuelans began to "enjoy watching Chávez stick it to the former ruling class."

Brownfield himself cautioned his superiors to treat his psychiatrist's analysis with a grain of salt as "Obviously, de Vries has never examined Chávez directly, which limits his analysis to secondhand accounts." Throwing caution to the wayside, however, Brownfield then presented Washington with de Vries' crackpot theories. According to the psychiatrist, Chávez feared rejection: "His fear of rejection comes, said de Vries, from Chávez' early childhood in which he was reportedly rejected by his father (and with whom he is reportedly not close today). Chávez also suffered humiliation and rejection as a child from degrading jobs like having to sell candy on the street."

Zelaya: The "Rebellious Teenager"

Why U.S. diplomats would see minor childhood anecdotes as relevant is a mystery, though it's clear from WikiLeaks documents that American officials rely extensively on psychological analysis. Take for example U.S. ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford who held a dismissive view of President Manuel Zelaya. Unlike other, more pro-U.S. Honduran leaders of recent times, "Zelaya's view of a trip to the big city means Tegucigalpa and not Miami or New Orleans." A kind of crude throwback to the Honduran countryside, Zelaya, or "Mel," was "a rebellious teenager, anxious to show his lack of respect for authority figures."

Seeking to gain insight into Zelaya's psychology, Ford turned to anti-government Cardinal Andrés Rodríguez. A clergyman who formerly had friendly relations with the President, the two later fell out and hardly spoke anymore. According to the Los Angeles Times, following the military coup against Zelaya Rodríguez was overheard talking on his cell phone speaking to Honduras' Attorney General. The paper reported that the Cardinal urged the Attorney General to produce drug trafficking evidence against Zelaya. "My son," Rodríguez said, "we need that proof. It's the only thing that will help us now."

One of Zelaya's former teachers, Rodríguez told Ford that the Honduran president had never graduated from college, let alone high school. Ford then pounced on this tidbit of information as a basis for advancing his larger psychological theories: "The problem is that Mel has acted in this juvenile, rebellious manner his entire life and succeeded in reaching the highest office in the land. No need to change now. He will continue to lead a chaotic, highly disorganized private life."

Something Other Than a U.S. Puppet

Perhaps, Ford felt that Zelaya was "erratic in his behavior" or immature because the Honduran actually sought to make his country into something other than a private U.S. fiefdom. "In a word," Ford remarked, "Zelaya's views are shaped not by ideology or personal ambitions but by an old-fashioned nationalism where he holds the United States accountable for Honduras' current state of poverty and dependency."

In other words, as long as Zelaya saw eye to eye with the United States the Honduran would be considered a mature leader and not rebellious [Ford seemed particularly fixated upon the latter word, using it three times throughout the cable when referring to Zelaya]. However, Zelaya showed his true colors early on when he actually appointed some of his own preferred staff to high level positions.

"While Zelaya was open to our point of view of the selection of key members of his Cabinet," Ford remarked, "he was absolutely closed to listening to us on his appointment of his Ambassador to the OAS and to his appointment of Jorge Arturo Reina as Ambassador to the UN. The Honduran voting record in the UN in terms of coincidence with US positions is at the lowest point in decades."

Strange and Unanswered Questions

To be sure, Ford's commentary is repugnant though not terribly surprising for a U.S. ambassador resident in Honduras. One section of the ambassador's cable, however, really piqued my interest. Speaking of Zelaya's erratic behavior, Ford remarks almost casually, "Always suspicious of American intentions, he [Zelaya] inexplicably submitted to a psychological profile at my Residence -- twice."

There's got to be more to this story. Are we to believe that Zelaya would simply show up at Ford's house and take a psychological test? Why would this have occurred to Zelaya in the first place? What kind of test was it? Interestingly enough, just like Clinton Ford was very interested in personal medical matters. At one point, he wrote "Zelaya almost assuredly takes strong medication for a severe back problem and perhaps other drugs as well."

Is it just a coincidence that diplomats spanning the Bush to Obama era seem eager to acquire drug-related information on Latin leaders? Why do U.S. officials consider this data so relevant? One would expect the CIA to be interested in such matters, but not necessarily run of the mill diplomats. In the wake of the WikiLeaks scandal, the State Department has conducted damage control around the world. WikiLeaks cables, remarked one official at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, "don't constitute official U.S. policy." Concerned about the public relations scandal linked to Clinton's cable, the official added "We're not spies."

What Needs to Happen Now

So far, WikiLeaks cables have done much to illuminate the thinking of diplomats operating in Latin America and the dominant U.S. mindset which, fundamentally, hasn't changed much in a hundred years. Far from demonstrating any type of understanding or compassion toward Latin peoples, American diplomats continue to view the region's leaders as naïve vassals who need to be controlled in the event that they get out of line.

Up to now, the WikiLeaks revelations pertaining to Latin America have been embarrassing, though not devastating, for Clinton and her staff. Perhaps, the WikiLeaks scandal will prompt officials at the State Department to reconsider their views and overall modus operandi, though I doubt it. If U.S. foreign policy is ever to be reformed, we're going to need more insight into the thinking of American diplomats. Why did they place such emphasis on sensitive psychological information, and what use, if any, was the data put to? In the days and weeks ahead, the wider region will no doubt be looking to uncover such clues as further cables get released.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) and No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com