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Nikolas Kozloff

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WikiLeaks: Washington and Brasilia Monitoring Chávez in the Caribbean

Posted: 08/31/11 12:37 AM ET

As more and more WikiLeaks cables get released, the Brazilian-U.S. diplomatic relationship has become increasingly illuminated. Though somewhat wary of each other, Washington and Brasilia sometimes saw eye to eye on matters of geopolitical importance. Take, for example, both countries' handling of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Under the helm of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil cultivated a strategic alliance with Venezuela and publicly the two nations embraced South America's "pink tide" to the left. Yet, WikiLeaks documents reveal that Brazil may have shared Washington's concern over Chávez's rising geopolitical importance, particularly in the Caribbean theater.
During the Bush years, American diplomats kept a close bead on Venezuela's growing partnerships in areas far afield. In Jamaica, for example, U.S. officials conducted a "sustained effort to dissuade" the authorities from supporting Chávez's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Concerned over Venezuela's rising star in the region, the Americans met with the Jamaican political opposition. Writing to her superiors in Washington, U.S. ambassador in Kingston Brenda Johnson expressed "concerns over the influence of Venezuelan money and energy supplies in Jamaica in the years ahead."

Monitoring Chávez in Jamaica

During a local cricket match, Bruce Golding of Jamaica's opposition Labour Party approached the ambassador to request a meeting. Asking that the U.S. hold the information in "strict confidence," Golding revealed that his party's concern over Chávez had "heightened in recent weeks." Confidentially, he continued, a "senior person in the government" had passed him "sensitive inside information," and "a number of persons within the government" were "frightened over the secrecy" concerning Jamaica's official dealings with Chávez.
Spinning a rather cloak and dagger narrative, Golding explained how senior officials from the ruling People's National Party (PNP) had recently flown to Caracas. Once in the Venezuelan capital, he claimed, they had been given one or two large packages and thereafter returned to Kingston. The opposition politician alleged that overall the Venezuelans had doled out $4-5 million to the PNP in Caracas in order to finance the electoral campaign of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. The very next week, the government magically claimed that it had managed to repay $475,000 to a Dutch-based oil trading firm called Trafigura.
Earlier, the company had made the "contribution" to the PNP, but when the matter came to public attention the news spiraled into a full blown campaign finance scandal. Speaking to the U.S. ambassador, Golding thought it was "logical" that part of the cash which Venezuela had given to the Jamaicans had been later used to pay back Trafigura. Going further, Golding claimed that just before the Trafigura "contribution," the PNP had experienced financial problems and even found it difficult to maintain its own facilities. Recently, however, there had been a "dramatic turnaround," and the party no longer found it necessary to solicit contributions from the private sector.
Because Jamaica already participated in Chávez's so-called Petrocaribe program, which provided liquefied natural gas to the Caribbean nation, Golding feared that "it would be easy to imagine a scenario in which Chávez offered to write off or defer a portion of these debts in return for government of Jamaica support of his positions in international fora." In drawing closer to Chávez, Golding continued, Jamaica was "getting mixed up with something from which it will be difficult to extricate ourselves." In conclusion, Golding thought that Chávez had become a "godfather with money." Jamaica, he said, was "being sucked into an agenda not of our own making. Chávez waves cash, we're mesmerized, and cave in to anything he wants."
While it's unclear whether Golding was speaking the truth, WikiLeaks cables suggest that the U.S. ambassador took the politician's points seriously enough. Reflecting a paranoid anti-Chávez mindset, Johnson told the Jamaican that he should "raise these concerns with U.S. government officials during [an] upcoming visit to Washington."

Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, U.S. diplomats carefully monitored Chávez influence. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Americans sat up and took note when local politicians signed on to Venezuela's PetroCaribe accord. When Chávez sent liquefied petroleum gas to the government of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, the American Embassy in Bridgetown remarked that "the timing of the shipments, the first of which arrived just prior to St. Vincent's December 2005 general election, led to speculation that they were also intended to shore up the electoral prospects of the PM. Gonsalves is one of Venezuela President Hugo Chávez's most ardent supporters in the region."
Over in Grenada, meanwhile, the Americans noted that the authorities had signed on to the PetroCaribe deal and hoped to import diesel supplied by Venezuela's state oil company PdVSA. In light of the contentious history of U.S. military intervention in Grenada, Washington would have been interested in keeping Grenada out of Venezuela's orbit. It's not clear from the cables whether American diplomats pressured Grenada to cut its links to Venezuela, but other documents suggest that, overall, Washington had grown concerned about the Caribbean theater.
In 2008, for example, U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Mary Ourisman sat down with Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Speaking over breakfast at the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Ourisman pressed Gonsalves on his country's recent participation in Chávez's Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (or ALBA) summit in Caracas. Somewhat defensively, "Gonsalves was quick to deny any military and intelligence agenda or component to ALBA, and appeared to generally want to disassociate himself from Chávez's ideologies. He was quick to thank the United States for its continued military and law enforcement assistance."
Gonsalves' soothing assurances notwithstanding, Ourisman was suspicious. "While the friendly nature of the meeting reflected the Embassy's generally good relations with St. Vincent and the Grenadines," she remarked, "Gonsalves was at his legalistic best, downplaying both Saint Vincent's and the Grenadines involvement in ALBA."

Brazil's Fears over Guyana

While it's not too surprising that Washington during the Bush years kept a careful eye on Chávez in the Caribbean, it's interesting to note that Brazil too had grown concerned. On the surface at least this might seem surprising: publicly, Brazil's Workers' Party President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva embraced neighboring Venezuela. WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal that powerful figures in Brasilia were growing increasingly restive and nervous when faced with Venezuela's bold assertiveness in the Caribbean.
As part of its efforts to become a "responsible" member of the international community, Brazil has taken a more active role in the Caribbean theater, sending peacekeeping troops to Haiti and beefing up ties to Cuba in advance of the island's post-Castro transition. Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials threw cold water on the notion that leftist Venezuela would continue to play a significant role in Cuba. Chávez's brand of "strident" populism, they remarked, had "less space to grow in Latin America than you may think." On the other hand, closer to home in the Caribbean Brazilian politicians saw themselves in more direct competition with Venezuela for geopolitical influence, for instance in Guyana.

Chorus of Conservative Brasilia Politicians

In early 2007, former President and sitting Senator Jose Sarney of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party fretted to American diplomats that Venezuela was "becoming a destabilizing military power." Warming to his theme, Sarney remarked that he was "especially concerned about Venezuela's irrendentist claims on Guyana's Essequibo region." Growing even more alarmist, the politician stated that two thirds of Guyana was rich in diamonds and Chávez could "cause trouble over an area of 170,000 square kilometers." A conflict was all but inevitable, Sarney continued, and "in that event, a burden will fall on Brazil's shoulders."
In the following months, a growing number of conservative politicians in Brasilia echoed such alarmist claims until Sarney finally laid down the gauntlet, urging Washington to "do more to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's increasingly destabilizing actions in the region."
Since Sarney's last tete-a-tete with the Americans, tensions had mounted in the Essequibo region, with Guyana accusing Venezuela of militarily invading its territory to stave off gold mining operations. Caracas flatly rejected the claim, arguing that the incursion occurred squarely within Venezuelan territory.
Reiterating his previous arguments, Sarney said that Chávez sought to "create a hotspot of regional conflict like the Balkans," and would seize Guyana's Essequibo region. Speaking candidly, the politician remarked that Lula was "aware of the dangers Chávez presents," but unfortunately the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was "infiltrated" with Chávez sympathizers.

The Mood Begins to Shift in Brasilia

Despite Sarney's claims about the pro-Chávez leanings within the Brazilian government, WikiLeaks cables suggest that many within the political elite had grown tired and impatient with Venezuela. Take, for example, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who "expressed a personal concern that if Chávez started to have domestic problems, he could decide to focus public attention on unresolved claims on Venezuela's borders." Rather bluntly, Jobim suggested to the Americans that Brasilia and Washington should "step in and confront Chávez if he did anything extraterritorial."
Though Lula continued to defend Venezuelan democracy, opposition politicians in Brasilia began to see their president's position on Chávez as "weak and fearful of conflict." Overall, the Americans noted, the mood was changing in Brasilia and there was "growing agreement among the political and foreign policy elites that Venezuela represents a threat to stability and that something must be done."
By early 2008, Sarney was openly asking the Americans for any information relating to Venezuela's arms purchases. Elaborating further, the veteran politician added that Chávez's aggressive behavior could pose a threat to a Brazilian road which stretched from the jungle city of Manaus all the way to the Guyanese border.
Interestingly, however, it wasn't just the political opposition which had grown leery of Chávez and Venezuela's regional ambitions. If WikiLeaks cables can be believed, Lula himself was ready to throw in the towel and the president had grown increasingly worried about Venezuela's "serious" border problems with Guyana. Indeed, Lula believed that Venezuela might even want to "annex one third of Guyana's territory."
That, at least, was the claim of one Antonio Delfim Netto, one of Brazil's "most influential economic commentators" and a former Minister of Finance who was said to meet with Lula regularly to provide informal economic advice. Delfim, who the Americans referred to as a "strictly protected" source, told the U.S. ambassador in Brasilia that "if Venezuela were to invade Guyana, Caracas would likely militarize all of Venezuela's south, antagonizing the indigenous populations there."
Delfim added that this would "have an impact on Brazil because the territories of at least one tribe, the Yanomami Indians spills over the Venezuela-Brazil border. Delfim believes that, should Venezuela invade Guyana, the Yanomamis will declare independence, forcing Brazil to get involved in a Venezuela-Guyana war."
Fortunately, the border dispute did not turn into armed conflict but further WikiLeaks cables suggest that Brazil may have seen Venezuela as an ongoing geopolitical rival in Guyana. In late 2009, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske wrote Washington that Brazil was involved in talks with Guyana to build a hydroelectric plant in the disputed area claimed by Venezuela.
To be sure, Lula officials told the Americans, the project would augment energy capacity for both Guyana and Brazil. However, the initiative would also exert an important political impact by allowing Guyana "to establish government infrastructure in the disputed territory." Kubiske added that the project would allow Lula to build upon Brazilian efforts to promote a South American political bloc, "through which Brazil can conduct harmonious regional relations while building a base of support for its larger international ambitions."

Wary Allies

In an effort to stay on the good side of most all countries, Brazil is reluctant to offend those nations in its immediate neighborhood. WikiLeaks documents suggest that, for now, Brazil and the U.S. are somewhat ambiguous diplomatic partners. Both reportedly see eye to eye on the need to keep Venezuela in check within the Caribbean theater, with Brasilia frequently taking a back seat and waiting for the U.S. to take the initiative and rein in Chávez.
For the time being, then, an unsure Brazil will continue to play the role of junior diplomatic partner. However, in the not so distant future such an arrangement could be subject to change. As Brazil becomes more economically and politically prominent, the South American juggernaut may seek to exert its influence more assertively, even within Washington's traditional "back yard" of the Caribbean or even Central America. If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, U.S. diplomats are already keenly aware of this growing rivalry and see Brasilia as their greatest competitor in the region.

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