Earlier this summer, the world watched Greece wage a heroic fight against a disastrous neoliberal diktat. It then witnessed the Greek people receive a painful, public thrashing, applied with sadistic zeal by the eurozone financial authorities.
When Greece’s left government decided to hold a national referendum on the eurozone and IMF-imposed austerity program, the European Central Bank retaliated by restricting liquidity for Greek banks. This triggered a prolonged bank closure and plunged Greece further into recession. Though Greek voters ended up massively rejecting austerity, Germany and the European creditor cartel were able to subvert democracy and get exactly what they wanted, for now: complete submission to their neoliberal agenda.
In the last decade and a half, a similar fight against neoliberalism has been waged across the breadth of an entire continent, and mostly outside of the public eye. Although Washington initially sought to quash all dissent, often employing even fiercer tactics than those used against Greece, Latin America’s movement of resistance to the neoliberal agenda has in large part been successful. It’s an epic tale that’s gradually coming to light thanks to continued exploration of the massive trove of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
Neoliberalism was firmly implanted in Latin America long before Germany and the eurozone authorities began force-feeding structural adjustment to Greece and other indebted, peripheral countries. Through coercion (e.g., conditionalities attached to IMF loans) and indoctrination (e.g., the U.S.-backed training of the region’s “Chicago Boys”), the U.S. succeeded in spreading the gospel of fiscal austerity, deregulation, so-called “free trade”, privatization, and draconian public sector downsizing throughout Latin America by the mid-1980s. The outcome was strikingly similar to what we’ve seen in Greece: stagnant growth (almost no per capita income growth for the 20 years 1980-2000), rising poverty, declining living standards for millions, and plenty of new opportunities for international investors and corporations to make a quick buck.
Starting in the late ‘80s, the region began to convulse and rise up against neoliberal policies. At first, the rebellion was mostly spontaneous and unorganized – as was the case with Venezuela’s Caracazo uprising in early 1989. But then, anti-neoliberal political candidates began to win elections, and – to the shock of the U.S. foreign policy establishment – an increasing number of them stuck to their campaign promises and began implementing anti-poverty measures and heterodox policies that reasserted the state’s role in the economy. From 1999 to 2008, left-leaning candidates – opposed, to varying degrees, to neoliberalism and U.S. hegemony – won presidential elections in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Paraguay.
Much of the story of the U.S. government’s efforts to contain and roll back the anti-neoliberal tide can be found in the tens of thousands of WikiLeaked diplomatic cables from the region’s U.S. diplomatic missions, dating from the early 2000s to 2010. The cables – which we analyze in the new book from Verso Books, “The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to U.S. Empire” – reveal the day-to-day mechanics of U.S. political intervention in Latin America (and make a farce of the State Department mantra that “the U.S. doesn’t interfere in the internal politics of other countries”). Material and strategic support is provided to right-wing opposition groups, some of which are violent and anti-democratic. The cables also paint a vivid picture of the Cold War ideological mindset of senior U.S. emissaries and show them attempting to use coercive measures reminiscent of the recent chokehold applied to Greek democracy.
Unsurprisingly, the major media has largely missed or ignored this disturbing chronicle of imperial aggression, preferring to focus instead on U.S. diplomats’ accounts of potentially embarrassing or illicit actions taken by foreign officials. The few pundits that have offered bigger picture analysis of the cables typically assert that there is no significant gap between U.S. official rhetoric and the reality depicted in the cables. In the words of one U.S. international relations analyst, “one doesn’t get an image of the United States as this all-powerful puppet master trying to pull the strings of various governments around the world to serve its corporate interests.”
One doesn’t get this image? Reader, you can be the judge.
“This is Not Blackmail…”
In late 2005, Evo Morales won a landslide victory in the Bolivian presidential elections on a platform of constitutional reform, indigenous rights and a promise to combat poverty and neoliberalism. On January 3, just two days after his inauguration, Morales received a visit from U.S. Ambassador David L. Greenlee. The ambassador cut straight to the chase: U.S.-vetted multilateral assistance to Bolivia would hinge on the good behavior of the Morales government. It could have been a scene from The Godfather:
The ambassador showed the crucial importance of U.S. contributions to key international financial [sic] on which Bolivia depended for assistance, such as the International Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “When you think of the IDB, you should think of the US,” the Ambassador said. “This is not blackmail, it is simple reality.” (…) “I hope you as the next president of Bolivia understand the importance of this,” he said, “because a parting of the ways would not be good for the region, for Bolivia or for the United States.” [06LAPAZ6]
Nevertheless, Morales stuck to his agenda. Over the next few days he forged ahead with plans to re-regulate labor markets, re-nationalize the hydrocarbons industry and deepen cooperation with U.S. arch-nemesis Hugo Chávez. In response, Greenlee suggested a “menu of options” to try to force Morales to bend to the will of his government. These included: vetoing multi-million dollar multilateral loans, postponing scheduled multilateral debt relief, discouraging Millennium Challenge Corporation funding (which Bolivia has still never received, despite being one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere) and cutting off “material support” to Bolivian security forces [06LAPAZ93].
Unfortunately for the U.S. State Department, it soon became clear that these sorts of threats would be duly ignored. Morales had already decided to drastically reduce Bolivia’s reliance on multilateral credit lines that required U.S. Treasury vetting. Within weeks of his taking office, Morales announced that Bolivia would no longer be beholden to the IMF, and let the loan agreement with the Fund expire. Years later, Morales would advise Greece and other indebted European countries to follow Bolivia’s example and “economically free themselves from the International Monetary Fund’s dictate.”
Unable to force Morales to do its bidding, the State Department began focusing instead on strengthening the Bolivian opposition. The opposition-controlled Media Luna region began receiving increased U.S. assistance. A cable from April 2007 discusses “USAID’s larger effort to strengthen regional governments as a counter-balance to the central government” [07LAPAZ1167]. A USAID report from 2007 stated that its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) “ha[d] approved 101 grants for $4,066,131 to help departmental governments operate more strategically.” Funds also went to local indigenous groups that were “opposed to Evo Morales’ vision for indigenous communities.” [08LAPAZ717]
A year later, the Media Luna departments would engage in open rebellion against the Morales government, first holding referenda on autonomy, despite these having been ruled illegal by the national judiciary; then supporting violent pro-autonomy protests that left at least 20 government supporters dead. Many believed an attempted coup was unfolding. The situation only calmed under pressure from all the other presidents of South America, who issued a joint declaration of support for the country’s constitutional government.
But as South America rallied behind Evo, the U.S. was in regular communication with the leaders of the violent, separatist and racist opposition movement, even as they spoke openly of “blow[ing] up gas lines” and “violence as a probability to force the government to … take seriously any dialog.” [08LAPAZ1931]
Contrary to its official posture during the events of August/September 2008, the U.S. State Department took the possibility of a coup d’etat against, or the assassination of, Bolivian President Evo Morales seriously. A cable reveals plans by the U.S. embassy in La Paz to prepare for such an event: “[The Emergency Action Committee] will develop, with [the U.S. Southern Command Situational Assessment Team], a plan for immediate response in the event of a sudden emergency, i.e. a coup attempt or President Morales’ death,” the cable read. [08LAPAZ2083_a]
The events of 2008 were the greatest challenge yet to Morales’ presidency, and the closest he came to being toppled. The U.S. embassy’s preparations for Morales’ possible departure from the presidency reveal that the U.S., at least, believed the threat to Morales to be very real. That it did not say so publicly only underscores which side the U.S. was taking during the conflict, and which outcome it probably preferred.
Some of the methods of intervention deployed in Bolivia were mirrored in other countries with left governments or strong left-wing movements. For instance, after the return of the left-wing Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua in 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Managua went into high gear to bolster support for right-wing opposition party Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN).
In February 2007, the embassy met with the ALN planning coordinator and explained that the U.S. did “not provide direct assistance to political parties,” but—in order to bypass this restriction—suggested that the ALN coordinate more closely with friendly NGOs that could receive U.S. funding. The ALN leader said she would “forward a comprehensive list of NGOs that indeed support ALN efforts” and the embassy arranged for her to “next meet with IRI [International Republican Institute] and NDI [National Democratic Institute for International Affairs] country directors.” The cable also noted that the embassy would “follow up on capacity building for [ALN] fundraisers.”[07MANAGUA493]
Cables like this one should be required reading for students of U.S. diplomacy and those interested in understanding how the U.S. “democracy promotion” system really works. Through USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), NDI, IRI and other para-governmental entities, the U.S. government provides extensive assistance to political movements that support U.S. economic and political objectives.
In March of 2007, the U.S. ambassador in Nicaragua asked the State Department to provide “approximately $65 million above our recent past base levels over the next four years — through the next Presidential elections” so as to fund the “the strengthening of political parties, “democratic” NGOs, and “small, flexible grants on short notice to groups engaging in critical efforts that defend Nicaragua’s democracy, advance our interests, and counter those who rail against us.” [07MANAGUA583_a]
In Ecuador, the U.S. embassy opposed left-wing economist Rafael Correa well ahead of the 2006 elections that swept him into office. Two months before those elections, the embassy’s political counselor alerted Washington that Correa could be expected to “join the Chavez-Morales-Kirchner group of nationalist-populist South American leaders,” and noted that the embassy had “warned our political, economic and media contacts of the threat Correa represents to Ecuador’s future, and had actively discouraged political alliances which could balance Correa’s perceived radicalism.” [06QUITO2150_a] Immediately following Correa’s election, the embassy cabled the State Department with their game plan:
We are under no illusions that USG efforts alone will shape the direction of the new government or Congress, but hope to maximize our influence by working in concert with other Ecuadorians and groups who share our views. Correa’s reform proposals and attitude toward Congress and traditional political parties, if unchecked, could extend the current period of political conflict and instability. [06QUITO2991]
The embassy’s worst fears were confirmed. Correa announced that he would close the U.S. air base in Manta, increase social spending, and push for a constituent assembly. In April 2007, 80 percent of Ecuadorean voters endorsed the proposal for a constituent assembly and in 2008, 62 percent approved a new constitution that enshrined a host of progressive principles, including food sovereignty, the rights to housing, health care and employment, and executive control over the central bank (an enormous no-no in the neoliberal playbook).
In early 2009, Correa announced that Ecuador would partially default on its foreign debt. The embassy was livid, about this and other recent actions, like Correa’s decision to align Ecuador more closely with the left-wing Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of nations (which was initiated by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 as a counter-force to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, then being pushed by the Bush administration). But the ambassador was also conscious that the U.S. had little leverage over him:
We are conveying the message in private that Correa’s actions will have consequences for his relationship with the new Obama Administration, while avoiding public comments that would be counterproductive. We do not recommend terminating any USG programs that serve our interests since that would only weaken the incentive for Correa to move back into a more pragmatic mode. [09QUITO15]
The partial default was successful, and saved the Ecuadorean government close to $2 billion. In 2011 Correa recommended the same medicine for indebted European countries, particularly Greece, advising them to default on their debt payments and “ignore” the IMF’s advice.
Countering the Bolivarian “Threat”
During the Cold War, the supposed threat of Soviet and Cuban communist expansion served to justify countless interventions to remove left-leaning governments and prop up rightwing military regimes. Similarly, the WikiLeaks cables show how, in the 2000s, the specter of Venezuelan “Bolivarianism” has been used to validate interventions against new anti-neoliberal left governments, like those of Bolivia, depicted as having “fallen openly into Venezuela’s embrace”; or Ecuador, seen as a “stalking-horse for Chávez.”
U.S. relations with the left government of Hugo Chávez soured early on. Chávez, first elected president in 1998, broadly rejected neoliberal economic policies, developed a close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and loudly criticized the Bush administration’s assault on Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks (the U.S. pulled its ambassador from Caracas after Chávez proclaimed: “You can’t fight terrorism with terrorism”). He later strengthened the government’s control of the oil sector, increasing royalties paid by foreign corporations and using oil revenue to finance popular health, education and food programs for the poor.
In April of 2002, the U.S. government publicly endorsed a short-lived military coup that removed Chávez from power for 48 hours. NED documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the U.S. provided “democracy promotion” funding and training to groups that backed the coup and that were later involved in efforts to remove Chávez through a managerial “strike” that paralyzed the oil industry in late 2002/early 2003 and plunged the country into recession.
WikiLeaks cables show that, following these failed attempts to topple Venezuela’s elected government, the U.S. continued to back the Venezuelan opposition through NED and USAID. In a November 2006 cable, then Ambassador William Brownfield explained the USAID/OTI strategy to undermine the Chávez administration:
In August of 2004, Ambassador outlined the country team’s 5 point strategy to guide embassy activities in Venezuela for the period [2004–2006] (…) The strategy’s focus is: 1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital U.S. business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally. [06CARACAS3356]
The close ties that exist between the U.S. Embassy and various opposition groups are apparent in numerous cables. One cable from Brownfield links Súmate—an opposition NGO that played a central role in opposition campaigns—to “our interests in Venezuela” [06CARACAS339]. Other cables reveal that the State Department has lobbied for international support for Súmate [05MADRID2557; 06CARACAS340] and encouraged U.S. financial [05CARACAS1805], political, legal [06CARACAS3547] and other support for the organization, including via the NED.
In August 2009, Venezuela was rocked by violent opposition protests (as has occurred a number of times under both Chávez and his successor Nicolas Maduro). One secret cable from August 27 cites USAID/OTI contractor Development Alternatives, Incorporated (DAI) referring to “all” the people protesting Chávez at the time as “our grantees”:
[DAI employee] Eduardo Fernandez said that ‘the streets are hot,’ referring to growing protests against Chavez’s efforts to consolidate power, and ‘all these people (organizing the protests) are our grantees.’ [09CARACAS1132_a]
The cables also reveal that the U.S. State Department provided training and support to a student leader it acknowledged had led crowds with the intention “to lynch” a Chavista governor: “During the coup of April 2002, [Nixon] Moreno participated in the demonstrations in Merida state, leading crowds who marched on the state capital to lynch MVR governor Florencio Porras” [06CARACAS1627]. Yet, a few years after this, another cable notes: “Moreno participated in [a State Department] International Visitor Program in 2004” .
Moreno would later be wanted for attempted murder and threatening a female police officer, among other charges.
Also in line with the five-point strategy as outlined by Brownfield, the U.S. State Department prioritized efforts to isolate the Venezuelan government internationally and counter its perceived influence throughout the region. Cables show how heads of U.S. diplomatic missions in the region developed coordinating strategies to counter the Venezuelan regional “threat.”
As WikiLeaks first revealed in December 2010, the U.S. chiefs of mission for six South American countries met in Brazil in May 2007 to develop a joint response to President Chávez’s alleged “aggressive plans … to create a unified Bolivarian movement throughout Latin America.” Among the areas of action that the mission chiefs agreed on was a plan to “continue to strengthen ties to those military leaders in the region who share our concern over Chávez.” [07ASUNCION396]. A similar meeting of U.S. mission chiefs from Central America – focused on the “threat” of “populist political activities in the region” – took place at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador in March of 2006. [06SANSALVADOR963_a]
U.S. diplomats went to great lengths to try to prevent Caribbean and Central American governments from joining Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan regional energy agreement that provides oil and oil products to members at extremely preferential terms. Leaked cables show that, while U.S. officials privately acknowledged the clear economic benefits of the agreement for member countries, they were concerned that Petrocaribe would increase Venezuela’s political influence in the region.
In Haiti, the embassy worked closely with big oil companies to try and prevent the government of René Préval from joining Petrocaribe, despite acknowledging that it “would save USD 100 million per year,” as was first reported by Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives in The Nation. In April 2006, Ambassador Janet Sanderson wrote: “Post will continue to pressure [Haitian president René] Preval against joining PetroCaribe. Ambassador will see Preval’s senior advisor Bob Manuel today. In previous meetings, he has acknowledged our concerns and is aware that a deal with Chavez would cause problems with us.” [06PORTAUPRINCE692].
One must keep in mind that the WikiLeaks cables don’t offer glimpses of the more covert activities of U.S. intelligence agencies, and are likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to U.S. political interference in the region. Still, the cables provide ample evidence of U.S. diplomats’ persistent, determined efforts to intervene against independent left governments in Latin America, using financial leverage, the manifold instruments available in the “democracy promotion” toolbox – and sometimes supporting violent and illegal means.
The Obama administration has taken some positive steps in the region – not least of which has been the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba – but there is no indication that policy toward Venezuela and other left governments in Latin America has fundamentally changed. Certainly, the administration’s hostility toward the elected Venezuelan government is unrelenting. In June of 2014, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden launched the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, seen as an “antidote” to Petrocaribe. In March of 2015, Obama declared Venezuela an “extraordinary security threat” and announced sanctions against Venezuelan officials, a move unanimously criticized by other countries in the region.
But, despite incessant U.S. aggression, the left has largely prevailed in Latin America. With the exception of Honduras and Paraguay, where right-wing coups ousted elected leaders, nearly every left movement that came to power in the last 15 years remains in office today. Largely as a result of these governments, from 2002-2013 the poverty rate for the region fell from 44 to 28 percent after actually worsening over the prior two decades. These successes, and the willingness of left leaders to take risks in order to break free of the neoliberal diktat, should be an inspiration for Europe’s new anti-austerity left today.
Certainly some of the governments are experiencing significant difficulties today, in part due to a regional economic downturn that has affected right- and left-wing governments alike. Seen through the lens of the cables, there are good reasons to question whether all of these difficulties are homegrown. For instance, in Ecuador – where president Correa is under attack from the right, and from some sectors of the left – protests against the government’s new progressive tax proposals involve the same opposition-aligned business leaders that U.S. diplomats are seen strategizing with in the cables. In Venezuela, where a dysfunctional currency control system has generated high inflation, violent right-wing student protests seriously destabilized the country. The odds are extremely high that some of these protestors have been USAID or NED grantees.
There is still much more that we can learn from the WikiLeaks cables. For the “Latin America and the Caribbean” chapters of The WikiLeaks Files, we pored through hundreds of WikiLeaks cables, and were able to identify distinct patterns of U.S. intervention that we describe at greater length in the book (some of these previously reported by others). Other book authors did the same for other regions of the world. But there are over 250,000 cables (nearly 35,000 from Latin America alone) and there are undoubtedly many more notable aspects of U.S. diplomacy in action that are waiting to be uncovered.
Sadly, following the initial excitement when the cables were first released, few reporters and scholars have shown much interest in the cables. (See the introduction by Julian Assange as to how this is damaging to academic and media efforts to understand U.S. foreign relations.) Over the past five years, only a tiny number of WikiLeaks cable citations have made their way into academic journals. It’s time to turn that trend around. The cables offer the most far-reaching and detailed publicly accessible account of how the U.S. imperial state sees the world, and how it responds to what it perceives as challenges to its interests. No analysis of 21st U.S. foreign policy is complete without them.
Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Dan Beeton is International Communications Director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
This article was originally published in Jacobin Magazine.