By Mark Weisbrot.
Before he resigned in June, Thomas Shannon was the third-ranking official in the US State Department, and most influential regarding relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. In a 33-year career at State, Shannon acquired a reputation as a highly effective diplomat and skilled negotiator. Under the Bush administration, Shannon served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (the top State Department official for Latin America and the Caribbean).
He was appointed ambassador to Brazil by President Obama before he was finally made Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 2016. In these positions under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Shannon was involved in highly contentious episodes including the US role in Honduras’ 2009 military coup, as well as “parliamentary coups” that removed sitting presidents in Brazil and Paraguay. Shannon was also involved in the tumultuous relationship with Venezuela, which followed a long, downward trajectory after the US supported the short-lived coup d’etat against President Hugo Chávez in 2002. (Shannon was Director of Andean Affairs in 2001 to 2002.)
Shannon’s resignation was part of a wave of departures from the State Department during the Trump administration that has left it depleted and weakened. In what follows, Mark Weisbrot imagines the advice and counsel that Ambassador Shannon might offer to the new secretary of state Mike Pompeo, based particularly Shannon’s leading role in US policy in this hemisphere in the twenty-first century.
The letter illustrates the continuities between the two previous US administrations’ hemispheric policy regimes and that of the Trump administration; at the same time it documents the differences in style between the skilled diplomatic maneuvering represented by officials like Shannon, and the “gloves off” intervention, and lack of concern for public perception, of the Trump team. While the letter is fictional, the events and facts described therein are well documented, quite real, and ongoing.
July 2, 2018
Dear Secretary Pompeo,
Greetings and I hope this finds you well. As you know, I retired from the State Department after nearly 35 years of service on Monday, June 4th. I write to you in order to offer some of the lessons of my experience over the past 35 years, as we enter a new, and profoundly different, era of US-Latin American relations.
Of course I understand that you have more urgent concerns in much more dangerous and volatile areas of the world. And that is part of the challenge faced by those of us who are in charge of the Western Hemisphere. Especially during and following the Iraq War, and all the increased turbulence in the Middle East that followed, Latin America was not afforded sufficient attention. One result was that in the first decade of this century, left governments ― not too friendly to the idea of US leadership in the hemisphere or even the world ― came to govern the majority of Latin America. As Secretary Kerry noted in 2013, this is our “backyard.” Our loss of influence in this region was in some respects unpleasant, unintended consequence of that fateful war that destabilized the Middle East, a “war of choice” that President Trump has so rightly criticized.
All this has now changed dramatically, and if you will allow me to dispense with false modesty, it was in large part the result of our work over the past twenty years. Latin America is now ours, as it has not been for decades; even with this week’s loss of Mexico, in the countries that have most of the population of the region ― including Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia ― we have governments that are solidly aligned with us, to a degree not seen for several decades at least. And most of the other countries have similarly fallen into line. Although it was perhaps not wise for the nation’s top diplomat to make this allusion publicly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent reference to the Monroe Doctrine was quite apt.
If you will bear with me, I would like to focus on some of the details of our work in helping to bring about this historic reversal ― not to take credit for all of it, because it was the work not only of the State Department but involved many efforts from various branches of our national security state, including the Pentagon, the National Security Council, some of the 17 intelligence agencies, and our friends in the Congress, in particular the foreign policy committees in both houses. My purpose in addressing those details is to illustrate, insofar as I can in this brief account, the important continuity in the goals and strategy of our foreign policy in the region, particularly in the 16 years of the two prior administrations, i.e., those of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush ― in which I played a major role, which continued into the Trump administration. I also hope to illustrate the vital role of diplomacy in achieving our long-standing objectives.
I shall try to be candid here; but since this letter is not classified as top secret, and leaks are always possible, I will not divulge any classified information, but rather rely on what is already in the public domain.
Let me begin with an event in which diplomacy does not immediately come to mind ― the 2009 military coup that toppled one of our adversaries, Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya of Honduras. Like most of the leftist presidents elected in Latin America in the “pink tide” of the 2000’s, Zelaya did not put forth a radical program. As a politician, he was not radical himself; he came from the landowning class and was a moderate social democrat, raising the minimum wage, providing school lunches, and the like. The US corporations operating in Honduras at the time, who created tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, did not feel particularly threatened by him, even if he was not their first choice.
But he became a threat for two reasons: first, he began to talk about having a constitutional assembly to draw up a new constitution for Honduras. This may have seemed a reasonable idea to most Hondurans, since the current constitution was drawn up in the 1980s under a military dictatorship, and was not very amenable to democracy. But a new constitution did not make sense from our point of view, since it was likely that the new charter ― like those adopted in the twenty-first century by other left governments in Latin America ― would prohibit foreign military bases on their soil. You can imagine that the Pentagon, among others, didn’t want to lose its largest military base in Central America, especially after losing our base in Manta, Ecuador, after the government of Rafael Correa got this kind of prohibition in his new, 2008, constitution. (And Correa had the impudence to rub our noses in this loss, saying that we could have a military base in Ecuador if we would allow them to have one in Miami.)
The second, broader positive reason for the Honduran coup, from our perspective, was that Zelaya was part of an alliance of all the left governments, including at that time Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Nicaragua; El Salvador had also just elected its first left president, and Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist in Chile, almost always sided with the other left governments on hemispheric issues. So, while Honduras, a poor country without much influence, may not seem that important in the scheme of things, as any chess player knows, pawns are an important part of the game, especially if they can be taken without suffering any material or positional loss. And Zelaya had also joined an even more left subset of countries, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which was led by Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. At this time, though, all of these left governments were following more or less the same foreign policy, which the more outspoken among them called “anti-imperialist.” I don’t have to tell you what that means to us.
In any case our diplomacy was a vital part of this coup’s success. The optics of the coup were not good: President Zelaya was taken from his house in the early morning on June 28th, 2009 in his pajamas, and flown to Costa Rica, stopping at our military base south of Comayagua to refuel. But we were careful not to endorse the coup, while at the same time letting everyone who pays attention to these matters know that it had our blessing. The first statement that came out of the White House did not condemn the military’s action but rather called on “all political and social actors in Honduras” to respect democracy. Since it was public information that we knew about the coup in advance, the fact that we did not condemn the coup was all that we needed to show at the moment, to those who understand diplomatic language in the twenty-first century. This was widely seen by diplomats and intelligence agencies throughout the hemisphere as support for the coup, and everything that followed was predictable and predicted.
In her 2014 book, “Hard Choices,” Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State during the coup, summarized what we did: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico… We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” This took a lot of hard diplomatic work. We had to convince at least some of the world, including the media, that the best course for Honduras was to simply accept that the democratically elected president was gone, and that despite the repression of the coup government ― mass arrests, violence by security forces, suppression of opposition media, death squads ― there should be an election as soon as possible without allowing Zelya to return.
Some Republicans in Congress helped by taking a much harder line that made us look moderate. They openly supported the coup, and claimed that Zelaya himself was the guilty party, alleging that he was trying to use a proposed referendum to prolong his stay in office, and become a “dictator” like Hugo Chávez. At the State Department, we were also pushing Zelaya not to have the referendum. (A one-term limit prevents any president from accumulating much power or changing very much, since they are a lame duck from day one.) But in reality, it was chronologically impossible for Zelaya to get another term, regardless of the referendum. The referendum was non-binding and it was much too late for Zelaya to change the constitution before the next election. A new constitution could, if it were eventually ratified, allow future presidents to have a second term, but not Zelaya. But most of the media nonetheless adopted this story in their reporting, and that helped us make his ouster more acceptable.
In the end, as Secretary Clinton noted, we were able to prevent Zelaya’s return to power, and legitimize the elections of November of that year, which consolidated the post-coup government, which many saw as a dictatorship. This was in spite of the fact that the OAS and EU refused to send observers to the election, and the vast majority of governments in the hemisphere did not recognize it. But we prevailed, through careful, persistent diplomacy, and eventually everything was normalized.
The story of our success in Honduras does not end there: last November, the National Party that came to power during the coup announced its presidential candidate as re-elected, in an election which almost everyone ― this time including the vast majority of the international journalists ― believed was stolen. Our steadfast ally at the head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, took the unusual step of calling for the election to be re-run. But once again, our diplomacy prevailed. We asked Mexico to go first in recognizing the elections, and they did; and then we “followed” their lead. Pretty soon the issue was buried, along with the news about political assassinations and repression under the Hernández government. Not to mention the government’s connections with drug dealers. And of course it didn’t take long for Almagro and the OAS to back off. (We supply more than 40 percent of the OAS budget, among the many avenues of influence that we have there.)
We suffered a bit of a public relations nightmare from the 2016 assassination of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. With her winning the Goldman Prize just a year before, and all of her international support, it naturally became more of a news item than the hundreds of environmental and other dissident activists and leaders that have been murdered, with impunity, since the coup. And then four of the nine people arrested for the crime were tied to the military, in which we are very heavily invested. This included the arrest in March of the first person who is alleged to be an “intellectual author” of the crime, who unfortunately was a former military intelligence officer who was friendly with our embassy. There have been a number of letters from many members of Congress, as well as proposed legislation, but thanks to our public diplomacy, the damage has been minimal and we are still in control. To paraphrase FDR, Hernández may be a SOB, but he’s our SOB, and Honduras is still ours, just as it was in the 1980s, when it was used as a base of operations for our wars to keep Nicaragua and El Salvador within our orbit.
Of course Honduras is a small, poor country, but as I noted it is strategically important because of our military bases there, and because of our overall strategy of controlling the Americas. But in recent years our strategy of containment and rollback has won us the big prizes too. Look at Brazil, the second largest population and economy in the hemisphere, a bigger land mass than the continental United States. They were taken over by the leftist Workers’ Party in the election of 2002, when Lula da Silva won the presidency on his fourth attempt. His government was so popular that not only was he re-elected and left office after eight years with an 87 percent approval rating, but his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was also elected and re-elected.
But now look at their fate: Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and Lula sits in a 10 x 16 foot prison cell, convicted on charges of corruption and money laundering. Brazil is ours, even more than it was during the military dictatorship that we helped install in 1964. That dictatorship, after all, was a developmentalist and nationalist government, which defied us in developing their own industries behind protectionist barriers; not so with the present leadership, which is bending over backwards for foreign investment and looking to sell off whatever state-owned enterprises that they can get away with privatizing.
But it is not primarily for corporate interests that we have cast our lot with Brazil’s new leaders, although many of our adversaries make this claim. Our interests are much broader, they are geopolitical in nature, for so long as the United States remains “the indispensable nation.” And Brazil is always going to be an influential country, despite their dismal economic performance for most of the past four decades; and so they must have a government that is on our team. In fact Brazil increased its international influence under Lula, and an episode in 2010 provides a good illustration of why it is so important to maintain our influence in Brazil and in Latin America generally, and especially to make sure that their foreign policy aligns with ours. That goal ― and not their own domestic economic policy or even policy toward US corporations ― is the one that we must keep our eyes on.
In May 2010 Lula teamed up with Turkey, Iran, and Russia to arrange a nuclear fuel swap arrangement that they thought would help resolve our nuclear standoff with Iran. Although the deal that they made was one which President Obama had actually asked Lula to help broker, we didn’t want it at that particular time. I won’t go into the reasons why, except to say that press reports asserting that we changed our minds due to upcoming elections in the US were highly exaggerated. In any case, the Brazilians were rather public about their discontent, telling the media that Obama has asked them to do this ― and then, in response to our denials ― actually publishing the letter in which the request was made. Needless to say the whole episode made many in Washington angry, both inside and outside of the government, and relations with Brazil were never quite the same after that. Of course the deal fell apart after our objection, so there was no severe harm. But I call your attention to this episode mainly to emphasize how important it is to keep these governments from going off the reservation ― once they begin to develop their own foreign policies, they can do real damage to our more vital interests, in this case the Middle East ― despite the fact that no Latin American country, outside of Cuba during the missile crisis, has posed a direct security threat.
Of course that is just one example of many where the PT government caused us problems. They were diplomats, of course, and the Brazilian foreign ministry is very professional and one of the most competent in South America. I got to know them well, not only as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs but also as Ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013. On some occasions they helped us, most importantly by leading the UN occupation of Haiti in 2004 after we got rid of President Aristide (for the second time; the first coup that we helped pull off was in 1991). I will return to that very instructive episode below.
Lula had a very good relationship with President Bush, better than with Obama ― despite our many differences with the PT. This is something to keep in mind as the Trump administration negotiates with AMLO, who like Lula is likely to steer a moderate course that looks for compromise between the demands of the majority who voted for him, and the country’s traditional elite. Relations between President Obama and Dilma soured somewhat in 2103 when the Snowden documents revealed that Brazil was the top target for US spying in Latin America, including monitoring of Dilma’s personal phone calls and perhaps even more sensitive, our spying on Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras. The latter was widely seen in Brazil as industrial espionage. Dilma responded by cancelling a planned trip to the US, and with a speech to the UN General Assembly that was quite unfriendly to us. We remained calm and did not respond.
When the Brazilian economy began a deep recession in 2014, in Dilma’s second term, her opposition took advantage of her sinking popularity to begin an effort that ended up successfully ousting her two years later. Her impeachment did not rest on anything that constituted a crime in Brazil ― it was basically an accounting maneuver that previous presidents and governors had also done, and did not involve any corruption or other wrongdoing. Of course we did not take a position on the issue, publicly regarding it as an internal matter. But we were able to contribute to this regime change in important ways, similar to part of our effort in the 2009 coup in Honduras. Most importantly, we were able to send an unambiguous signal to all of the important players in Brazil ― including the media ― that we supported Dilma’s ouster. This was made clear when Aloysio Nunes, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Brazil, came to Washington just after the lower house of Brazil’s Congress voted to impeach Dilma. The impeachment vote was an awful spectacle, with some of the most revanchist members of Congress expressing nostalgia for the military dictatorship and one even praising the officers responsible for the torture of Dilma herself. It caused part of the international media, which was quite sour on Dilma and the PT, to reconsider their bias. But I met with Nunes, who was leading the impeachment effort in the Brazilian Senate. Given my position at the time (the third ranking official in the State Department), and that I was widely seen as responsible for policy on Brazil, everyone knew that my meeting with him was at the very least, a show of support for the impeachment.
Then Secretary of State John Kerry backed that up a few months later, on August 5, when he held a joint press conference with José Serra, then acting foreign minister of Brazil, in front of the US embassy. They made statements looking forward to strengthening the US-Brazilian relationship and co-operating on a range of issues, as they had not been able to do in recent years (as Kerry noted). But the Brazilian Senate had yet to vote on whether Dima should be removed from office (their constitution is similar to ours, with the House voting to impeach, and the Senate trying the president). So Kerry’s press conference with Serra was another clear sign of our preference for Dilma’s removal.
As I mentioned above, despite our differences, Brazil helped us with the 2004 coup in Haiti. We had learned from our mistakes in the 2002 coup in Venezuela, which was reversed within 48 hours. And part of the reason for that reversal, as you may know, was that there was a summit of the Rio Group of 19 Latin American countries just after the coup, and the countries passed a resolution condemning the coup. Although some Latin American governments wanted to support us, it would have been embarrassing for them to do so, in a region where national sovereignty is so historically sacrosanct, and our support of the coup so public. (This is another reason to be more cautious and diplomatic about what we say in public, as we were during the Honduran coup. These public remarks by President Trump about possible US military action in Venezuela, or by other officials supporting a military takeover there, are not necessary and in my opinion, counterproductive.)
Anyway, learning from our experience in Venezuela, in Haiti we had the vote in the UN all ready to go ― to establish a UN military force ― before Aristide was ousted. Two months later, we created a new UN mission (MINUSTAH) with Brazilian troops in the lead. As they occupied the country, thousands of unarmed supporters of Aristide were killed, and officials of the constitutional government were jailed. And we were able to pull this off in broad daylight ― unlike in 1991, where US support for that coup and the death squads that followed was covert. And we have changed the course of history in Haiti ever since, to the point where no one whom we do not approve of can be elected in the foreseeable future. (In fact, 80 percent of Haitians no longer even bother to vote in national elections.) There has been very little criticism of what we did, even after we got the OAS to reverse the 2010 elections results, without a recount or even a statistical analysis of the vote; an unprecedented event in the history of election monitoring. After the devastating earthquake of 2010, when Haiti was particularly vulnerable, we threatened recalcitrant leaders with a cut off of desperately needed aid if they would not accept the decision of the OAS commission ― which of course was packed with our allies. We had also previously threatened Haitian President Preval that he would be flown out of the country like Aristide was in 2004.
I present this small part of the story of our role in Haiti because it illustrates once again the power of diplomacy ― not only in the timely construction of the UN occupation force with Brazil in the lead, but in our persistent efforts during the four years prior to the coup. For four years we convinced almost all the governments in the world to cut off international aid to Haiti, without which the elected government could not survive. To do this, we had to first convince the OAS to change its observer mission’s initial positive assessment of the 2000 elections, which they had described as, “a great success for the Haitian population, which turned out in large and orderly numbers to choose both their local and national government.” Their revised assessment of the election became the basis for our campaign to oust the government. We then funded a big coalition of opposition groups, and we declared that Haiti’s international funding would not be restored until the government reached an agreement with the opposition. At the same time, we told the opposition that they should not reach any such agreement, that the government would fall, and of course this happened.
Some have said that we could only get away with these kinds of tactics because Haiti is so poor, and also black. And that is undeniably part of the story, as anyone who knows the history of the United States’ involvement in Haiti since the US marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934 can confirm. But it is also a country founded by a successful slave revolt, with a population that drove out the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship; twice elected by huge margins a radical populist priest who did not respect our interests; and could erupt in rebellion at any time ― there is not much of a middle class there with something to lose ― if we did not manage the situation carefully at pivotal moments.
All of President Trump’s predecessors understood this special characteristic of Haiti, with the two coups supported by the Bush presidents, respectively, and the 2010–11 intervention taking place under President Obama. President Clinton also understood this very well: although he got boxed in by events, in particular by the Congressional Black Caucus, and ended up restoring Aristide to power with the US military in 1995. But he forced Aristide to accept important conditions in order to return. One was that he would keep Haiti’s notorious army, which was primarily a repressive force to counter the threat of insurrection. Unfortunately Aristide reneged on this promise and abolished the army. But as you may have seen, our new government there is now trying to bring it back, although unfortunately with some of the mass murderers from the 1990s, which will allow our opponents an opportunity to criticize this effort.
But back to the bigger picture. The left governments changed the international norms and customs of the hemisphere in ways that seriously undermined our influence. For example, they established UNASUR as an independent multilateral organization where the then left governments, including the larger ones ― Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina ― dominated. They thwarted our attempts to meet this challenge from the left on numerous occasions. In 2009 we wanted to expand our military presence in Colombia, because of the growing threat of these governments. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was a staunch US ally whom we had supported with billions of dollars in military aid (although he also had strong ties to the drug cartels and the paramilitaries that killed tens of thousands of civilians there). He was happy to accommodate our request but then the US-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), which detailed our plans to expand US access to seven Colombian military bases, was leaked to the media.
There was immediate resistance from the UNASUR governments, who met in Argentina in August 2009 and issued a declaration ensuring that military bases could not be used for forward operations out of Colombia, with Colombia signing on. Of course that was the main purpose of having such access to the bases for US military personnel, including countering the threats posed by anti-US governments.
UNASUR, led by the left governments, changed the norms and customs of international relations in the hemisphere to the point where even Manuel Santos, formerly Uribe’s defense minister, immediately repaired relations with Venezuela when he took office in 2010. Colombia’s relations with Venezuela (as well as other countries) had greatly deteriorated after Uribe bombed and invaded Ecuador in March 2008 to attack FARC camps operating there. Forced to choose between the coalition of left, anti-US governments in South America, and the United States, he chose the former.
But Santos later moved back to our camp, as we regained control over South America; and in a complete reversal of our 2009 defeat, Colombia in late May became a Global Partner of NATO, the first in Latin America. This has significant implications for our military influence in Latin America, as you can imagine. On June 17th, Uribe’s hand-picked successor, Ivan Duque, won the Presidential election handily. Colombia is ours.
Another rebellious institutional change engineered by the left governments during their peak years was the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This includes all countries in the hemisphere except the US and Canada. It was formed partly in response to our successful diplomatic efforts around the 2009 Honduran coup, in which we were able to block the OAS from playing a stronger role in the attempts to restore the elected government ― which is what the vast majority of countries in the OAS wanted. For a few years the CELAC served as a gathering place for the Latin American and Caribbean nations to meet and reach some common positions before going into the OAS to fight with us. Now, of course, it is no longer a threat ― although as a warning for something you may want to look out for, when the Chinese came to this hemisphere in 2015 to meet with Latin American leaders about loans and foreign investment, it was done through the CELAC.
Argentina was another of the more influential governments that contributed to the anti-US rebellion during the first decade of the twentieth century. From 2003 to 2015, it was ruled by the left populist Kirchners, first Nestor and then his wife Cristina Fernández. They were both quite friendly with Chávez, who loaned Argentina $6 billion when they wanted to pay off the IMF (whom they blamed for their troubles in the 1998–2002 depression). But it was more than petrodollar diplomacy that formed this bond among the left presidents during this period. History matters. The Kirchners had friends who were imprisoned or murdered by the US-backed dictatorship of 1976–83; they revoked the impunity of the military officers responsible for these killings, and over 650 were convicted. Lula was imprisoned under the dictatorship that the US helped bring to power in the 1964 coup; his successor Dilma Rousseff was imprisoned for longer, and tortured as well. Evo Morales of Bolivia said that he was tortured in the presence of DEA agents before he became president; Pepe Mujica of Uruguay spent 13 years in prison under a US-backed dictatorship. Those who did not suffer directly from the violence of these US-sponsored governments nonetheless were painfully aware of this history.
We were able to contribute to the fall of Kirchnerism in Argentina in various ways. Although Argentina did extremely well under the Kirchners until 2011, the economy thereafter began to slow and they faced balance of payments difficulties. Because of their record $95-billion default in 2001, they could not borrow on international markets. We cut off their access to badly needed foreign exchange from multilateral lenders, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Then in 2014 we got some special help from the US judiciary, when Judge Thomas P. Griesa made an unprecedented and controversial decision to prohibit Argentina from paying more than 90 percent of its creditors. These were the holders of bonds that were restructured when Argentina defaulted; the remainder belonged to creditors who never accepted the restructuring, including vulture funds, which were hedge funds who bought up the defaulted bonds at a small fraction of their face value with a prolonged legal strategy of suing for their full face value.
By 2014, Argentina had reached an agreement with the Paris Club of government creditors and was on its way to be able to return to international borrowing. But Griesa’s injunction whacked them at a vulnerable moment. He lifted the injunction as soon as the conservative Mauricio Macri was elected president, saying, “Put simply, President Macri’s election changed everything.”
Griesa’s decision was admittedly a bad one from the point of view of the stability of the international financial system. It meant that governments who had reached agreements with more than 90 percent of their creditors after a default could have these agreements overturned many years later through the legal action of vulture funds. For this reason ― and because the US Treasury Department, which is the principal decision-maker for the IMF outside of Europe, did not coordinate with us, the IMF announced in July of 2013 that they would file a brief on behalf of Argentina at the US Supreme Court. But one week later they abruptly reversed their decision. When a reporter inquired as to why the IMF had made this embarrassing turnaround, a visibly annoyed IMF spokesman said, “you really have to go to the U.S. Treasury and ask them to explain their decisions.”
I mention this episode because it shows how important it is to consider the various branches of our government when designing foreign policy. Our efforts contributed to the fall of Kirchnerism in the 2015 election, although a better presidential candidate for their side may well have won. But now we have Mauricio Macri as President, a solid US ally from years prior. In 2009 he met with me, as well the US embassy in Buenos Aires, to tell us that we were being too soft on the Kirchners ― especially after the humiliation of President George W. Bush at Mar del Plata. Now he is part of our coalition of right-wing governments in the region that is helping to topple the Venezuelan government, which is teetering under the weight of hyperinflation and a severe depression.
There is much that I could tell you about Venezuela, but I will try to keep this part short. As you may know, for almost all of the twenty-first century it has been America’s number one or two target in the world for regime change (outranked by Iraq or Iran at various times). They were clearly the main instigator of the Latin American rebellion, although Chávez mostly shouted from the mountaintops what all the other left presidents, and even some of the not-so-left ones, were thinking and feeling. And he was sitting on 500 billion barrels of oil, the largest petroleum reserves in the world. When we tried to get rid of him in the 2002 military coup, a lot of people thought that it was because we wanted the oil, but of course they were wrong. In fact Chevron and Exxon-Mobil ― our two biggest oil companies ― had good relations with Chávez for most of his presidency, and wanted us to leave him alone. They were heavily invested there and still making good profits even after Chávez increased his government’s take ― as everyone else in the world did when oil prices took off after 2002.
But we look at things geo-strategically, and any country with that much oil is going to be a regional power and possess a certain independence as well, and so it is very important to have a leadership that is on our team. And so we poured money into the opposition, which for the first four years of his presidency had what one of their more intellectual leaders called “a strategy of military overthrow.” Fortunately the US and international media were completely on our side, and so for more than a decade and a half our involvement in that coup has been treated as a mere allegation by a discredited source, namely Chávez, or his even more discredited successor, Maduro. Of course all the reporters in Caracas knew it was true, but they did not report it. Even when our own State Department acknowledged that the US government “provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the military coup.” Or when CIA documents were released, showing that we had advance knowledge of the coup, but tried to help it succeed with false statements during the events. This is just one of thousands of examples of how the media helped us in this long effort, but I think it shows more clearly than others how important our public diplomacy can be, even though the coup itself failed due to bad planning. Because of these successes, Chávez was always portrayed as the aggressor when he denounced US intervention, even as we poured in tens of millions of dollars to opposition groups (counting only the money that was a matter of public record) and worked constantly to try and isolate his regime internationally.
He was a tough opponent, because the economy did quite well through the last year of his presidency (2012) and millions of Venezuelans got access to health care, pensions, higher education, and public housing for the first time. (Of course during all of these years the major media portrayed Venezuela as a populist failure. And despite the fact that most Venezuelans got their news from opposition-controlled sources, most of the hemisphere outside of Venezuela was led to believe that the country under Chávez was a dictatorship.)
Chávez organized tirelessly internationally for his Bolivarian dream of uniting Latin Americans against the US, loaning tens of billions of dollars to other countries including Brazil, Argentina, and the Caribbean states through its Petrocaribe program. At some points Venezuela’s aid to the rest of Latin America probably surpassed ours. And so during the good years most of the governments in the hemisphere loved Chávez as much as the majority of Venezuelans did, even if most Latin Americans, who had access to only the media version of Venezuelan reality, had a low opinion of him.
Things fell apart after his death in March 2013, and the economy began a long decline that has now become the worst depression in Latin American history. I don’t have to tell you how bad it has gotten there, with the hyperinflation and shortages of medicine and food.
That is why I opposed the Trump administration’s financial embargo on Venezuela before it was announced on August 24th last year. It’s not because I don’t share your objective of getting rid of this curse ― we have pursued this goal fastidiously for nearly two decades. But the financial embargo isn’t necessary at this point, and Maduro can point to it as worsening the shortages there, which it obviously does. Because they cannot borrow, they had to pay off in principal on their bonds in 2017. They cannot restructure their debt. Many kinds of credits are cut off ― even those that are not specifically prohibited by Trump’s executive order ― and this contributes to the collapse of oil production, as well as shortages of medicines and food.
All this is overkill. This intervention lends credibility, among a minority sector of the Venezuelan population, to the government’s claim of a status of victimhood. And it doesn’t look good to many people in the world who see the embargo as worsening a humanitarian crisis. Fortunately, thanks to our years of patient public diplomacy, the media has ignored the impact of our financial embargo, much as it ignored our years of previous intervention. And it is the media that determines what most people believe, especially if it is about something that they do not directly experience. But the embargo is completely unnecessary, since the economy continues to spiral downward on its own.
The threats that have come from the Trump administration, or from Senator Rubio, who is a very influential advisor on these issues, are also unnecessary and counter-productive. This includes Rubio’s repeated statement that our sanctions are directed toward regime change, rather than pressuring the government to restore democracy, which is the message from our spokespeople in the State Department. And President Trump’s threat of military action is beyond the pale; it violates the UN Charter and caused even our closest allies in the region to wince and express their opposition to these statements.
We dealt with Chávez at the peak of his power and influence in the region, when he had most of the governments in South America allied with him. We knew how to make lemonade out of lemons. We could not depose him but we succeeded in demonizing him to the point where it became toxic for politicians in the hemisphere to be associated with him. And we used that toxicity to damage and even defeat presidential candidates in a number of elections, including in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico. We won Mexico’s 2006 election by a hair, barely 0.6 percentage points, in an election where half the ballot boxes had “adding up” problems ― i.e., the ballots cast plus blanks left over didn’t add up to what they started with. And one reason we won was because the media there had endless attacks on the leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO as he is known), linking him to Chávez (even though in this case the two had no connection whatsoever).
Now AMLO has won a crushing victory, with a majority in the Congress for his party, which didn’t even exist seven years ago. This is a huge loss for us. Of course he is a moderate in terms of his politics and economic program, and I’m sure that we could reach a reasonable agreement with him on NAFTA. But he is an independent populist and nationalist like the ones who have plagued us in South and Central America, and he will not support our foreign policy as the current government does ― which is what matters most. It is already clear that he won’t help us at all with regime change efforts, for example in Venezuela and Nicaragua. And here you must excuse me for saying the obvious, that President Trump’s verbal attacks on Mexico, his proposed wall which “the Mexicans will pay for,” and other public expression of hostility probably aided the meteoric surge of AMLO’s new political party. Not to mention the long-term failure of our security policy there, the militarization of the “war on drugs”, and other mistakes that prior administrations have made, especially in economic policy, that go back to the 1980s. And trying to blame AMLO’s and Morena’s success on alleged Russian interference, as General McMaster and others have done, didn’t fool many Mexicans, even if it got a fair amount of play at home.
And so I must conclude by asking you to err on the side of caution when you confront these new challenges, and not to inflame the passions of nationalism and anti-US sentiment that can swing close elections in Latin America. In the twenty-first century, it has been the left in particular that has carried the banner of national sovereignty and self-determination. These are deeply held beliefs in many developing countries, things that people are sometimes willing to fight and die for. And there is a rational basis for them, as a country that is not sovereign has only a limited form of democracy at best, regardless of the integrity of its elections, the independence of its judiciary, or rule of law that can be achieved. And many have pointed to national sovereignty as part of the explanation for the colossal difference between the rates of economic growth and living standards in developing Asia versus Latin America. But these beliefs and their depth among many populations have not been well-understood in Washington, and where we have underestimated them the most we have been met with our most devastating defeats and failures, from Vietnam to Iraq (and probably more to come in the Middle East).
We have left you with a Latin America that is mostly controlled by loyal allies of the United States: In Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, and more. We have 13 Latin American countries (the Lima Group) that have called for financial sanctions against Venezuela; just a few years ago this would have been unimaginable. Even after the 2009 military coup in Honduras, which infuriated leaders across the political spectrum, there was not even talk sanctions ― so strong is the Latin American tradition of non-interference in the affairs of other states. And even more
All this is even more remarkable in light of the cards we were dealt in the first decade of this century. If you take a snapshot of the current landscape, it may appear as though this is the natural order of things. But I hope you can see that it is not necessarily so. It was cultivated like a delicate garden with patient diplomacy ― including the public diplomacy involved in getting our message and our explanations of almost all the myriad conflicts to dominate the mass media, sometimes with remarkable uniformity. As you can see we were not afraid to support or even sponsor political action by other means when appropriate: the parliamentary coups in Brazil and Paraguay; or the military coups and other interventions in Venezuela, Honduras, and Haiti. We have used our financial power as well. And we spend tens of millions of dollars annually through the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy to support pro-US political organizations. (I can tell you much more about other things that we did in a classified briefing.) But none of these cannot be our primary means of influencing the politics of the region. Diplomacy, including public diplomacy, must always come first.
With the largest governments, the leadership of multilateral institutions (including the OAS, the Inter-American Development Bank, and now even Mercosur), so thoroughly dominated by us and our allies, it may appear that you can get away with almost anything right now. But as AMLO’s landslide victory has shown, the Latin American left is far from dead. Even in countries where they have lost the presidency in the past few years, they still command a large share of the vote, vastly more than they had in the twentieth century. This is partly because, with few exceptions, they did quite well in power, for their voters: poverty in the region fell from 44 to 28 percent from 2002–2013, after actually increasing in the 20 years prior.
We do not know when the next recession or economic crisis will come and what its impact will be on the region. The Macri government in Argentina is already facing serious economic problems and the president’s approval has fallen from 50 to 30 percent in a few months. The Brazilian government is profoundly unpopular, facing strikes, double-digit unemployment, and a sluggish economy. There are many storm clouds on the horizon, as the US Federal Reserve continues its tightening cycle and raises the probability that capital flows into the region will make a “sudden stop” that can provoke crises and downturns.
Patient diplomacy, soft power, and the cultivation of alliances were our most powerful tools in rolling back the “pink tide” that engulfed so much of Latin America in the first decade of the twentieth century. I sincerely hope that you can preserve and build upon what we have achieved.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” (2015, Oxford University Press). You can subscribe to his columns here.