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WikiLeaks in Latin America: Online Whistleblower’s Wide Impact in Region Where Assange Seeks Asylum

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If Julian Assange is granted asylum in Ecuador, he will become a resident of Latin America, where the trove of classified U.S. State Department cables he strategically disseminated through WikiLeaks has generated hundreds of headlines, from Mexico to Chile. A year after thousands of cables on Latin America were first released, the revelations have had different results — in two countries it led to the forced departure of the U.S. ambassador; in another it helped change the course of a presidential election. We’re joined by Peter Kornbluh, guest editor of “WikiLeaks: Latin America,” a recent edition of The Nation magazine devoted to exploring the impact of WikiLeaks across the region. Kornbluh is a senior analyst on Latin America at the National Security Archive. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Baltimore, Maryland. Well, the mother of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had wrapped up a visit to Ecuador in a bid to campaign for her son’s asylum request. Julian Assange has spent the last six weeks taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London as he fights extradition to Sweden and ultimately, he says, seeks to avoid being handed over to the United States. After meeting with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, said her son would enjoy living in Ecuador should he receive asylum.

CHRISTINE ASSANGE: This is a sovereign decision, and I respect that. I respect that he will make the decision in the best interests of Julian, human rights and his country. I like the simple life close to nature, as does Julian, and if Julian were to come here, I think he would love it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, vowed to wait until the end of the London Olympic Games on August 12th to announce a decision. He said Ecuador had invited Swedish authorities to question Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, which could have given Assange a chance to avoid extradition to Sweden. However, following a meeting with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Wednesday, Patiño said he had unofficially learned Sweden had turned down the offer. Ecuador has not yet signaled if it’s inclined to grant political asylum to Assange, but President Correa recently praised WikiLeaks when speaking to Assange on Julian Assange’s TV show The World Tomorrow on Russia Today.

JULIAN ASSANGE: President Correa, why did you want us to release all the cables?

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: [translated] Those who don’t owe anything have nothing to fear. We have nothing to hide. Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger, as the main accusations made by the American embassy were due to our excessive nationalism in defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean government.

AMY GOODMAN: If Assange is granted asylum, he’ll become a resident of Latin America, where the trove of U.S. State Department cables he strategically disseminated has generated hundreds of headlines, from Mexico to Chile. A year after thousands of cables on Latin America were first released, The Nation magazine devoted its entire recent edition to exploring the impact of WikiLeaks across the region. The revelations of the cables in each country have had different results. In two countries, it led to the forced departure of the U.S. ambassador. In another, it helped change the course of a presidential election.

For more, we’re going to Peter Kornbluh, The Nation magazine’s special issue guest editor for the edition called “WikiLeaks: Latin America.” Peter is senior analyst on Latin America at the National Security Archives.

Peter Kornbluh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why the whole issue? Talk about the significance of WikiLeaks in Latin America.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, WikiLeaks was exposing cables from the State Department. And the cables kind of—if you brought them all together on Latin America, you could really understand the broader policy of the United States in the region, the way countries, for example, like Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, interacted over issues such as the FARC insurgency, the history of the U.S. intervention in the region, U.S. commercial interests in the region. So, Latin America seemed a cohesive place as a kind of a case study for the impact of these cables and the influence that they had as they were disseminated through the various media outlets in Latin America. That’s the reason why the Katrina vanden Heuvel, the executive editor of The Nation, decided to devote an entire issue just to focusing on WikiLeaks in the region of Latin America.

AMY GOODMAN: On his show, The World Tomorrow — this is before Julian Assange was in the embassy — he asked Rafael Correa — he had him as a guest on the show, the president of Ecuador — about the U.S. involvement in Latin America. I want to go to that clip.

JULIAN ASSANGE: What do Ecuadorean people think about the United States and its involvement in Latin America and in Ecuador?

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: [translated] Well, as Evo Morales says, the only country that can be sure never to have a coup d’état is the United States, because it hasn’t got a U.S. embassy. In any event, I’d like to say that one of the reasons that led to police discontent was the fact that we cut all the funding the U.S. embassy provided to the police. Before and even a year after we took office, we took a while to correct this. Before, there were whole police units, key units, fully funded by the U.S. embassy, whose officers in command were chosen by the U.S. ambassador and paid by the U.S. And so, we have increased considerably the police’s pay.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa speaking to Julian Assange on Julian Assange’s show on RT. Then Julian Assange went into the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is today, concerned about being extradited to Sweden because he doesn’t want to then be extradited to the United States, where he fears he would be arrested, that there’s been a secret grand jury empaneled investigating him and others involved with WikiLeaks. Your response, Peter Kornbluh, to what Rafael Correa said?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, The United States has, of course, as we all know, an incredibly long, dark, sinister, tragic history of imperial, imperialist intervention in the Latin American region. And that is one of the reasons why the WikiLeaks cables would be of such interest to the region as a whole, because they are detailing the inner workings of the U.S. embassies throughout the whole region. They allowed citizens of Latin America to be a fly on the wall as U.S. officials held meetings with members of the host government, with civil leaders, with all sorts of kind of actors in political and cultural society. And one could see what the policies were, what the influence was, and in quite a bit of revelations about what the governments of the region were saying to the United States, as well. So, WikiLeaks has provided the ability for Latin Americans to gauge, at least in terms of the embassy—and we should stress that the embassy—these embassy cables are not CIA cables, they’re not Defense Department cables. They don’t really record the dark and sinister covert operations that are still going on in Latin America. But they still allow you to see the workings of the embassies, the U.S. influence, how that influence is exercised militarily, politically, culturally in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, you’ve been covering Latin America for decades. What surprised you most? Give us specific examples in these cables of what was most revealing.

PETER KORNBLUH: You know, each country had different levels of revelations. In Mexico, where of course the United States is deeply invested in all sorts of areas—the economy, the counter-narcotics operations, the counter-corruption operations, etc.—you have cables which reveal the extent to which the U.S. government is influencing the presidents of the sovereign country of Mexico, the bureaucratic structures that the United States sets up to influence and, in some ways, govern, guide policies in that country. And this was the main point that the La Jornada journalist, Blanche Petrich Moreno, made in her article in The Nation magazine, that the sovereign country of Mexico had basically given up its sovereignty to the United States, if one was to accept what the cables suggested. So, you know, that is an important point.

You had cables that came out of the Argentine embassy and went to the Argentine embassy in Buenos Aires, in which the State Department is asking its diplomats to essentially spy on Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina, to provide kind of tidbits of intelligence to the CIA. And, you know, the CIA is supposed to do that on their own, and here you have U.S. diplomats being enlisted to find out what kind of anti-anxiety medicines the president of Argentina is taking, what kind of relationship she has with her husband in terms of the way they, you know, divide up governing the country. At that time, he was alive, and he had been the former president, now she was president.

So, these are the types of details that come out of these cables that really are important and interesting. In some countries, these created scandals. In other countries, they didn’t. But taken as a whole, you really do get a sense of kind of the modern-day influence or, in some countries, lack of influence of the United States government at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Enrique Peña Nieto recently won Mexico’s presidential election. He belongs to PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the party that ruled Mexico for, what, 70 years, from 1929 to 2000. I want to ask you about the WikiLeaks cables on him, but first I want to go to a clip of his victory speech delivered earlier this month—last month.

ENRIQUE PEÑA NIETO: [translated] I assume with the emotion, I assume with great commitment and full responsibility, the mandate that the Mexicans have given me today. In the past three months, the politicians, the candidates have spoken every day. Today, July 1st, it’s been the citizens who spoke, and they did it with absolute clarity, when they voted for a change with direction. Thank you to all Mexicans.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, what do the WikiLeaks cables say about the new incoming president of Mexico, Peña Nieto?

PETER KORNBLUH: This is part of the value of these cables, is that some them were written several years ago on political personalities who are now the presidents of their countries—in this case, the president-elect of Mexico. And in the article in The Nation magazine on Mexico, there is a section that deals with the cables when the current president-elect of Mexico was the governor of the state of Mexico, and it shows that the U.S. government had a very dim, grim, negative view of him. They essentially suggested that he was a corrupt son — “godson,” as they put it — of Carlos Salinas, who—a very discredited former president of Mexico, that this governor of the state of Mexico, who’s now the president-elect of Mexico and will be the president that we will be dealing with, was covering up corruption, cast himself as a modern, new leader of the PRI party but was basically in the same old mold of the former corrupt leaders of that party. So now you have the candid, unvarnished assessment of a president that our country is going to be dealing with for the next however many years, and that’s worth having. And that will, I think, create more pressure on him, and it certainly will give both Mexicans and Americans a knowledge of the way our diplomats saw him early on.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Democracy Now! covered the return of the Honduran exiled president, Manuel Zelaya, back to Honduras after almost two years in exile, when he was ousted in a coup. We spoke to Zelaya’s former minister of culture, Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, one of those who returned from Haiti to Honduras with Zelaya. He spoke about the pressure the United States exerted on Honduras regarding Venezualan President Hugo Chávez.

RODOLFO PASTOR FASQUELLE: I was repeatedly approached by American military officers and diplomatic personnel who were trying to discover if I was unsure of myself or unrestful with what we were doing in government and what our plans were for the future. And repeatedly, the theme that came up was that our association with Chávez and Venezuela was or seemed such a threat and such a profoundly disgusting relationship to them, which I never understood why they would think that I would manifest myself against President Chávez. I may not like his personal style sometimes, but I respect him very much as a national leader of his own country. And I was very convinced—I am today, as well—that the kind of aid President Chávez was giving our government, through Petrocaribe and through ALBA, was absolutely necessary at the time. But they were convinced that for ideological reasons I would manifest myself in sympathy with their alarm.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Zelaya’s former minister of culture, Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, one of those who returned with Zelaya to Honduras. I spoke with him in Tegucigalpa when he returned. Peter, your response?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, Amy, you’ve done a great job for your listeners and your watchers, your audience, by raising this particular issue and this particular clip, because the WikiLeaks cables really are very revelatory on the issue of Venezuela and the U.S. diplomatic efforts throughout the region to kind of try and distance other countries from Chávez, as well as garner intelligence on what Chávez was doing. There’s an article in The Nation magazine’s special issue on WikiLeaks, that’s out right now, from Brazil, in which the cables that are discussed show that U.S. officials were asking Brazilian officials to spy on Chávez and to pass intelligence back to the United States on what Chávez was doing. And the Brazilians basically said, “The hell with you. We don’t see him as a threat the way you seem to.” And there are also cables that are discussed in the Colombia article that’s in the issue of The Nation magazine, in which the whole issue of the border conflict between Colombia and Venezuela is detailed in the WikiLeaks cables. And the conflict and the pressures that the United States were discussing with Colombia about how to deal with Chávez are detailed in these documents. So there’s a lot of information throughout the region to be read in these leaked cables about the U.S. diplomatic posture and espionage posture on Venezuela.

The Colombians, I should add, by the way, were given—the Colombian magazine, La Semana, Revista Semana, was given the collection on Venezuela from WikiLeaks, as well as the collection on Colombia. And so, in Colombia you had publication of articles about what the United States was doing in Venezuela. The United States is doing a lot of things in Venezuela. And as I say, it’s the CIA and the Defense Department documents that are going to be more revelatory, if we ever see them, on the kind of dark side of our policy there. But the U.S. cable traffic on Venezuela shows a number of important things. It shows that the United States was, you know, certainly engaged in kind of, quote-unquote, “democracy programs,” funding opposition groups, opposition parties, civic groups, some of which has been in the paper already, but you get more details of these programs out of the WikiLeaks cables.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, finally, you have investigated U.S. policy in Latin America for decades, particularly in places like in Chile. It is very hard, as you know well at the National Security Archives, to get information, these secret documents. Now, in one fell swoop, we are seeing, you know, hundreds of thousands of cables—actually, ultimately, all these documents, more than millions. You have Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London trying to get extradition—trying to get political asylum in Ecuador to avoid going to Sweden, because he’s afraid the U.S. will then have him extradited to the United States for his work on WikiLeaks. You have Bradley Manning, who allegedly released the documents to WikiLeaks, who has been held for close to two years, many have said in conditions that have amounted to torture, being court-martialed, could face the rest of his life in prison. Talk about the significance of these documents?

PETER KORNBLUH: You know, the significance is that the size of the documents and the contemporary nature of the documents. Those of us who work on the issue of declassification, the right to know, are often dealing with historical records that are at least 10, 20, 30 years old. They shed light on the coup—

AMY GOODMAN: Then why are they such a threat to the United States today?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the cables that—the WikiLeaks cables are a threat to the United States today because—precisely because of the things that you and I have just been talking about. They detail U.S. meetings and opinions and operations with Latin American officials who, in some cases, are still in office today or, in some cases, have just been elected to office, as the case in Mexico. And so, they are—they’re not national security dangerous in any way. I think that’s been completely proven, even though Hillary Clinton came out, when the WikiLeaks leak first happened on the cables, and said, you know, this is an an attack on our security, etc., etc. And that’s why they want to prosecute Julian Assange. The truth of the matter is, is it’s more of an embarrassment than anything else.

The documents are important because they give you a contemporary picture of the interaction of the United States with Latin American countries, and of course with hundreds of other countries, as well. And that’s why the United States has been so adamantly against this type of leak. But the truth be told is, the impact is important. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned a lot about what’s going on right now. And in Latin America, it should help people who are involved in the right-to-know movement there press for documents from their own countries to be declassified and released, documents that tell the side—the Mexican side or the Colombian side or the Brazilian side of the meetings that are detailed in these WikiLeaks cables. This is now an important database, these cables in Latin America and elsewhere, for further research, for further work on freedom of information, and for further—further the right to know in the region, and that can only strengthen democracy there and elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Nation magazine’s special issue guest editor for the edition called “WikiLeaks: Latin America,” senior analyst on Latin America at the National Security Archives. We’ll link to The Nation's piece, the cover story, “Top Secret: WikiLeaks: Latin America,” with another piece, “Remembering Alexander Cockburn.” When come back, we'll remember Gore Vidal. Stay with us.

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