Red faces in Latin America as WikiLeaks reveals foibles

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 2, 2010 

MEXICO CITY — Does Haitian President Rene Preval drink too much? Did a former Argentine chief of staff come to blows with a former president? Is Venezuela's government anti-Semitic?

The U.S. diplomatic cables on Latin America raise a number of such questions, causing a stir across the region as politicians awkwardly agonize about their image, respond to embarrassing allegations or suddenly go quiet.

The cables, released by the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website, contain little that's startling but many fly-on-the-wall observations, even down to a spouse trying to get her powerful husband to shut up during a meal with a U.S. ambassador to Argentina present.

Several dozen cables have now come to light, and they show that U.S. diplomats, unconstrained by a requirement for proof, reported to Washington on the quirks, unconfirmed misdeeds and views toward the United States of those in governing circles in the Americas and the Caribbean.

One confidential cable from the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince in June 2009 offered a penetrating profile of Haitian President Rene Preval, calling him "Haiti's indispensable man," but describing him as a complex figure who is a "chameleon-like character" with a "personally engaging, even seductive" style, but also prone to being "stubborn and cautious."

The cable, signed by then-Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson, explored the reasons for Preval's "occasionally erratic behavior over the past year."

"Preval has increased his alcoholic consumption and often attends a Petionville night club with friends, but during our social interaction, I have never seen him drink to excess. Nonetheless, reports of heavy drinking are circulating widely," the cable said.

Nowhere in the hemisphere has the impact of the leaked U.S. cables been greater than Argentina, a nation that according to one September 2009 cable has a "rumor-plagued, conspiratorial society." Such blunt characterizations have given rise to uneasy reflection in Buenos Aires.

Marcelo Canton, an editor at Clarin, Argentina's largest newspaper, said in a video Thursday on Clarin's website that the cables offer little newsworthy but their assessments, coming from foreigners, create "an important commotion."

"We don't like to see ourselves in a mirror," Canton said, "and in this case, it is how we are seen abroad, how a foreign diplomat talks about the Argentina situation."

One cable described a Nov. 12, 2009, dinner, hosted by a businessman, with former presidential chief of staff Sergio Massa and his wife.

At the dinner, the cable said, Massa "made light" of press reports that he and the late former President Nestor Kirchner once "came to blows," but he went on to describe Kirchner as a "a psychopath," "a monster," and "a coward," drawing expressions of concern from his own spouse.

"Massa's wife registered such alarm at these uninhibited comments

that he asked her to 'stop making faces at me,'" the cable said.

Another cable, dated Sept. 9, 2009, reported that Kirchner's Cabinet chief, Anibal Fernandez, was "dogged by corruption rumors, including ties to narco-trafficking, according to unsubstantiated press and intelligence reports."

It described Fernandez as "more political hack than diplomat" with a demeanor that "can sometimes be crass. On more than one occasion, he has taken obvious notice of an attractive translator during a meeting with visiting U.S. officials."

While such descriptions may reflect as much on the author as the subject, their public airing has stung Argentines, and given rise to charges that U.S. diplomats are prying snoops.

"We are not spies," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Shannon Farrell told El Mundo Radio in Argentina. "We collect information just like a lawyer does or a journalist does. The fact that we do it in private doesn't mean we are spies."

Venezuela's loquacious populist leader, Hugo Chavez, Monday hailed WikiLeaks for its "courage and valor" in publicizing the cables and called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to step down.

"She should resign. It's the least she can do, resign along with that tangle of spies and criminals in the State Department," Chavez said.

A day later, another cable dated Nov. 13, 2009, noted that Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim came close to openly confirming to U.S. diplomats that Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas operate out of Venezuela, which Chavez has vehemently denied.

With that leak, Chavez went uncharacteristically mum.

Another cable, from November 2009, noted that Jewish leaders in Caracas had voiced growing concern to U.S. diplomats about Chavez's ties to Iran to and fretted that the Venezuelan leader had "merged his anti-Zionist views with anti-Semitic ones," another charge that Chavez has dismissed.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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