SANTIAGO, Chile — A Brazilian who helped kidnap the U.S. ambassador to his country in 1969 should never have received a tourist visa from the State Department last year, according to a U.S. State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks.
Officials realized what had happened after the U.S. consulate pasted the precious visa into former student radical Paulo de Tarso Venceslau's passport, but before it returned the passport to him. A top diplomat wrote to Washington asking whether it would be best to let him slide "in light of the distance from the crime, the circumstances under which it took place, and our desire for a forward-looking relationship."
The U.S. had long considered Venceslau a terrorist for holding former U.S. Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick hostage for four days in 1969. Among the hostage-takers were current Brazilian congressman Fernando Gabeira and Franklin Martins, who served as a minister in the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The group, known as Revolutionary Movement 8th October (MR-8), demanded the release of 15 political prisoners held by the Brazilian military dictatorship in exchange for Elbrick's release. It worked.
The newly released WikiLeaks cable is the first indication of why Venceslau was approved for a visa last year after having been turned down three times previously for having terrorist affiliations.
Once approved, Venceslau went to the press and suggested that President Brack Obama, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, had made a policy change.
Venceslau wasn't the only one to speculate that Obama had relaxed U.S. policy by issuing the visa. Opponents of the U.S. leader took to the Internet to denounce the administration for being soft on terror.
But the cable indicates that the initial visa approval wasn't a policy change at all.
According to the cable, Venceslau didn't mention any past arrests or convictions on his visa application, and he told the consul general in Sï¿½o Paulo that Brazilian law doesn't require people to include political crimes when declaring their criminal record. The consulate checked his name and it came up clean, according to the cable.
Once Venceslau went to the press after he got the visa, Charge d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske wrote: "Cancellation of the visa, which would be the standard course of action, will likely lead to significant and negative reaction in the Brazilian media at a time when both official Brazilians and the public are considering new possibilities for U.S.-Brazil relations."
Kubiske didn't advocate for Venceslau, however.
"Issuance of a visa ... might have implications for broader U.S. policy and messaging on terrorism," she noted.
She said the minimum the U.S. would accept in return for the visa would be "a public repudiation of the crime and of kidnapping as a tactic."
While the initial visa acceptance may have been an error, the follow-up shows that diplomats wanted to take advantage of Obama's popularity after he won the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the effort to foment goodwill may have been for naught.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who leaves office this weekend, said this week he has been disappointed by how much Obama's policies in Latin America resemble those of earlier US presidents.
"Relations have changed little" between the U.S. and Latin America, Lula said this week. "The reality is they didn't change at all. That makes me sad."
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