WikiLeaks: U.S. Aimed to Counter Influence of Venezuela's Chavez in Latin America

American officials tried to dissuade Russia from shipping anti-aircraft missiles to Venezuela, classified documents show.

U.S. diplomats discussed efforts to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's influence in Latin America and tried to dissuade Russia from shipping anti-aircraft missiles to his government, according to classified documents released by WikiLeaks.

One secret 2008 document from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia said then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe urged the U.S. government "to lead a public campaign against Venezuela," and it said the presidents of countries such as Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica were "natural leaders to counter Chavez."

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez

The document, dated Jan. 28, 2008, and posted online Friday, was one of several leaked in the past week that discussed efforts to marginalize Chavez internationally and prevent arms shipments. The friction between Washington and its most vociferous opponent in Latin America has been public and notorious, but the newly released messages reveal glimpses of behind-the-scenes U.S. diplomatic efforts against Chavez.

An earlier secret U.S. memo, from the embassy in Santiago, Chile, on June 18, 2007, showed American officials were analyzing "ways the U.S. can counter Chavez and reassert U.S. leadership in the region." The embassy document offered a host of suggestions to Washington and other U.S. embassies.

"Know the enemy: ... To effectively counter the threat he represents, we need to know better his objectives and how he intends to pursue them. This requires better intelligence in all of our countries" on issues such as Venezuela's close relationship with Iran, it said.

The 2007 report, released Thursday by WikiLeaks, said if such U.S. efforts are successful, "we will make quick inroads into marginalizing Chavez's influence." It also said U.S. diplomats should aim to make sure "the truth about Chavez — his hollow vision, his empty promises, his dangerous international relationships starting with Iran ... gets out, always exercising careful judgment about where and how we take on Chavez directly/publicly."

Other newly released documents suggest American diplomats have been privately expressing concerns to Russian officials since at least 2005 about some of Chavez's multibillion-dollar arms purchases — which have included Russian-made helicopters, warplanes, tanks and 100,000 assault rifles.

A secret Feb. 14, 2009, memo from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's office to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said the American government had been raising concerns with Russian officials for four years about a possible sale of weapons including shoulder-fired Igla-S surface-to-air missiles. It said "Igla-S (SA-24) is ... considered one of the most lethal portable air defense systems ever made," and that American officials feared it could end up in the hands of the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, due to corruption and alleged Venezuelan links to the rebels.

"We fear that should these sophisticated systems fall into the hands of the FARC, they could possibly be sold or traded to drug organizations, including those in Mexico, which are actively seeking to acquire powerful and highly sophisticated weapons for use against government forces," the memo said.

Another leaked communique dated Aug. 10, 2009, shows that the U.S. State Department tried to enlist help from Spain and Sweden to raise its concerns with Russia.

It said "Sweden and Spain are well positioned ... to urge other EU members, as well as Russia, to strengthen transparency and accountability in arms exports to Venezuela." It included talking points for the embassies in Stockholm and Madrid.

It's unclear what results, if any, those diplomatic efforts yielded, or what came of the U.S. diplomats' talk of stepping up efforts to marginalize Chavez internationally in 2007.

A memo from Clinton's office on Aug. 6, 2009, said Russian officials had informed their American counterparts of the transfer of 100 Igla-S missiles to Chavez's military. It said that Russian officials assured American diplomats that "transfers from Venezuela to the FARC cannot take place."

It's unclear how many of the weapons Chavez has obtained, but in December 2009 he said publicly that his military had obtained thousands of them.

Chavez, a leftist former army paratroop commander, has denied aiding the FARC and has called for an end to the neighboring country's decades-long conflict with the rebels. He has said he is equipping his military to defend against any possible U.S. threat — an idea American officials have repeatedly dismissed.

He has not responded in detail to the documents divulged by WikiLeaks but has said that they show "the immense effort of the United States ... to try to isolate the Bolivarian Revolution and this soldier here."

Chavez, who says he is leading Venezuela toward socialism, has crusaded against U.S. "imperialism" while drawing close to countries such as Iran, Cuba and Syria.

A secret memo from Clinton's office, dated March 24, 2009, informed the American embassy in Turkey that Venezuelan officials were expecting a shipment of drone aircraft — "unmanned aerial vehicles ... and related material from Iran" — to arrive in a shipment via Turkey.

It was unclear whether that shipment ever arrived, but the memo asked diplomats to urge the Turkish government, a NATO ally, "to take action against this shipment."

The documents released so far show that American officials also have been closely analyzing Chavez's political vulnerabilities and his standing abroad — and that some officials of other countries have shared unflattering assessments.

An October 2009 memo showed that Mexican President Felipe Calderon told a U.S. official last year that Latin America "needs a visible U.S. presence" to go up against Chavez's growing influence.

The U.S. Embassy in Madrid reported on July 21, 2008, that Spanish diplomat Trinidad Jimenez — now the country's foreign minister — described Chavez as "a brute, but not a stupid one." Another embassy report, from Nov. 6, 2007, said that Jimenez "described Chavez as being in 'another world.'"

A confidential document from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas on March 22, 2006, reviewed a diplomat's conversation with an anti-Chavez psychiatrist, saying that while the president "wants to project an image of a 'utopian socialist' ... Chavez is an absolute pragmatist when it comes to maintaining power, which makes him a conservative."

"Coupled with Chavez' self-love (narcissism), sense of destiny, and obsession with Venezuelan symbolism, this pragmatism makes Chavez look more like a fascist, however, rather than a socialist," it said.

A detailed political briefing by the Caracas embassy, meanwhile, concluded that Venezuela under Chavez is "an active and intractable U.S. competitor in the region."

That memo, dated June 16, 2009, and released Sunday, said "Chavismo poses a serious threat to democracy not just in Venezuela but throughout the region, and it directly competes against U.S. influence in Latin America."