The Power of Information and the Impact of Wikileaks in Latin America

The ways in which information passes through a society are the key to that society’s culture and are inseparable from its understanding of how to preserve itself ... It is the silences that control a society and keep it “stable” much more the conscious noise it generates. -- Anthony Smith

On November 29, 2010, WikiLeaks unleashed its global strategy to disseminate what now represents the largest security breach of classified U.S. documents in history. Five major news outlets, The GuardianLe MondeEl PaísDer Spiegel, and the New York Times, received a collection of 250,000 cables from U.S. embassies across the world (originally leaked to the whistleblower website by U.S. army soldier Bradley Manning when he worked as an intelligence analyst in Iraq). 

Following this initial exposure, WikiLeaks partnered with several Latin American media outlets to launch the next phase of publications, including: La Jornada in Mexico; Página/12 in Argentina; El Comercio and IDL-Reporteros in Peru; El Espectador and Semana in Colombia; and CIPER in Chile. Eventually, over 90 media outlets around the world participated in what became known as “Cablegate.”

In The Nation magazine’s current issue, guest editor Peter Kornbluh assembles some of the most renowned Latin American journalists (who worked with Julian Assange to disseminate stories) to discuss the impact and legacy of the unprecedented leaks in their countries. Three journalists -- Natalia Viana of Brazil, Blanche Pietrich Moreno of Mexico, and Carlos Eduardo Huertas of Colombia -- wrote in-depth resumes of their experiences along with highlights from stories that caused the most uproar. From political scandals to the exposure of government impropriety, the publication of the secret files ignited robust debates about U.S. influence throughout the Americas -- and the extent to which each country’s elite class cooperated with foreign officials.

In addition to the individual pieces, Kornbluh organized a forum with three more journalists -- Chile’s Francisca Skoknic, Argentina’s Santiago O’Donnell, and Peru’s Gustavo Gorriti -- to evaluate the aftermath of “Cablegate” in their respective countries and across the region. “Historically, the ‘Colossus of the North’ has exercised an imperious—if not imperial—economic, military and political influence in its ‘backyard,’” writes Kornbluh. “A year after the diplomatic dust has settled on the WikiLeaks phenomenon in Latin America, it seems appropriate to assess ... what the biggest leak of U.S. documents in history has left in its wake.”

Since most of the cables span the first decade of the 21st century, they revealed the intimate role of U.S. diplomats in some of the key regional shifts still in progress today. As Brazil rose to global economic prominence, Venezuela’s populist head of state Hugo Chavez emerged as a major regional figure and tensions increased with its neighbor Colombia -- the largest benefactor of U.S. economic aid on the continent. The small country of Honduras fell victim to a coup d’état in June 2009, as Peru’s plutocrats were handed a decisive defeat in last year’s national elections. While Mexico dealt with disputed elections and failures of its drug war, Cuba’s Fidel Castro transferred power to his brother Raoul.

COLOMBIA -- Carlos Eduardo Huertas of Semana (the first Spanish-language media outlet in the region to conduct and publish a full interview with Julian Assange) provided his account of revealing statements from Assange about the U.S. role in Colombia and stories assembled from the diplomatic documents that shook the Colombian political class. And since Huertas also received all the cable traffic from Venezuela, he partnered with Arman-do.info to publish revelations that since 2005 U.S. officials knew of the secret Colombian military base on Venezuelan territory that spurred Hugo Chavez to shut down the border; a request from the U.S. embassy in Caracas to increase democracy promotion funding that supported opposition of Chavez; and the U.S. effort to remain neutral during escalating discord between Colombia and Venezuela. “But relative to the major scandals Colombia has endured in the past several years,” writes Huertas, “Uribe’s illegal domestic surveillance programs against opponents, human rights crimes by the military, and the alliances between key politicians and violent paramilitary groups—they were hardly the atomic bomb we’d been expecting.”

MEXICO -- La Jornada received cables that spanned two decades, from 1980’s to 2010, though many of the documents centered on the 2006 disputed election of Felipe Calderon and his subsequent drug war. Veteran journalist Blanche Pietrich Moreno was a member of the investigative team that exposed some key aspects of decision-making in the highest levels of the Mexican government that took place in Washington D.C. -- not Mexico City. By June 2011, La Jornada published 100 scathing stories derived from the cables. “For the first time, Mexicans read about the US Embassy’s critical judgments of the proud Mexican generals who never open themselves up to public scrutiny, as well as Washington’s candid assessment of its erstwhile ally, President Calderón, who is depicted as weak and condescending...” writes Moreno.  “For Mexicans, the cables have reinforced once again that famous adage ‘Pobre Mexico: tan lejos de Dios, y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.’  Poor Mexico: so far from God and so close to the United States.”

BRAZIL -- In Natalia Viana’s essay, she not only details her strategy to get prominent Brazilian newspapers Folha de S. Paulo and O Globo to publish stories (before former President Luiz ‘Lula’ da Silva’s departure) about U.S. officials’ pressure on the Brazilian government to spy on Hugo Chavez and a covert transfer of thirty corrupt American DEA officials that were expelled from Bolivia, but she also reveals a major legacy of the WikiLeaks cables -- the emergence of investigative journalism -- which culminated in a major win for transparency advocates. Last November, President Rouseff signed the Freedom of Access Law, which took effect May 16, 2012. “The news stories... proved it was possible for an independent investigative group to match the traditional news outlets when it came to producing professional journalism—and to following the story where the mainstream media would not take it,” writes Viana. “Folha de S. Paulo started its own WikiLeaks-type section, the “FolhaLeaks,” and established an investigative unit in Brasília. A year later, corporate media outlets… are fighting to sponsor the annual congress of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism.”

It’s clear from the insight provided by the seven contributors that WikiLeaks has had a major impact in the Latin America -- and U.S. relations with several countries in the region. What still lingers is a question for traditional American news outlets, and the citizens they serve. Now that there is a better understanding of how the U.S. government operates in neighboring countries, is the news media adequately fulfilling its role to inform the public, in order for Americans to hold their government accountable?