Latin America rallies behind Julian Assange

Meriem Laribi. Le Monde Diplomatique. January 31, 2023

There’s one America that persecutes Julian Assange, another that supports him. When WikiLeaks made its explosive revelations of classified documents in 2010, Fidel Castro said that Assange had ‘morally brought [the US] to its knees’. He wrote that Assange was ‘demonstrating that the most powerful empire in history can be defied. I must congratulate the people from WikiLeaks on their bravery and courage.’

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez went further, saying he feared for the Australian-born whistle-blower’s life. Brazil’s president, Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva, declared that Assange had ‘exposed a diplomacy that had seemed untouchable’, adding that ‘the guilty party here is not the person who disclosed [the diplomatic cables] but the person who wrote them.’ Not to be outdone, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, granted Assange diplomatic immunity in the country’s London embassy, where he stayed from 2012 to 2019.

Even today the majority of South American governments support Assange, who has been held in a high-security prison in London for nearly four years, awaiting a decision on his extradition to the US, where he could face a 175-year prison sentence. Diplomatic pressure has been mounting. While successive US administrations and their intelligence agencies have threatened Assange financially, physically and legally over the past 13 years, nine Latin American heads of state are demanding his release. They include Xiomara Castro (Honduras), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Miguel Díaz-Canel (Cuba), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Gustavo Petro (Colombia), Luis Arce (Bolivia), Alberto Fernández (Argentina) and Luis Inácio da Silva (Brazil).

Offer of protection

Lula has even suggested that Assange should be awarded the Nobel peace prize for having ‘shed light on the shady dealings of the CIA’ (RT, 6 January 2023), while Mexico’s Obrador has offered Assange asylum and protection and has pleaded his case in an open letter to President Joe Biden, saying that Assange ‘did not commit any serious crime, did not cause anyone’s death, did not violate any human rights. He exercised his freedom, so arresting him would be a permanent affront to freedom of expression.’

Chilean journalist Daniela Lepín Cabrera suggests that most of those Latin American leaders have little to lose since their relationships with the US are hardly smooth. And Renata Ávila, a Guatemalan lawyer and friend of Assange, believes the Latin American stance is ‘dignified and egalitarian’, and that actions in support of the WikiLeaks founder are a ‘mechanism of account- ability for the US, which is constantly pointing a finger at Latin American countries on matters of freedom of speech, while being hugely inconsistent and failing to notice its own actions.’ She concludes that without Latin American intervention, Assange would already have been sent to the US.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, says Latin American countries need no convincing about the CIA’s capacity for interference, kidnapping or political assassination. The diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 confirm what the Latin American left has long asserted: intense US interventionism in what it considers its own backyard. The documents reveal that in 2004 Washington’s envoy to Caracas, William Brownfield, summed up his embassy’s strategy to counter the Chávez government: strengthen democratic institutions, penetrate Chávez’s political base, divide Chávez supporters, protect America’s vital business interests, and isolate Chávez internationally.

The cables about Bolivia are also eloquent. When Evo Morales was elected president in 2006 on a promise to combat poverty and neoliberalism, he received an unusual visit from the American ambassador in La Paz. The encounter was like a scene from The Godfather, according to Dan Beeton and Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (cePr) who have sifted through the documents. The US ambassador told Morales that if Bolivia wished to continue benefitting from international loans, it would have to prove itself worthy. ‘When you think “Inter-American Development Bank”, just think “US”,’ he explained. ‘That’s not blackmail, that’s simply the reality.’

When Morales appeared unconcerned, the State Department set out to boost Bolivian opposition through the United States Agency for International Development (USAiD). According to an April 2007 WikiLeaks cable, anti-Morales organisations were subsequently showered with US dollars. One year later a revolt broke out, resulting in the death of at least 20 Morales supporters. Another document revealed that Washington later considered various scenarios for overthrowing and even assassinating Morales. Diplomatic cables established that similar methods were used between 2000 and 2010 in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Argentina. According to Beeton and Main, the cables should be mandatory reading for students of US diplomacy, and for anyone wanting to understand just how the American system for ‘promoting democracy’ actually works.

Some leaks caused unease

But Assange and his colleagues did not select what they put in the public do – main specifically to embarrass the US. The scope of the WikiLeaks revelations was global and in some cases, caused unease within the Latin American left. For instance, Venezuelans learned that Cuban intelligence services were advising Chávez under the nose of the Venezuelan intelligence service SeBin. In the same vein, Lula’s defence minister, Nelson Jobim, informed U S diplomats that Bolivia’s Morales had a cancerous tumour (which Morales denied). The same series of WikiLeaks revelations revealed that Chávez ‘encouraged’ Morales to nationalise the Bolivian oil and gas industry in 2006, leading to tensions with Brazil since the measure involved 26 foreign oil companies, including the Brazilian group Petrobras.

‘They should put up a statue to WikiLeaks,’ Fidel Castro declared in 2010 when the revelations were made. Five years later, in a video interview from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange compared his treatment by the US to that of Cuba, saying America was not so much bothered by Cuba but by the example it gave to the rest of Latin America. If other countries saw that they could fight freely for independence, they might be tempted to follow the Cuban example, which would create a major problem. Assange believed that the US has the same attitude to WikiLeaks: it must not succeed in making life difficult for US intelligence, let alone the military or diplomatic corps. Hence the need to deter everyone from following the Wikileaks example.

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