Snowden Fallout: Paranoid Obama Spies on South American Friends as Well as Foes

As whistle-blower Edward Snowden releases more and more sensitive National Security Agency (N.S.A.) files, the public is gaining unique insights into Washington's underhanded foreign policy in South America. It's no secret that both the Bush and Obama administrations have viewed Venezuela as a threat, but Snowden's disclosures suggest that Washington has a bead on Chile, too. Indeed, according to an article appearing in Brazilian newspaper O Globo, the N.S.A. spied on Chile by employing a data mining program called PRISM.

News of the spying program has led to something of a political firestorm in Chile, and recently Santiago condemned what it called "spying practices, whatever their origin, nature and objectives." Moreover, the government reiterated its commitment to international conventions and rejected "any violation of the privacy of communications networks and will continue to work with competent international bodies to establish clear rules of behavior of states, in order to guarantee the rights of citizens and the sovereignty of nations." In addition, Santiago has asked the U.S. to account for its reported espionage.

The Ironies of N.S.A. Spying

Given that Chile is very pro-corporate and has strong diplomatic ties to the U.S., recent news of covert American espionage comes as something of a surprise. As revealed in secret U.S. State Department cables, former president Michelle Bachelet sided with Washington behind closed doors. During a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela, Bachelet exclaimed that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. Fortunately, Bachelet remarked, there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez.

Then, Bachelet dished on Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, remarking that Argentina "has problems with credibility as a country." The country's Peronist ideology, Bachelet said, "can lead to paranoia" and undermine political and economic stability. In contrast to orderly and reliable Chile, Bachelet said, "Argentines tend to live from crisis to crisis...rather than pursuing stable, long-term policies." In a particularly damning aside, Chileans at the meeting agreed that Cristina was emblematic of Argentina's problems.

If Washington's relations with Bachelet could be characterized as friendly, ties with the current more conservative Piñera government have been downright cozy. Indeed, N.S.A. spying is even more baffling when one considers the tight state of military relations between Chile and the U.S. As I have reported, the U.S. Southern Command even runs a military base in the Chilean port city of Concón. According to the Pentagon, the base is intended for the training of armed forces deployed for peacekeeping operations, though the Chilean left believes the installation is aimed at controlling and repressing the local civilian population.

Shoring up Anti-Chávez Sentiment

In light of such close ties, what can explain N.S.A. snooping on Chile? Perhaps, even though Santiago espouses conservative political and economic policies, Washington still doesn't fully trust Chile. Yet another possibility, however, is that both Bachelet and Piñera have been aware of N.S.A. programs and cooperate with the U.S. in an effort to monitor internal dissent and counteract leftist governments in such countries as Venezuela and Bolivia. According to WikiLeaks documents, collaboration on such security matters has been ongoing for some time.

Indeed, as early as 2007, Chilean Minister of Defense José Goñi worked behind the scenes to improve bilateral military ties with the U.S. Hoping to reassure the Hugo Chávez bashing Bush administration, Goñi said that Chile was closely monitoring Venezuela's support for the Bolivian military. There was a clear effort by Chávez and his "cronies", Goñi continued, to influence other countries and so Santiago had been keeping close tabs on Venezuela's military relations with Brazil.

A year later, Goñi travelled to Washington and remarked that the U.S. "was Chile's most important defense and security partner," adding that he was even interested in furthering joint ties with U.S. Special Forces. During his trip, the Minister also visited the notorious Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Since its inception, the institution has instructed tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement tactics. The Pentagon itself has acknowledged that in the past the School of the Americas utilized training manuals advocating coercive interrogation techniques and extrajudicial executions. After receiving their training at the institution, officers went on to commit countless human rights atrocities in countries throughout the wider region.

For years, human rights campaigners in both Latin America and the U.S. have been pushing to close WHINSEC. To Goñi, however, such activists were apparently a nuisance as they stood to derail important military ties with Washington. Furthermore, the campaigners could embarrass Chilean military personnel who had taken classes at WHINSEC itself. Speaking to the Americans, Goñi lamented that there still remained "a small minority of opponents to WHINSEC in Chile (including some members of Congress)." Therefore, Goñi concluded, it would be necessary "to help educate this minority" in an effort to sell further WHINSEC ties. "To this end," the U.S. embassy in Santiago wrote, "the Minister, at the recommendation of the [U.S.] Secretary of Defense, has invited several Chilean Congress members and NGOs [non-government organizations] to visit WHINSEC in March 2009 in an effort to help opponents better understand exactly what WHINSEC is all about."

Monitoring Internal Dissent

According to WikiLeaks documents, joint Chilean-U.S security ties went even further. Indeed, the F.B.I. no less collaborated with the Chilean Ministry of Interior to keep tabs on the indigenous Mapuche people. The revelations are contained in a U.S. cable dating from early 2008 and relate to a meeting between Bush-appointed U.S. ambassador in Santiago Paul Simons and Chilean Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma. According to the document, the Interior Minister was concerned about "the potential radicalization of Chile's indigenous population."

At its root, the Mapuche conflict centers around corporate greed and connivance of the Chilean state which is bent on exploiting the country's resources. Unfortunately for the Indians, such natural resources including mining, forests and salmon farming are to be found on Mapuche land. Publicly, Bachelet touted her socialist credentials though her government pursued relentless free trade with the outside world. In line with its pro-corporate orientation, the government provided incentives to logging companies seeking to operate on ancestral Mapuche lands.

The Simons-Pérez meeting took place against the backdrop of escalating domestic tensions in Chile. Just one month before, Carabinero police had reportedly shot and killed a university student during an indigenous land occupation. Amnesty International called for a full investigation into the killing, though it was certainly not the first time that the organization had focused its attention on human rights abuses committed by Chilean security forces operating within Mapuche territory. Indeed, as early as 2006 the group decried a Carabinero raid on an indigenous community in which police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition on unarmed local residents.

Speaking with U.S. officials, Pérez said that the Mapuche could be receiving financial support from the likes of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Colombian FARC rebels or even ETA Basque separatists. The Americans were happy to offer expertise, noting that "the FBI is coordinating with the Carabineros [Chile's military police] to assist in identification and potential prosecution of actors within Chile." In another part of the cable, reference is made to U.S. officials collecting intelligence not only on FARC and ETA but also Mapuche radicals "who might have potential links" to foreign groups.

Public Relations Fiasco?

Perhaps, in light of such high level collaboration, Chile has been aware of N.S.A. spying all along but is reluctant to admit to such knowledge out of fear of a public relations backlash. Though the Piñera government has criticized the N.S.A. for carrying out the PRISM program, Santiago has been very meek when it comes to pressing Washington. Indeed, the Chilean president was conspicuously absent from a recent meeting of the Union of South American Nations or UNASUR. During the conference, leftist governments such as Bolivia vilified the Obama administration for its secret espionage.

What's behind Piñera's cautious handling of the Snowden affair? Perhaps, the Chileans envy Washington's eavesdropping capabilities and want to secure greater access to the PRISM program. Or maybe, Santiago has been working with Washington all along in an effort to monitor dangerous leftists at the domestic and regional level. Whatever the case, Piñera would probably prefer that the Snowden affair vanishes from the headlines as soon as possible.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.