WikiLeaks: Lula's Dislike of Pesky Leftist Diplomats

Might Rousseff, herself a Lula protégé from the Workers' Party, extend political asylum to the besieged founder of WikiLeaks?
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A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Julian Assange might have found a potential home in Brazil, where former president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva expressed support for whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks. Interrupting a run-of-the-mill speech about infrastructure development, Lula declared "What's its name? Viki-leaks? Like that? To WikiLeaks: my solidarity in disclosing these things and my protest on behalf of free speech." The Brazilian president added,

"I don't know if they put up signs like those from Westerns saying, 'wanted dead or alive.' The man was arrested and I'm not seeing any protest defending freedom of expression... Instead of blaming the person who disclosed it, blame the person who wrote this nonsense. Otherwise, we wouldn't have the scandal we now have."

Now that Lula has stepped down as president, some may wonder whether Brazil's new leader Dilma Rousseff will take a similarly complimentary view of Julian Assange. Might Rousseff, herself a Lula protégé from the Workers' Party, extend political asylum to the besieged founder of WikiLeaks? It is an interesting possibility to be sure, though perhaps remote in light of recent documents released by the whistle-blowing outfit itself. The cables, which date from the Bush and Obama eras, depict Lula and his administration as cynical operators all too willing to inveigh against fellow leftist allies in order to get into Washington's good graces.

The cables pick up in late 2006, shortly after Lula's reelection to a second presidential term. Speaking with U.S. ambassador Clifford Sobel, Lula Chief of Staff Gilberto Carvalho said his boss was "eager" for a meeting with Bush and "would welcome an informal, non-Washington venue befitting the warm relationship between the presidents." Seeking to reassure the Americans, Carvalho remarked that Lula was obliged to pay lip service to his leftist followers in his first term. However, Carvalho added, "in the second term, Lula is better positioned to take issues on pragmatically." Indeed, the Brazilian continued, "the second Lula mandate will see a closer approximation to the U.S."

Sensing a political opening, Sobel then took advantage of the situation by bringing up Lula's plans to travel to Venezuela. After reviewing Chávez's "irresponsible" rhetoric and "pernicious" influence, Sobel went on to complain about Venezuela's arms purchases and "other provocations." Brazil, Sobel argued, should serve as a "crucial counterbalance" in the region to Chávez's "troubling behavior." Again seeking to reassure Washington, Carvalho declared that Brazil had "difficult" relations with Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales. Though Lula publicly embraced both leaders, Carvalho expressed interest in sharing vital intelligence with Washington. Moreover, Carvalho said that Lula was interested in U.S.-Brazil cooperation in furthering "a post-Fidel soft landing in Cuba."

Just Who, Precisely, Is Crafting Brazilian Foreign Policy?

WikiLeaks cables reveal ideological fissures within the Lula administration, and raise the question of who, exactly, was crafting Brazilian foreign policy. At Itamaraty, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, various personalities held sway including "nationalist" Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and "anti-American" Secretary General (deputy Foreign Minister) Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães. For Sobel, Secretary General Guimarães was an obstacle to the U.S. as the diplomat was "virulently anti-American, and anti-'first world' in general."

In an effort to circumvent Itamaraty, Sobel sought out other high level figures in the Lula administration such as Defense Minister Nelson Jobim. But Sobel did not stop there: according to WikiLeaks cables the U.S. diplomat also aimed to thwart Itamaraty by dealing directly with Lula's team at the presidential office. If WikiLeaks cables can be believed, Lula's inner circle at the presidency was much more cynical politically than seasoned career diplomats at Itamaraty. Speaking with Carvalho, the U.S. ambassador said that the Bush administration trusted Lula and saw the Brazilian as "practical." Nevertheless, Sobel continued, "there remain people in the government of Brazil who seem ideologically driven, and who make statements that can confuse Washington about Brazil's policy direction."

Sobel did not single out any particular diplomat, but was clearly hinting at U.S. displeasure over Guimarães, "a famous anti-U.S. ideologue, who at a conference a few days ago said publicly it is not impossible that Brazil might someday leave the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty." Seeking to reassure Sobel that it was the presidential office, and not Itamaraty, which was calling the shots on foreign policy, Carvalho dismissed Guimarães' remarks and "reiterated that the government of Brazil is focused on working with us." Of course, Carvalho added, certain diplomatic niceties should be observed and Sobel should "remain attentive to the formal relationship with Itamaraty... which can be jealous of its equities." At the end of the day, however, Carvalho left no doubt that it was the presidency which was in control. In future, Carvalho declared, Sobel should deal directly with him if Washington had any doubts about Brasilia's true political leanings.

Further WikiLeaks cables suggest that indeed the presidency did seek to sideline Itamaraty in Lula's second term. A couple of months after the Carvalho meeting, Sobel again met with the Lula Chief of Staff as well as other cabinet officials. Minister of Justice Thomaz Bastos got things rolling by apologizing for Lula's first term, during which time members of the administration had behaved as if they were "ideologically still in the stone age." Seeking to get into the good graces of the Bush administration, the Brazilians remarked that Lula's "new cabinet would be more disposed to working with the U.S. government bilaterally than Lula's current, more ideological crew." Bastos declared that Lula was "anxious" about his upcoming meeting with Bush in São Paulo and "very much wanted that event to go well."

Two years later, at the beginning of the Obama administration, Sobel was still acting U.S. ambassador in Brasilia. In a cable sent to Washington, the diplomat hinted at ongoing rifts within the Lula administration. Fundamentally, Lula preferred to work with Chief of Staff Carvalho and distrusted certain figures at Itamaraty. Sobel meanwhile continued to deal with Minister of Defense Jobim in an effort to sideline ideological diplomats. Indeed, for the Americans Jobim proved to be an important intelligence asset, revealing damaging fissures within the Lula circle. If Jobim can be believed, Lula "used" Foreign Minister Amorim but "had no strong personal relationship with him." Going even further, Jobim added that Lula actively "disliked" Deputy Foreign Minister Guimarães. What Is The Impact?

To be sure, WikiLeaks cables paint an unflattering portrait of the Lula administration through the popular leader's two presidential terms. Though Lula outwardly proclaimed his friendship for other leftist leaders throughout the region, the president did his utmost to build up his ties to the Bush administration and apparently had a visceral distrust of old guard leftist diplomats. If Lula's supporters in the Workers' Party had any notion that their leader would pursue a more idealistic foreign policy, then WikiLeaks cables will surely do much to erode such faith.

What, then, is the likely impact of the WikiLeaks scandal in Brazil? Dilma Rousseff, Lula's protégé from the Workers' Party who was recently elected Brazil's next president, is unlikely to depart from her predecessor's pragmatic and cynical approach to foreign policy. Therefore, if the Workers' Party and its leftist allies want to pursue a different tack toward the U.S. then they will have to draw more attention to WikiLeaks and devise a sophisticated media strategy designed to encourage a national debate about the meaning of U.S. foreign policy cables.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website at

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