US Espionage: Alive and Well in Latin America
Edward Snowden revealed to the world the 21st century spycraft in use against millions of innocent, unknowing people who now think twice about sending a text or an email. Amongst the documents obtained by Snowden were reports and details on surveillance of current and former heads of state, many of them from Latin America. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was outraged over revelations of NSA espionage against her government, including wiretaps of her own phone and email. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was another major target of NSA operations. And now, Snowden has revealed the extensive espionage and penetration of the NSA in Venezuela's state-owned oil company, PDVSA, the lifeblood of the South American nation and fuel of Chavez's Bolivarian revolution.
Just three years before Edward Snowden became a household name, whistleblower organization WikiLeaks had already released a massive trove of classified and secret documents from the Pentagon and State Department that exposed U.S. government involvement in coups, destabilization campaigns, mass espionage and war crimes. The dirty tactics, strong-arming and back-stabbing revealed in internal State Department cables shed glaring light on the lengths Washington will go to impose its agenda. Allies are treated as enemies, and adversaries as partners, so long as it advances the self-serving objectives of U.S. power.
None of what Snowden or WikiLeaks revealed, as incredulous as it seemed to many, was surprising in Latin America. The region has been subjected to every tactic in the CIA book to ensure U.S. domination and control of its “backyard”. Throughout most of the 20th century, U.S. backed coup d’etats and interventions placed and removed heads of government, imposing School of the Americas-trained dictators that tortured, assassinated, disappeared, persecuted and incarcerated tens of thousands of civilians, disrupting and destabilizing their democratic, progressive movements and spiraling their nations into decades of darkness and brutality. When the dictators no longer served U.S. goals, they were switched out through coups or electoral processes heavily funded by U.S. agencies, ensuring an equally subservient leader would fill their shoes.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century, with the election in Venezuela of President Hugo Chavez, that the region began to liberate itself from Washington’s iron grip. Chavez opened the door to a sweeping tide that brought progressive, leftist leaders to power, elected by widespread majorities in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Honduras and El Salvador. Of course the resilience of Cuba for nearly half a century subjected to a crippling U.S. economic blockade and endless CIA attempts to destroy and destabilize their system, was the bedrock of the leftist rise that transformed and liberated the region.
After Chavez was elected in 1998 and began to implement changes affecting powerful interests, changes that would redistribute wealth and nationalize control over strategic resources such as oil and gas, the U.S. backed a coup against him in 2002 that briefly removed him from power and installed a U.S. selected dictador, businessman Pedro Carmona. When Venezuelans took to the streets to reclaim their democracy, bringing Chavez back to power, Washington continued funding and overseeing efforts to destabilize his government, undermine his policies and debilitate Venezuela’s economy and international trade.
In response, support for Chavez grew and his allies came to power throughout the continent, elected for policies that prioritized social justice and people over profits. One by one, U.S. agencies targeted them, funding coups against Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2008, Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2010 and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012. The success of the coups in Honduras and Paraguay attempted to weaken advancing Latin American integration and sovereignty, but the failure to overthrow Morales and Correa helped strengthen the consolidation of regional organizations like ALBA and UNASUR, and propelled the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which intentionally excludes the U.S. and Canada.
Nevertheless, U.S. efforts to regain control and influence over the region continue. President Barack Obama has reiterated this objective numerous times during the course of his administration, making clear that the United States must “lead” in Latin America and look to the future, not the past. Ignoring Washington’s atrocious, criminal history in the hemisphere does not equate to improved relations, especially since the same behavior continues today, veiled under seemingly noble pretenses.
The clandestine operations, espionaje, secret missions, covert funding, psychological warfare and regime change tactics the U.S. has employed in Latin America for decades, continue today overtly and covertly. Snowden has revealed ongoing surveillance and illegal spying of Latin American leaders, governments and public and private institutions, while other investigations, including WikiLeaks, have evidenced the vast array of strategies and tactics utilized by U.S. agencies to fund political parties, build opposition movements and undermine democratically elected presidents who refuse to subordinate to U.S. agenda.
Venezuela continues to be a key target of these destabilization tactics. U.S. agencies including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a congressionally funded entity that finances political movements abroad, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), State Department’s funding arm, invested over US$100 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars to build up the anti-Chavez coalition in Venezuela during the period 2002-2011. Despite this enormous aid from the U.S. government, the opposition was unable to garner enough support to oust Chavez through elections, and the various attempts to overthrow him were easily defeated by his supporters. Since his untimely death in early 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro has become the target of these efforts.
Currently, Venezuela is preparing for an important electoral process set for December 6, when all 165 legislative seats in the National Assembly are up for reelection. The country is experiencing a severe economic crisis and President Maduro’s popularity has fallen. While Maduro and his administration share responsibility for failed policies and decisions, the familiar destabilizing hand of the U.S. government is also at play. During the past year, the U.S. has spent more than US$18 million through USAID and the NED to fund anti-government groups in Venezuela, feeding the conflict in that country and keeping alive an opposition that lacks cohesion and popular support. From 2014-2015, the NED channeled nearly US$3 million to anti-government groups in Venezuela, a large amount focused on the upcoming legislative elections. US$125,000 was given to the opposition group Súmate, created by NED in 2003 to lead a recall referendum campaign against President Chavez. Súmate’s founder, Maria Corina Machado, is a leading opposition figure, whose extremist views and divisive discourse have placed her on the fringe of a rivalrous right-wing movement. Despite her participation in coups and destabilization plots, Machado’s group continues to receive U.S. government funding to intervene in Venezuela’s election. An additional US$400,000 has been allocated for a program that “supports members of the National Assembly and the development of policies”, and more than $40,000 went to “Monitor the National Assembly of Venezuela”. This amounts to U.S. government funding to promote pro-U.S. candidates, policies, and to fund internal espionage within the Venezuelan legislative branch.
More than half a million dollars of NED funding to anti-government groups this year in Venezuela is dedicated to financing their communications on Twitter and other social media to combat government propaganda. But U.S. funded propaganda is not independent or objective. And another US$474,000 went towards efforts to document and disseminate information about the human rights situation in Venezuela, including the preparation of complaints against the Venezuelan government in international bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court. Coincidentally, complaints against Venezuela have skyrocketed during the last two years.
In addition to the overt funding and support for Venezuela’s opposition, the U.S. government continues to engage in clandestine operations to undermine the Venezuelan government. In 2005, after the restructuring of the U.S. intelligence community was completed, newly-named Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte created highly specialized priority intelligence divisions to tackle “intelligence challenges” faced by Washington. The divisions, called “Mission Managers”, represented the most important security and defense targets for the U.S. Three Mission Managers were created for Counterterrorism, Weapons of Mass Destruction and Nuclear Proliferation, and three were country-specific: Mission Manger for Iran, Mission Manager for North Korea and Mission Manager for Cuba-Venezuela. Venezuela as an intelligence priority meant massive resources would be spent on espionage, surveillance and special operations both inside and outside Venezuelan territory.
The first Mission Manager for Cuba-Venezuela was CIA veteran Norman A. Bailey, a Cold War expert in espionage and intelligence collection in enemy territory. His tenure only lasted one year and next in line was Timothy Langford, a career clandestine service officer with more than 25 years experience in the CIA.
In Top Secret 2008 and 2009 Congressional Budget Justifications for the National Intelligence Program, the Director of National Intelligence highlighted as a key goal the “identification and administration of ‘Centers of Excellence’ to provide relevant, timely and actionable intelligence about Iran, North Korea and Cuba-Venezuela.” Another objective was to “create an Investment Strategy for Iran, North Korea and Cuba-Venezuela aimed at strengthening analysis, collection and exploitation.” The 2009 Top Secret document also reveals one of the objectives of the Cuba-Venezuela Mission Manager is “developing analysis about leadership transitions”, referring to the Washington’s “Plan for a Democratic Transition in Cuba”, an effort to overthrow the Cuban revolution and other initiatives to remove Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from power.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, Timothy Langford referred to operations taking place in the “Intelligence Fusion Center” in Colombia, an espionage focal point fusing the capabilities of the NSA, CIA, DEA and DIA (military intelligence) to execute special operations in the region targeting U.S. objectives, including the Venezuelan government.
As of 2011, the Cuba-Venezuela Mission Manager remained in existence, but since then the available public information on its operations have gone dark. The 2015 Directorate of National Intelligence budget exceeded US$53 billion, a significant portion of which went to key strategic intelligence priorities, such as Venezuela.
Venezuela has the largest certified oil reserves on the planet and will always be a target of the most powerful interests. A not so distant history of U.S. policy in Latin America recalls how Washington will do what it takes to ensure control over the region and its resources.
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