WikiLeaks and 'US media war' in South America

Diplomatic cables show the struggle for public opinion between Telesur and Voice of America.

    The US wants to counter the 'propaganda' of Telesur, which is backed by Venezuela's leftist government [EPA]

    In an effort to deflect and counteract leftist regimes in Latin America during the Cold War, Washington attached great political importance to its propaganda efforts.

    From Cuba to Chile, the US sought to promote friendly media while cultivating the support of right-wing reporters.

    Ultimately, such propaganda efforts proved not only economically wasteful but also politically self-defeating as Washington antagonised the Latin left, leaving a bitter residue for years to come.

    In light of the Cold War experience one might expect Washington to learn from its mistakes, yet in 2006 Voice of America started to broadcast toward leftist Venezuela.

    Originally founded in 1942, the Voice of America is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (or BBG), a quasi-independent company in charge of US "public diplomacy" which in turn beams radio and TV programming to countries such as Cuba.

    'Media war'

    Recent diplomatic cables disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks underscore Washington's high stakes media war in Latin America.

    Though Cuba had been an earlier focal point of US propaganda efforts, in more recent times it is Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president, who has sounded the alarm bell over at the state department.

    In a 2007 cable disclosed by Argentine paper Página/12, US diplomats speak candidly about the need to counteract media initiatives launched by the firebrand leftist leader from Venezuela.

    As I discuss at great length in my recent book, Chavez has done much to promote state-sponsored media in South America in an effort to counteract traditional, conservative media tied to the US.

    After right-wing forces allied to the Bush administration and Venezuela's right-wing media failed to dislodge Chavez in a 2002 coup, Caracas stepped up its information war, first by promoting domestic media and later by spurring the growth of more innovative pan-South American outlets.

    Though US diplomats expressed concern about left-leaning media in general, it was Telesur which most raised the Americans' ire.

    A satellite news network sponsored by Venezuela and leftist allies such as Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Bolivia, Telesur was the "main source to broadcast anti-US propaganda", running "particularly slick" documentaries about CIA meddling in Latin America.

    US officials wrote that they would continue to recommend different measures to counteract Chavez, who posed a threat to American interests.

    Voice of America

    Washington, diplomats declared, "cannot expect the region's leaders to rally to our defence; rather we need to more proactively make the case for and implement our transparent strategy for the region".

    As it turns out, officials at the State Department were not the only ones growing concerned about the growth of pro-Chavez media.

    On Capitol Hill, Republican representative Connie Mack of Florida crafted an amendment to a State Department Foreign Appropriations Bill designed to expand radio broadcasting to Venezuela.

    Earlier, Mack had sounded the alarm bell after Telesur concluded a content-sharing agreement with Al Jazeera. The move, Mack charged, would surely serve to create "a global television network for terrorists".

    Mack's proposal, which passed the House, included a request to supply the BBG with additional resources to extend the entity's broadcasting reach through the Voice of America.

    When he got wind of the measure Hugo Chavez was predictably none too pleased, remarking that the proposal was a "preposterous imperialist idea".

    Fortunately however, tensions have cooled down somewhat since the Bush era, as Washington has adopted a somewhat less abrasive approach to Latin America.

    It's unclear, however, whether the Obama administration continues to place great importance on its propaganda efforts in private. 

    Hopefully, WikiLeaks will continue to release its cables on such vital matters so the public may form a clearer idea of the Obama White House's true political priorities in the region.

    Honduras coup

    It would be instructive, for example, to get access to more WikiLeaks cables relating to the 2009 coup d'etat in Honduras and the role of the media.

    The right wing military coup, which overthrew democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, was an early blot on Obama's foreign policy record.

    A maverick who challenged Washington, Zelaya was a key Chavez ally in Central America and needless to say Hillary Clinton's state department was less than forceful in pushing for the Honduran president's reinstatement.

    What is less known, however, is that Telesur played a key role in covering the coup, even during the darkest days of the military clamp down.

    At one point, the network even broadcast a live interview with president Zelaya as the ousted leader swooped over Tegucigalpa in a jet.

    Telesur threw a lot of resources toward its coverage in Honduras, and at times during the first week of the coup the South American network was the only channel with a live feed from the Honduran capital.

    Hardly amused, the Honduran army cut off Telesur's local broadcasts while soldiers rounded up the network's journalists in Tegucigalpa.

    What was the Obama administration's take on the media politics surrounding the Honduras coup? Was Washington concerned about Telesur's growing profile throughout the region?

    Without a clearer view from WikiLeaks cables, it's difficult to say though recent developments suggest we may be headed straight back to the future: recently, BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson remarked that the US could not afford to be "out-communicated" by enemies such as Telesur.

    Two years ago, a freshly inaugurated Obama spoke of the need for an equal partnership between the US and Latin America during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.

    Yet, when officials like Isaacson make dated and inflammatory type statements which hark back to the Cold War, such lofty aims are severely hampered.

    In the final analysis, the US will have to ratchet back its long-standing propaganda machine if it wants to ease regional tensions and improve relations with the likes of Chavez.  
    Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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