WikiLeaks XXVI: Sea Change in U.S. Policy Toward Latin America? No, Clerical Error

(Pictured: One-time kidnapper of a U.S. ambassador, Brazilian Paulo de Tarso venceslauVenceslau.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-sixth in the series.

When former student activist and US-denounced “terrorist” Paulo de Tarso Venceslau was issued a tourist visa in October 2009 by the State Department, the move was seen to be a sign that US-Latin American relations would enjoy a sea-change under the new administration of Barack Obama. After all, the president had himself called for a “new beginning” with Cuba just months earlier at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, and signals that Foggy Bottom would not be repeating the horrendous mistakes of the previous George W. Bush administration were warmly received by leaders and experts throughout the region.

But as a newly released cable from WikiLeaks demonstrates, Venceslau’s visa was issued in error, not as the result of a shift in policy. As the cable makes plain, the American consultant in Sao Paolo “issued Venceslau a B2 tourism visa after no hits of any kind appeared on all iterations of his name. Venceslau did not indicate on question 38 of his DS-156 application that he had ‘ever been arrested or convicted of any offense or crime, even though subject of pardon.’” This was quite an omission!

Venceslau had been previously barred from entering the United States because of his participation in the kidnapping of an American ambassador to Brazil over forty years ago. On September 4, 1969, a Brazilian guerilla organization known as Dissidencia Comunista Universitaria da Guanabara ambushed Charles Elbrick and took him hostage, hoping to the ambassador as a bargaining chip in negotiations to have over a dozen Brazilian political prisoners released by the military junta then in power.

The cable reports that according to the FBI files related to the case,

Venceslau helped plan the details of the kidnapping, was one of the passengers in the vehicle used to block the Ambassador’s car, subdued the Ambassador’s driver, and was one of the kidnappers who boarded the Ambassador’s vehicle and took him into hiding. While the Ambassador was held, Venceslau helped put together the list of 15 political prisoners the group demanded be released. On October 1, 1969 Venceslau was caught and imprisoned, without trial, for his involvement in the kidnapping, according to press reports. He was released in December 1974.

The consulate’s oversight became an issue when Venceslau went public with news of that his request for a visa had been granted.

Reports in the October 9 and 10 Estado de Sao Paulo and O Globo newspapers announced that Venceslau, after years of frustrated attempts, had finally been issued a visa for entry into the United States. Venceslau was quoted as saying, “I never have had a great love for the United States,” but that he had always had an interest in seeing the life and culture in the cities of New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Venceslau said he had tried three time in the last four decades to get a visa at the Consulate in Sao Paulo but was denied for being considered “a terrorist.”

The papers also reported, accurately, that

Venceslau is due to receive his passport and visa this week and that Venceslau is not worried since “Obama just received the Nobel Peace prize. It would look bad if he cancelled my passport.” Another newspaper reported Venceslau as saying “my only fear is that there was been a mistake and that the Consulate will cancel my visa. I would like to listen to jazz in Chicago but I don’t believe in miracles.”

The fact that the United States had issued the visa but had not sent it nor the passport back to Venceslau left American officials in Sao Paolo wringing their hands over what to do. On the one hand, the cable notes that

If available information is correct, at a minimum he appears to be ineligible under Section 212(a)(2)(A)(i) for Conviction of Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude, as well as 6C1 for misrepresenting a material fact. Other ineligibilities may apply.

Beyond the question of ineligibilities, Mission sees broader implications resulting from a decision to either cancel the visa with no additional action, or to pursue a waiver. In our view, a minimum bar for granting Venceslau a waiver would be public repudiation of the crime and of kidnapping as a tactic. We have no evidence that Venceslau has made such a renunciation and would have to seek it from him. Assuming he were amenable to such a renunciation, issuance of a visa to Venceslau upon receipt of a waiver would set a precedent related to other kidnappers, at least two of whom (Gabeira and Martins) are likely to apply in the near future. While Gabeira has publicly renounced kidnapping as a form of expression and has criticized the FARC for engaging in kidnapping, Martins has pointedly refused to express remorse for his actions, explaining that they were in the context of a worthy political struggle. Mission also sees potential implications in issuing the visa for broader U.S. policy and messaging on terrorism, especially with regard to USG officials.

The two men in question, Gabeira and Martins, are themselves prominent political figures in Brazil at the moment, the latter serving as Minister of Social Communications under recently departed Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

On the other hand, the cable’s author points out that

with the new U.S. Administration, both Brazilian officials and the public are considering new possibilities for bilateral relations. President Obama’s statements at the April Summit of the Americas regarding his desire to build a new relationship with Latin America that looks forward, rather than backward, resonated strongly in Brazil. Although cancelation of his visa will be straightforward as a consular matter, it is likely to generate significant negative press that calls into question whether U.S. policy toward Latin America has changed, and to have repercussions in official circles where a number of senior officials and elite are linked to the case either directly (e.g., Gabeira and Martins) or indirectly (e.g., Human Rights Minister Paulo Vannuchi, who is linked with Venceslau as a political prisoner, and senior PT official Jose Direceu, who was released by the military government as a result of the kidnapping). When considered with the fact that 40 years has passed since the kidnapping and the political nature of the opposition to the military regime, these factors suggest pursuing a waiver of ineligibilities as a way to promote a forward-looking bilateral relationship.

It would seem that this latter view prevailed as American officials moved forward in the matter, but to little effect. Since the Honduran coup in 2009, relations between the two countries have been less than productive and increasingly unhappy. With the inauguration of Brazil’s first female head of state today, Dilma Rousseff, opportunities for a reset of Washington’s relationship with Brazil may be on offer. But at least one person, outgoing president Lula, isn’t so sure.

Taking stock of Obama’s approach to the region over the past two years, Lula told reporters in Brasilia this past week that he “would like the relationship of the United States with Latin America to be different to what it is today,” adding that the United States “should understand the importance of Latin America. The Americans don’t have an optimistic vision of Latin America. They have always related as an empire to poor countries. This vision needs to change.” Under Obama, Lula lamented, “The truth is that nothing has changed in the United States’ vision for Latin America. I view that with sadness.”