A Workshop Abandoned: WikiLeaks, U.S. Empire, and Central America

March 22, 2012


Central America has long served as the workshop of U.S. empire.1 The tiny isthmus has been made to function as a bustling laboratory where the United States has experimented with regime change, economic restructuring, unsavory yet pragmatic alliances, electoral sleight-of-hand, and imperial sorties designed as test runs for longer-term interventions in the Middle East. But what happens to the workshop when the work is done or when it moves overseas?

The U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in November 2010 answer that question, painting a picture of diplomatic distraction, neglect, and half-heartedness. The cables, which range from late 2003 through 2010, reveal that the U.S. government maintained the same hostile, Cold War–steeped attitudes toward Nicaragua’s Sandinistas (FSLN) and El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) as in decades past. But what emerges from an examination of the cables is a sense of the fading and erosion, not the forward-looking expansion, of U.S. engagement in the region.

George W. Bush took office in 2001 having promised deep involvement with Latin America, articulating bold plans for the continent—and in Spanish, no less.2 But the events of 9/11 derailed the president’s journey down the Pan-American Highway, and in the ensuing years—which were exceedingly busy for Central Americans, featuring a coup, an escalating drug war, a new regional free trade agreement, and controversial presidential elections—U.S. policy toward Central America sunk largely into decay.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might well be an opportunity for Central Americans to put a little more distance between the sardines and the shark, to use the metaphor of former Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo.3 But on the other hand, it may mean that the institutionalization of a Pax Neoliberal has simply replaced the need for ugly, costly military intervention. In the early 20th century, gunboat diplomacy in the circum-Caribbean gave way to dollar diplomacy and the Good Neighbor Policy, when the United States realized that its aims could be realized on the cheap. In the early 21st century, the United States may grumble about the electoral victories of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, but it will not send in the troops to depose them. Is this the stench of a decadent, lordly rot or the high-octane fumes of a sleek, supercharged imperium?


As late as 2003, when the leaked cables begin, U.S. priorities were crystal clear: to secure passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR); to obtain local approval for the extension of Central Skies, the joint regional counter-drug military operation; and to finalize Article 98 agreements, the heavily Bush-promoted bilateral immunity accords aimed to protect U.S. citizens from prosecution in the International Criminal Court.4 These were concrete, pre-9/11 objectives, and as 20th-century U.S.–Latin American history shows, defined objectives have met with defined results more often than not.

The United States was largely able to accomplish this narrow agenda, since it remained willing to exercise significant diplomatic pressure in matters that directly affected its own economy. CAFTA-DR was approved over the protests of local labor federations, which rightly doubted their governments’ ability and willingness to enforce the agreement’s labor provisions. And in what has thus far proved largely a vain effort to curtail the activities of narcotraffickers, isthmian governments embraced the counter-drug funding and training pushed by the United States. Voices of dissent did emerge—for example, in Guatemala, surrounding the renewal of its branch of Central Skies. But when left-leaning parties questioned the military appropriation in Guatemala’s Congress, “close, last-minute Embassy coordination” with key members of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, including the daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, “saved the day.” As the Embassy crowed in its report back to the State Department, these loyal deputies “fed our arguments directly onto the floor of the Congress.”5 That Guatemalan conservatives should “feed” U.S. positions into the country’s legislature, at the U.S. Embassy’s behest, was certainly a mark of continuity or fealty to old friends, rather than of change.

But local embassies could not rely on such pliant local auxiliaries tipping the scales unless the scales already favored pro-U.S. leaders and parties. In the first years covered by the WikiLeaks cables, this was not a problem; presidents like El Salvador’s Tony Saca, of the far-right ARENA party, and Guatemala’s Óscar Berger, a pro-business technocrat, were willing partners in trade liberalization and security cooperation.

The year 2006, however, saw Latin America’s electoral landscape shaken up, as viable, left-leaning presidential candidates emerged from Nicaragua to Argentina and Latin Americans throughout the hemisphere cast their votes for new approaches to achieving social and economic justice. In the U.S. diplomatic imagination, the influence of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—not the rejection of the Washington Consensus—loomed large in this paradigm shift. In a previous era, the United States might have sent military advisers to direct counter-campaigns or at least weapons to the defenders of the friendly status quo. But, constrained by more modern expectations and their own congressional restrictions on harder-nosed projections of U.S. influence, the officials consigned to the imperial backwaters of Central America did little more than issue boilerplate threats to cut off remittances and aid, fume about the “Communists,” and watch as both El Salvador and Nicaragua elected presidents deeply distasteful to the United States, knowing that those presidents still needed U.S. dollars in order to manage their struggling economies.

In Nicaragua, where FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega competed successfully for the presidency, the Embassy cables show that the United States continued to go through the motions of the 1980s, remaining obsessed with destroying the Sandinistas. As Ambassador Paul Trivelli wrote, “Mission personnel were very clear about the dangers of an FSLN victory in the 2006 Presidential elections.” Imagining Nicaragua as another Cuba, Trivelli speculated that “a Sandinista win would likely result in capital flight, a setback in open markets, an anti-US foreign policy and an immigration crisis, as many Nicaraguans would likely seek sanctuary in the United States.” For these reasons, the ambassador concluded, “timing is crucial for the receipt of election and other financial assistance to bolster chances for a reform-minded, democratic candidate to win the elections.”6 The Embassy also created “rap sheets” on Ortega and the Sandinista party, “highlighting their systematic crimes and abuses,” for use with domestic and international interlocutors.7 This was what “democracy promotion” looked like on the ground.

But while the United States threatened to reconsider aid programs in the event of a Sandinista victory, there was no risk of a Contra-style invasion—no will to effect regime change as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. As The Christian Science Monitor noted, “some Nicaraguan analysts claim that the reporting in the leaked cables reads too much like a Facebook post to embarrass Ortega, who’s heard it all before and developed a thick hide in the process. If anything, pundits say, the US diplomatic mission could find itself in a tight spot for having its cards tipped and exposing the limits of their hand.”8

Even in El Salvador, which Embassy officials considered “our closest friend in the Western Hemisphere,” the United States did not move to prevent the democratic election of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes.9 South America’s leftward turn had heightened El Salvador’s strategic importance—Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa had pushed to close the U.S. Southern Command base at Manta, thus increasing the role of Comalapa, SouthCom’s Cooperative Security Location in El Salvador—but still, the Embassy more or less sat back while Salvadorans rejected the hard-right ARENA status quo by a slim margin.

This was all the more surprising because the Embassy, and the Bush administration in particular, had enjoyed an uncommonly close relationship with Saca. Saca was so virulent in his anti-Communism that he boasted of smoking “only Padrón cigars, made by Miami Cubans, and would never smoke a Cohiba.”10 It was Saca who led his military into Bush’s Coalition of the Willing, despite polls indicating that more than 80% of Salvadorans opposed participating.11 And as municipal and legislative elections approached in 2006, the Embassy very much hoped to prevent gains at the polls by the FMLN, which it characterized as “mired in disarray and obsolete 1970s-era revolutionary rhetoric.”12

Given all this, one would imagine that the United States would do everything in its power to head off an FMLN victory. And for a moment, it seemed that it would. Once Funes, perceived as an electable moderate, was named presidential candidate for the FMLN, U.S. officials began meeting with Salvadoran business leaders who, in 2008, sought to “develop a ‘Plan B’ in order to ‘save El Salvador’ should Funes win the election.”

“The fact that they are taking a long view and attempting to fireproof El Salvador from feared FMLN mischief is reassuring,” wrote then ambassador Charles Glazer in a June 2008 cable.13

But the Embassy’s direct efforts to forestall Funes’s ascent fizzled, whether from apathy or fatigue. When Funes met with the ambassador during his candidacy, the presidential hopeful both spoke admiringly of Fidel Castro and mentioned being an animal lover. The hardest-hitting response that the deputy chief of mission could muster was a canned denunciation of the Cuban regime—and the fatuous allegation that Cuban state security had broken into his home and poisoned his pet while he was stationed at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.14 Such man-bites-dog tales accomplished little; Funes and the FMLN prevailed in the 2009 presidential elections, despite the Embassy’s unease about Funes’s candidacy and ideological foundations.

In Honduras, the dated notion among U.S. functionaries that leftist politics is somehow inherently anti-democratic again proved its persistence in the absence of an updated perspective. Although the United States condemned the 2009 coup, which the Embassy in Tegucigalpa considered “illegal and unconstitutional,” it refused to push seriously for the reinstatement of ousted president Manuel Zelaya.15 Washington’s consternation about the perceived “Chávez axis” was evident in many of the leaked cables on the subject. Yet the advocacy of old-guard Cold Warrior hawks like Otto Reich, together with the power of inertia, led U.S. officials to see Roberto Micheletti’s illegitimate presidency and the deeply compromised election yielding Porfirio Lobo’s victory as lesser evils than Zelaya’s return.16

Evincing the boredom of those U.S. officials consigned to post-9/11 Central America, Ambassador Hugo Llorens penned a cable titled “Who’s Who of the Honduran Coup” in which he broke down by color the key Honduran players in both the anti-Zelaya and pro-Zelaya camps. (It is not difficult to guess which faction Llorens designated as the “White Team” and which he tagged the “Red Team,” or “reds” for short.) He went on to assign a shade of either white or red to individuals on the respective sides, according to their level of influence in Honduran affairs. Most of the powerbrokers in question were assigned subtle shades, such as lilac, ivory-blush, almond, or alabaster, but Rafael Alegria, a well-known peasant activist and Vía Campesina Internacional leader whom Llorens disparaged as “a Chávez proxy,” was given a more prosaic hue: “blood red.”17

Did U.S. officials in Afghanistan have the spare time in which to develop such elaborate color spectra? Probably not. It was a terribly unimaginative approach to 21st-century diplomacy, one that reflected the frustration of those officials consigned to posts that were neither pleasant nor important. Not even the cables’ periodic bluster about potential Iranian incursions into Central America provided a sense of imperial purpose. The rhetoric of the Cold War offered a sense of mission, an interpretive frame for the conflictive politics unfolding around the Embassy. But the United States’ commitment, the resources, were simply not there.

This is what makes exceptions to the knee-jerk Nicaragua/El Salvador pattern so interesting. In Guatemala, where the militant left was thoroughly decimated by U.S.-backed state terror during the 1970s and 1980s, and where the survivors of that slaughter showed less affinity for Chávez and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) than their neighbors, Embassy officials reversed their 1980s tune, instead staking out progressive positions on transitional justice.

This was due, in part, to the particularly enlightened tenure of Ambassador Stephen McFarland, whose cables read as sober, analytical assessments of Guatemalan national affairs. When lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg committed suicide in 2009 after publicly blaming his death on a conspiracy directed by left-leaning president Álvaro Colom, the Embassy held back, waiting to hear the conclusions of the United Nations’ International Commission Against Impunity. It did not seize the opportunity to tar a progressive head of state, as the Guatemalan upper classes desired. Instead, over the years McFarland brought the power of his office to bear in pressuring the Guatemalan military to release war-era archives, supporting the prosecutions of military and police officials for extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances, and accompanying the exhumations of mass graves.18

It remains to be seen how this concern will square with the security collaboration being pushed as part of the drug war, and how it will fare under the rule of General Otto Pérez Molina, who is widely accused of complicity in the very crimes whose investigation the Embassy has supported. (It is the Embassy’s position that Pérez Molina, “no babe in the woods,” has intimate knowledge of more than a few unsolved mysteries, including the whereabouts of missing 1980s military plans and the final resting place of Efraín Bámaca, the slain guerrilla commander married to U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury—see “Guatemala’s President Under the Lens,” page 41.)19 During one meeting with U.S. officials, Pérez Molina remarked that “human rights seemed to be the Obama administration’s dominant priority while for him, the commercial relationship between the two countries was the most important issue.”20

But the drug war, the economy, and human rights are deeply intertwined. This is especially true in Guatemala, where the homicide rate in the capital city (to say nothing of the porous border regions or the narco-controlled Petén) averages 113 per 100,000 inhabitants and where, as one cable reported, “the New York street value of the 300 metric tons of cocaine estimated to have transited Guatemala in 2009 is greater than the national budget.”21 These are problems for which neither the Embassy nor Pérez Molina’s hard-line cabinet has any credible solutions.

The massive out-migration of Central Americans to the United States is yet another difficult legacy of the violence of the 1980s, and one that, the cables show, bedevils diplomatic relations. Again, the United States engages in those Central American issues that have an impact on U.S. domestic affairs, such as the war on drugs and immigration. From tense exchanges over the granting of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Central American nationals to expressions of outrage by Central American governments at the shocking treatment of migrants in the United States, immigration has been a consistent stumbling block.

Responding to H.R. 4437, the 2005 legislation to crack down on immigrants proposed by Jim Sensenbrenner and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, Eduardo Stein, the former vice president of Guatemala, told Embassy officials: “It seems like an affront to all of Latin America that a government that calls itself friend and partner wants only our money and our markets, but views our people as a pest. . . . They are only interested in our resources and riches, not our people.”22 Punitive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids of meatpacking plants employing undocumented Central Americans directly affected the livelihoods of those relying on remittances and the integrity of migrant families.

And in 2005, when the Minuteman Project, a group of vigilante extremists, took it upon themselves to hunt Latin American migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. officials despaired of the news story’s corrosive diplomatic effects. “It is almost impossible to overstate the damage [the Minutemen phenomenon] is doing,” wrote then ambassador to Guatemala John R. Hamilton. “Guatemalans feel deeply humiliated by what they have been seeing on TV and hearing on the radio. . . . Op-ed writers of left, right, and center are finding in our inability to put a stop to the ‘hunting’ of their co-nationals echoes of US ‘imperial behavior’ of an era long past.”23


Echoes of U.S. imperial behavior—whether in the pushing of neoliberal trade deals, the attempts to sway Latin American elections rightward, or the selective concern for human rights—still ring throughout Central America. In fact, no new stance has emerged to replace that of the 1980s, and in the cables, it shows.

There is some talk now of a U.S. turn back to the region, of the possibility that the Central American workshop may swing back into operation stocked with new tools. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, top U.S. defense officials are promising a renewed engagement in Latin America, making use of recently decommissioned Special Operations Forces and high-tech military innovations to extend the reach of the United States southward. For the time being, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserts, this will involve “low-cost and small-footprint approaches,” perhaps an expansion of the increasingly drone-prosecuted drug war to match the United States’ increasingly drone-prosecuted border enforcement.24

But the workshop, it seems, will not be stocked with new ideas. Obama has largely continued the Bush agenda, or lack thereof, in Central America. And the Republican candidates vying to replace him view the region either with Cold War eyes or through 9/11-tinted glasses. (Gingrich: Chávez is “a mortal enemy of the United States”; Romney: “Right now Hezbollah . . . is working throughout Latin America, in Venezuela, in Mexico . . . which poses a very significant and imminent threat to the United States of America”; Santorum: “What’s going on in Central and South America—I’m very concerned about the militant socialists and the radical Islamists joining together, bonding together.”25) Fortunately, bluster on the stump rarely transforms into substance.

As far as Central Americans are concerned, the wounds of the Cold War cannot be healed; the best hope is that they be used to inspire a truly new regional agenda. That has yet to occur, and in certain ways, notably in the levels of everyday violence, Central America feels as unsettled as ever. But U.S. distraction and disinterest can be and have been used to Central Americans’ advantage. Whatever the flaws of Funes and Ortega, both El Salvador and Nicaragua chose their presidents in spite of U.S. disapproval. With U.S. support, Guatemala is putting war criminals on trial, or at least it was before the inauguration of hard-line president Pérez Molina. Migrants and their families are standing up for their rights both in the United States and at home. Gunboats have yet to depose Chávez, Ortega, Funes, Morales, or Correa, and even an internal military coup against a leftist leader in Honduras was met with little more than stock disappointment by Central America’s pater americanus. Diminishing U.S. interest translates into increasing Central American opportunity. It remains to be seen whether the region’s institutions, politicians, and social movements are equipped to make the most of it.



Kirsten Weld teaches Latin American history at Brandeis University. She is currently writing two books about Guatemala.



1. Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Henry Holt, 2007).

2. George W. Bush, Spanish-language campaign speech delivered August 25, 2000, available at archive.newsmax.com.

3. Juan José Arévalo, The Shark and the Sardines (L. Stewart, 1961).

4. John Hamilton, “Embassy Guatemala’s 90-Day Plan: First Quarter 2004,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 04GUATEMALA25, January 8, 2004.

5. Bruce Wharton, “Guatemala Extends Authorization for US Military CD Operations,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 04GUATEMALA360, February 13, 2004, released by WikiLeaks.

6. Paul Trivelli, “State and USAID Policy Planning Directors Visit Nicaragua to Assess US Assistance Programs,” Embassy Managua cable, 06MANAGUA20, January 5, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.

7. Paul Trivelli, “Nicaragua’s Most Wanted Part I: The Crimes of Daniel Ortega and his Family,” Embassy Managua cable, 06MANAGUA1002, May 5, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.

8. Tim Rogers, “How WikiLeaks May Give Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega an Upper Hand With US,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2010.

9. Charles Glazer, “El Salvador: The Case For Major Non-NATO Ally Status,” Embassy San Salvador cable, 07SANSALVADOR2229, November 5, 2007, released by WikiLeaks.

10. Ibid.

11. Douglas Barclay, “El Salvador: Assembly Votes for One-Year Extension in Iraq,” Embassy San Salvador cable, 06SANSALVADOR2953, December 15, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.

12. Michael Butler, “El Salvador: Six Months From Elections, ARENA Climbs/FMLN Self-Destructs,” Embassy San Salvador cable, 05SANSALVADOR2507, September 9, 2005, released by WikiLeaks.

13. Charles Glazer, “Emerging Plan B Should the FMLN Win the Presidential Elections,” Embassy San Salvador cable, 08SANSALVADOR843, June 14, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.

14. Robert Blau, “FMLN Candidate Funes on Wiretaps, Partisanship, Debates, and More,” Embassy San Salvador cable, 08SANSALVADOR1037, August 29, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.

15. Hugo Llorens, “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup,” Embassy Tegucigalpa cable, 09TEGUCIGALPA645, June 24, 2009, released by WikiLeaks.

16. Paul Trivelli, “Ortega’s First 100 Days—Autocratic Trends Draw Concern,” Embassy Managua cable, 07MANAGUA1067, April 25, 2007, released by WikiLeaks.

17. Hugo Llorens, “Who’s Who of the Honduran Coup,” Embassy Tegucigalpa cable, 09TEGUCIGALPA617, June 17, 2009, released by WikiLeaks.

18. See, for example, Stephen McFarland, “Minister of Defense Under Pressure to Turn Over Two Missing Military Plans,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 09GUATEMALA222, March 11, 2009, released by WikiLeaks; Stephen McFarland, “Retired Colonel Sentenced to 53 Years in Ground-Breaking War Crimes Trial,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 09GUATEMALA1023, December 11, 2009, released by WikiLeaks; Stephen McFarland, “Guatemalan Court Sets Precedent With Forced Disappearance Conviction,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 09GUATEMALA890, September 16, 2009, released by WikiLeaks; Stephen McFarland, “Exhumations Help Guatemalan Families Find Closure,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 08GUATEMALA1458, November 21, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.

19. Stephen McFarland, “Opposition Leader Complains of Smear Campaign,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 10GUATEMALA49, February 22, 2010, released by WikiLeaks.

20. Stephen McFarland, “WHA DAS Reynoso’s Visit Reaffirms Partnership with Guatemala,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 09GUATEMALA1035, December 24, 2009, released by WikiLeaks.

21. Stephen McFarland, “Guatemala: Recent Crime Events and Trends,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 10GUATEMALA41, February 11, 2010, released by WikiLeaks.

22. James Derham, “Guatemala Vice-President Slams Immigration Bill,” Embassy Guatemala cable, 06GUATEMALA9, January 3, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.

23. John Hamilton, “Immigration in US-Guatemalan Relations: Minutemen are Poisoning the Well,” US Embassy cable, 05GUATEMALA888, April 8, 2005, released by WikiLeaks.

24. Jennifer Rizzo, “US ‘Budget Dust’ and Latin America,” January 9, 2012, CNN.com.

25. Ibid. and Andrew O’Reilly, “Newt Takes Obama to Task over Chávez and Castro,” January 25, 2012, latino.foxnews.com.




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