Revisiting the CIA in Latin America

by Dan Aspan*
Special to iVoryTowerz

The Central Intelligence Agency is making headlines in South America again, and some South American leaders are speaking out against the U.S. spy agency. First, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, who expelled a U.S. diplomat last week, justified his action on the grounds that the diplomat was working for the CIA. On the same day, CIA Director Leon Panetta named Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador as countries in danger of facing economic destabilization as a result of the current economic crisis. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Correa will probably capitalize on Panetta’s claim as another opportunity to eventually hurl insults at the U.S. (and I wouldn’t necessarily say they would be out of line for doing so). But Argentina is a different matter. The Argentines immediately responded to the claim with a demand for proof. Members of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s cabinet summoned the U.S. ambassador to question him on the evidence supporting Panetta’s statement. Based on the Argentine reaction, a strong sense of anger and disgust toward the CIA (and the U.S. in general) are emanating from Buenos Aires. If you consider the context of Argentine society over the past ten years, their attitude of being appalled by Panetta’s statement is completely justified.

Unlike Americans, most generations of Argentines are no strangers to nationwide depression. Less than ten years ago, Argentina experienced a devastating stock market crash which resulted in the complete collapse of the economy. Think about what the current U.S. crisis is today, and multiply it by about 500. Or if you’re old enough, think back to the early 1930s. During the recent collapse, the people of Argentina lost everything: jobs, money, and their lives. Sebastian Delgado is a 22-year-old Argentine from Buenos Aires who was 15 during the economic crisis of 2001. Currently, he is a student at American University. When asked about the 2001 crisis, Delgado recalls people who lost everything jumping off of bridges, throwing huge rocks off of overpasses onto traffic below, and the complete sense of pandemonium and uncertainty that the time evinced.

These are situations that Delgado and every other Argentine who lived through the time will never forget. Which calls into question the judgment made by Panetta and his agency. To make a claim like this is to send shock waves through Argentine society and to scare people who, relatively speaking, have just recovered from a terrible depression. Imagine the thought not of going into a depression (which many Americans have considered in recent times) but of knowing just how catastrophic that situation is. And then have a foreign intelligence agency basically say the chances of that happening in the near future are likely. If I were President Fernandez, I’d be downright pissed. And if I was an Argentine citizen, I would be, well, tense. I would also question why an organization like the CIA spends its time making economic projections for other countries when the country it serves could use all the help it can get right now. This is also a bad move for another reason. The United States has made clear that it doesn’t approve of socialist leaders like Chavez and Correa. Whether this is good or bad is something that can be debated until the end of time. But what the CIA has done is strain the ties on one of the few real allies the U.S. has left in South America, that being Argentina. For an organization that gathers intelligence, it sure would be nice if they used some once in a while.

*Dan Aspan is the producer of Latinocast, a weekly podcast about Latin America.

(For more on Fernandez and Argentina, please see: "Argentina: Letter from Buenos Aires" For more on Chavez and Venezuela, please see: "Venezuela: Chavez & Perpetual Rule." For more on U.S. policy in Latin America, please see: "McCain, Obama & the Same Old Latin American Tango.")

(The photo of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, is from an international conference in Brazil from earlier this year; the photo is by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom of Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons license.)

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