Brazil Sends a Strong Message with Spies

(International Relations and Security Network, 27/10/06)


Breaking one of its long-standing rules of diplomacy in South America, Brazil’s National Intelligence Agency (ABIN) is preparing to send undercover agents to spy on neighboring countries. According to ABIN's 4 September classified Special Services Bulletin No 8, which had been leaked to a local paper, President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil has ordered the internal process of selecting and sending intelligence spies to Bolivia and Venezuela to begin.Until now, the ABIN has maintained agents in Buenos Aires, Washington, DC and Key West, Florida.


The policy change, first published by the Brazilian daily Estado de Minas, was later confirmed by the Institutional Security Office (GSI), which works in tandem with the ABIN on issues of national security.


Some regard the ABIN as an understaffed organization with little direction or purpose. Others see the agency as an organization that gathers intelligence on the president’s political enemies. Both may be true to some extent, but for now the ABIN is being given a chance to function on foreign soil, in Bolivia and Venezuela. It is a new mandate that sends a subtle yet strong message from Brazil’s executive office.


Unlike the Foreign Intelligence Center (CIEX) - the secret service run by the Foreign Ministry - ABIN agents will report directly to members of Lula’s administration. There is some question about the timing, and some observers believe that Brazil's perception of its dominance in the region has begun to change. Lula likely feels threatened by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on one flank, and Bolivian President Evo Morales on another.


Brazil’s decision to send spies abroad appears to shadow Washington’s 17 August announcement, delivered by US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte who revealed that the CIA would assign a “mission manager” for Cuba and Venezuela. Iran and North Korea enjoy the same levels of attention. The manager, J Patrick Maher, will be responsible for “integrating collection and analysis on Cuba and Venezuela across the intelligence community,” Negroponte said.


President Bush clearly wants to streamline and organize intelligence related to Cuba and Venezuela, and his decision to apply more resources to that end was not taken well by Chavez, who made jokes and references to a US invasion. Yet Lula has also placed importance on information coming out of his embassies in La Paz and Caracas. And Brazil’s announcement to send spies to Venezuela was certainly no joke and should not be taken lightly.


The Havana-Caracas-La Paz axis, as described by Washington, destabilizes democratic institutions and is “worrying.” In Brasilia, the relationship between Bolivia and Venezuela is the focus, one that has begun to see Bolivia as a satellite nation, orbiting around the will of Venezuela’s Chavez.


Numerous visits to La Paz culminated in a military agreement signed on 26 May by Morales and Chavez. The agreement passed through Bolivia’s lower house of Congress with no trouble at all, but hit a snag in the Senate. Members of the opposition Social and Democratic Party (PODEMOS) pointed out an alarming clause they wanted removed.


As interpreted by PODEMOS politicians, the clause was a legal portal through which Chavez could offer the assistance of the Venezuelan military to help Bolivia contain and control internal threats to national security. “Standardization” and “interoperability” were also rejected because politicians determined the wording to be an open door to the eventual adaptation of the Venezuelan military model in Bolivia.

A separate agreement, signed in August between Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Baudel and Bolivian Defense Minister Walker San Miguel, remains classified. It highlights a deepening relationship between Bolivia and Venezuela - a relationship that appears to have gone beyond the control of the Bolivian Congress. Another worrying factor is the asymmetrical components of the Venezuelan military.


The Venezuelan armed forces are training hundreds of thousands of civilian militias in the art of guerrilla warfare - the only style of war that has defeated the US military. Like the US, Brazil operates a conventional-styled military, and while an invasion on Brazilian territory is far from a possibility, the natures of national security and geopolitical maneuvering require additional intelligence and a more cautious posture.


The ABIN agents in La Paz and Caracas will be civilian attaches to the Brazilian embassies in both cities. Officially, they will take part in activities of information sharing, especially where cooperation will strengthen efforts to fight organized crime, drug trafficking and other illegal transnational activity.


Unofficially, the dispatched spies will likely be at the top of a pyramid of intelligence agents canvassing the country to gather information on anything deemed sinister.


Overtly, Lula has let observers believe that he has allowed his Venezuelan counterpart to assume the role of the region’s geopolitical leader by not confronting Chavez directly. Yet while Chavez basks in the light of international recognition, he knows that careful consideration of Brazil’s geopolitical presence in South America is required to prevent Lula from forcibly taking control of the leadership mantle.


If Brazil were to take a public stance against Venezuela, Chavez could not verbally abuse Lula without any repercussions. After all, the two men are "comrades." Nor can Chavez retreat from important energy agreements made between the two countries' oil companies. Venezuela needs an ally in Brazil.


Lula is willing to smile and pose for the cameras with Chavez and Morales, but he is not about to let Venezuela and Bolivia construct a partnership that seriously threatens Brazil’s regional leadership.


Washington does not dare to interfere publicly in South America’s geopolitical maneuvering, which apart from spy games is currently focused on the vacant seat at the table of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). An impasse over the UNSC vote, where neither Venezuela nor the US-backed candidate, Guatemala, has won the required two-thirds of votes to take the seat, has left Chavez defiant and Washington incredulous.


Late on 24 October, Chavez phoned Morales to ask if he was interested in the Latin American UNSC seat. Morales accepted and has already announced Bolivia’s candidacy as an alternative.


Brazil, which already agreed to vote for Venezuela, would probably give its vote to Bolivia, but with a caveat. In as much as many believe that Chavez will use Bolivia’s seat to further Venezuela’s agenda on the UNSC, it is worth considering what favors Brazil will pull in exchange for giving its vote to Bolivia.


Washington will be cautious and wait to see if the region voices support for Bolivia as an alternative candidate, preferring not to make a public statement that would deepen the divide between Bolivia and the US. It already appears, however, that Morales has taken a decidedly strong position by Chavez’s side.


Undoubtedly, both will work toward establishing 21st century socialism in Bolivia. But not without Brazil’s knowledge. What remains to be seen is how close Brazil will let Morales get to Chavez before acting decisively with a public statement, backroom threats to withdraw energy agreements or other strong-arm tactics.


Presently, both Lula and Chavez are fighting for political survival. According to a 24 October poll, Lula is 24 points ahead of his opponent, Geraldo Alckmin, and has nearly clinched another term in office. In Venezuela, many believe Chavez, by hook or by crook, will remain in power. As of the latest poll, also released on 24 October, Chavez is 35 points ahead of his opponent, Manuel Rosales.


Moving into 2007, it will be interesting to see how these two regional heavyweights maneuver to reconcile their geopolitical differences in South America while keeping their distance from the US.


For now, it seems, spy games are just the beginning.