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  Number 356 | Marzo 2011
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Latin America

The “Hidden Transcript” of the Powerful in WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks has shown the gap between the public and the hidden discourse of the hegemonic elites in the global era. Despite the anger the leaks have generated among the Latin American governments, it appears they won’t affect relations with the US and that it will all amount to just a rough ride for both the powerful who did the talking and the subordinates who were judged.

Salvador Martí Puig

Like many other years, 2010 was packed full of political events critical for the region. One of the most important and stunning phenomena on the international stage was, and continues to be, the “scandal” around the leaking of over 250,000 US State Department cables obtained by the WikiLeaks digital portal. The leaks were disseminated through successive publication in five globally distributed newspapers: El País, Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel.
WikiLeaks revealed episodes that took place in the most conflictive points of the world, as well as other events and information of notable relevance. This “disclosure” has been exceptional as it has exposed how the State Department’s informants operate, their mechanisms and the sources they use, at the same time highlighting their weaknesses and obsessions.

Four years of leaks

WikiLeaks is an international nonprofit organization that uses its internet site to publish anonymous reports and leaked documents containing sensitive information on subjects of public interest, conserving its sources’ anonymity. It is registered in Germany, but operates from Sweden. The site was born in December 2006 and started operating in July 2007; since then its data base has steadily grown to the point that it currently contains 1.2 million documents. It was created by Julian Assange and has 5 permanent employees, some 800 occasional collaborators and hundreds of volunteers around the world. The organization offers its services to reveal unethical behavior by governments—emphasizing countries it considers to have totalitarian regimes—and by religions and businesses throughout the world. WikiLeaks’ most notable activities have centered on US foreign activities, particularly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the organization has achieved great notoriety since its birth, the leaking of the State Department cables has had such global impact that WikiLeaks itself has become the “news story of the year.”

James Scott from the other perspective

The leaks have generated a large number of essays and opinions on the impact of WikiLeaks on US politics in particular and international politics in general. Most of the analyses were quick to point out the role of new technologies in international politics and global security, some expressing the potential danger of the attacks on the internet and accusing cyber-activists of irresponsibility, while others warned States to be more careful and transparent with their citizens in the information era. Beyond the discrepancies, almost all of the opinions stressed that there will be a “before and after” WikiLeaks in international politics and that its impact will be similar to that of the 9-11 attacks.

My goal isn’t to add a new opinion about what happened, but rather to analyze the WikiLeaks phenomenon using the concepts developed by James Scott to analyze the everyday dynamics underlying relations between the powerful and the dominated. This requires turning the perspective of the vision Scott tends to present on its head, instead emphasizing how the dominated think, talk, imagine and act in their relations with the powerful. Here I will present the uninhibited perspective of power with respect to the “dominated,” or subordinated.

James Scott’s extensive work stresses the relationship between those who have power and those who do not, focusing on the strategies and tools the dominated have to avoid exploitation, oppression and attacks on their dignity. I’m basing the following on the ideas Scott presents in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance.

How does the United States view its backyard?

The starting point is that the WikiLeaks revelations did not provide unexpected or unsuspected information. The importance of WikiLeaks lies rather in its dimension (hundreds of thousands of cables!) and the fact that it demonstrates the relative vulnerability of the intelligence services of the most powerful country in the world. Beyond that, most informed people weren’t surprised as much by the substantive information as by “how” it was shown and by the issues covered.

In Scott’s analysis, the way reality is represented by the one presenting it is central to conducting an analysis of power. The cables published through WikiLeaks related to Latin America have a certain insolent tone and obvious partiality in the issues covered. Substantively, the Latin American contents can be classified into three areas: 1) opinions (gossip) about counterparts offered by US diplomats and politicians close to the State Department; 2) a description of the political and economic impunity of government actions; and 3) a prospective analysis of the region’s economic interests, demonstrating concern for foreign investments in certain Latin American countries.

In this sense it’s worth pointing out that such an amount of information provides more knowledge about the issuer and how it views and treats the world than about the world itself. It’s therefore worth asking how Latin America is reflected in WikiLeaks. Or perhaps to put it better, how US State Department officials describe their “backyard.” The cables we’ve had access to through the Spanish newspaper El Pais reveal quite a lot in this respect.

Anything new under the sun?

The general opinion in Latin America’s academic and diplomatic circles has been that the WikiLeaks revelations are irritating but will not affect Latin American countries’ relations with the United States or relations among the region’s countries. But it is surely not taking things too far to imagine that the region’s heads of state (and former heads of state) have been perplexed and angered by the cables sent by US Embassy officials with whom they had previously conversed officially and courteously. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner cannot have liked the revelation that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked her officials in Buenos Aires to provide detailed information about her mental health, or the judgment that the President was dependent on and submissive to her now deceased husband.

Nor can it have escaped the notice of Cuban leaders that there was speculation over the “strong impact” that the death of Raúl Castro’s wife, Vilma Espín, might have on the leader’s emotional stability, or that Fidel Castro was judged as a “sick dictator” “not mentally fit to retake control of the government.” The portrayal of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in the WikiLeaks cables raises questions about the State Department’s role in the Honduran crisis. WikiLeaks has yet to provide any news about the role the White House itself played during that crisis, but no esteem or respect is shown by the portrait the US Embassy cables painted, describing Zelaya as “a throwback to an earlier Central American era, almost a caricature of a land-owner ‘caudillo’”; a “rebellious teenager anxious to show his lack of respect for authority figures”; a man whose “views change by the day or in some cases by the hour, depending on his mood and who he has seen last”; and someone whose “principal goal in office is to enrich himself and his family.” It is probable that this will generate a stir in the activities of the Truth Commission on the Honduran crisis headed up by Eduardo Stein.

Clowns, ignoramuses,
oldies, megalomaniacs...

Obviously the US officials’ reports on Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega aren’t positive, but nobody expected they would be. All three are presented as populist and authoritarian, with Chávez particularly seen as a destabilizing influence in the region, Morales as a progressive power hoarder and Ortega a corrupt instigator of pacts with drug traffickers.

In response to these accusations, FSLN founder Tomás Borge, currently Nicaragua’s ambassador to Peru, told El País that “ambassadors gossip and say irresponsible things,” while Jacinto Suárez, an FSLN representative to the Central American Parliament, told the same paper, “That’s just trying to stir things up. That’s non-existent. It doesn’t even deserve a comment. It’s just another stupid remark.”

The problem caused by the leaks isn’t the revelation of the US administrations’ opinion of the Bolivarian countries, but that they make public the judgments of leaders theoretically closer to the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua and the State department’s vision of leaders and governments that are Washington’s a priori friends and allies.

In terms of Spanish leaders, the opinion of current Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez when she was Secretary of State for Ibero-America stands out. Jiménez called Chávez “a clown,” Ortega “the worst of the leaders with whom she works” and Morales an “ignoramus.” Enrique Iglesias, secretary general of the General Ibero-American Secretariat is none too diplomatic either, stating that “everyone in Latin America is concerned about Hugo Chávez’s behavior, which is becoming increasingly megalomaniacal.” Even Washington’s supposed allies, the governments of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, make unfavorable appearances, with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera described as a leader “who manages politics and business outside of ethics and the law.”

They view President Alan García of Peru as having a “colossal ego” and describe the country’s army as corrupt; the Mexican armed forces are seen as divided and incapable of complying with their mission; the government of the Dominican Republic is susceptible to being corrupted by international investors; Mauricio Funes’ Salvadoran government is “schizophrenic”; and the Colombian army is murderous and enjoys impunity from the “false positives” scandal. Even the Cuban dissident movement is presented as fragmented into “many opposition groups dominated by individuals with strong egos that do not allow them to work together” and who are “as old and out of contact with Cuban reality as the regime itself.”

Beyond the gossip

Beyond such gossip, it’s important to point out that the State Department cables also refer—although to a lesser extent—to the political and economic impunity in the region and the fears linked to investments coming from third countries. Impunity is a recurrent theme when mentioning the corruption of public officials (in the Dominican Republic, Peru and Argentina), the penetration of drug trafficking (in Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua) or the presence of fiscal structures which, as in Paraguay, make “those with the least pay the most” while subsidizing the big agribusiness economic groups.

With respect to investments, there are ten cables about the investment of Spanish companies in Cuba, one on Argentine government sanctions against foreign companies, two on Piñera’s private interests in Chile, several on businesses in Brazil and four on the awarding of Panama Canal extension and reform works to a non-US company.

The “hidden transcripts” of the
powerful and the subordinated

Given what we’ve seen, it’s fair to say that the information obtained through WikiLeaks was more surprising for its form than its content. And we should ask ourselves what WikiLeaks really contributes to the political analysis. Let’s now turn to James Scott.

Analyzing the discourse of the powerful and the subordinated, Scott points out that the subordinated talk one way in the presence of the powerful and another when they find themselves with people in the same condition. Likewise, the powerful don’t address the subordinated the same way they do each other. As a result, each group produces different discourses, or “transcripts,” based on their particular circumstance. The subordinated produced theirs based on their oppression, in what Scott terms a “hidden transcript” that represents a critique of power behind the dominator’s back. For their part, the powerful also produce a hidden transcript in which they articulate practices and demands of power they cannot express openly. Scott shows how the domination process produces a public hegemonic behavior and a behind-the-scenes discourse that consists of what can’t be directly said either by the dominated to the powers or by the powers to the subordinated.

The liturgy of power

The public transcript is the verbal and gestural expression of the specific relations between the subordinates and the holders of power. This tends to offer convincing proof of the hegemony of the dominant values and discourse, and is displayed in all its splendor when both share the stage and contemplate each other at the same time they are being contemplated.

As Scott notes, the public transcript is “the self-portrait of dominant elites as they would have themselves seen.” And although it’s unlikely to be a question of outright lies or misrepresentations, it’s a very lopsided discussion. This transcript is the one undoubtedly being staged in the official relations between US diplomats and the politicians of each of the countries we have mentioned. When Cristina Fernández de Kirchner receives Hillary Clinton, the public transcript appears on stage, as it does when a Latin American President is received in Washington. This transcript has also been legitimized since the end of the Cold War through the concepts of respect for sovereignty, human rights, democracy, free trade and multilateral action.

Meanwhile, the hidden transcript is a concept that can be used to define behind-the-scenes behavior. It consists of the linguistic, gestural and practical manifestations that confirm, contradict or distort what appears in the public discourse. In the case we’re analyzing, it has two fundamental characteristics. First, it is specific to a determined social space and a particular set of actors Scott shows how the domination process produces a public hegemonic behavior and a behind-the-scenes discourse that consists of what can’t be directly said either by the dominated to the powers or by the powers to the subordinated (in this case State Department policymakers); and second, it includes, in addition to language, an extensive range of practices developed over time that contradict the public discourse: pressure, blackmail, negotiation, etc. WikiLeaks is undoubtedly displaying a sample of the hidden transcript of the powerful; in this case of the political officials of the strongest power on the planet.

The masks used by the
powerful and the subordinated

Hidden transcripts are produced for a different public—peers, people of a similar condition—in the full knowledge that nobody from outside has access to that information. Thus a familiarization is generated with the public and hidden transcripts of one’s respective circle, but not with the hidden discourse of the others. That’s why WikiLeaks triggers blushes among the emitters and anger among those who see themselves being judged from a position of domination, at the same time giving rise to a reflection about the distance between the hidden transcript of the powerful and the official one they themselves produce and promote.

If in the presence of power the weak have obvious and convincing reasons to take refuge behind a mask, the powerful also have their own equally convincing reasons to don a mask when facing the subordinated. For the powerful, there’s also a discrepancy between the public transcript used in the open exercise of power and the hidden one, whether in a private parlor or in diplomatic cables presumed to be secret, that can be expressed without running any risks behind the scenes. This discourse, like its equivalent among the subordinated, consists of gestures and words that modify, contradict or confirm what appears in the public discourse.

Dealing with the “dirty laundry”

The different kinds of domination can be compared through the ways they manifest themselves and the public theater in which they do so. Each form of power has a specific stage and its particular way of dealing with its dirty laundry. The dominant groups undoubtedly have a lot to hide and generally speaking have the means to do so. But every now and then the hidden transcript comes to light, as WikiLeaks has shown us.

Warning: it’s different if it’s the discourse of the dominated that emerges. According to Scott, when a dominated person dares to communicate his or her “hidden transcript” to the powerful, the latter tend to have three reactions: 1) eliminate the person who did it for having dared to transgress the “official truth”; 2) neutralize the threat and demand apologies in order to implement a “symbolic restoration”; and 3) make out that they haven’t heard it and reduce the dissidence to an anecdote. The reaction of the powerful is different when things are the other way around.

What has Washington said?

So what has the hegemonic power’s reaction been to WikiLeaks?

When the hidden transcript of the powerful is made public, it creates an imbalance, disrupting the liturgy of power and the official quality of the public discourse. Scott points out that while subordinated people who don’t follow the script risk being resoundingly reprimanded, the powerful risk being made to look ridiculous and thus losing their credibility.

That aside, the powerful have more weapons to try to neutralize the costs of the accident implied by their hidden discourse breaking the surface. These include the old tactics of attacking the messenger and ignoring the contents of the hidden transcript as if nothing had happened.

To a great extent, something similar has happened with the WikiLeaks affair: Washington didn’t question the veracity of the cables, but rather their publication, under the pretext that they endanger the security of their troops and citizens by multiplying the terrorist risk. It has also employed the “nothing happened here” rhetoric. What’s more, an attempt has been made to minimize what happened, even shooting the messenger by presenting him as an unbalanced person and a sex offender.

But above all an official silence has predominated. Public explanations were delayed and it was insinuated that the embassies limit themselves to doing their work. So from Washington there was a proclamation of the doctrine of “power has its rules” and is obliged to do its work, in the course of which the ends justify the means, which are not always correct.

Just a rough ride?

WikiLeaks has exposed the gap between the public and hidden transcripts of the hegemonic elites in the global era. It also obviously displays the “low quality” of the current democracies and the need for continuous information to act as a counterweight to the powers that be. But in response to the information circulated, there were no great protests of grassroots indignation or any severe reaction from the “offended” governments.

There have been only minor consequences for the powerful. It could all end up as nothing more than a rough ride, an anecdote. The powerful imposed the tactic of attacking the “revealer” while at the same time whistling and looking the other way. Nothing new, then, in Washington’s response strategy to WikiLeaks. Erving Goffman comments that the strategy of “ignoring the evidence” is widely employed by the powerful when subjected to the revelation of unconfessable truths. Perhaps the most tragic thing is that there has been no kind of symbolic redress. Just a bit of embarrassment to a power that from now on assumes “that’s just how things are.”

As Scott points out, “there is no system of domination that does not produce its own routine harvest of insults and injury to human dignity.” The negative thing isn’t the terrible nature of the insults and injuries perpetrated by the hegemonic powers, but that they have now been taken for granted and normalized.

Salvador Martí I Puig is professor of political science at the University of Salamanca and Nicaragua’s representative to the Network for the Quality of Democracy in Latin America. This article is a collaboration with envío by New Society (www.nuso.org).

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