By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 7:32 PM
The State Department wanted to know whether Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was on medication. American diplomats in Brazil, meanwhile, heard that Bolivia's indigenous president, Evo Morales, had a tumor.
And farther north, U.S. officials outlined how Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was isolating his country by aligning his government with Iran's.
A slew of diplomatic messages from South America, where the United States has had testy relations with several leaders, reveal U.S. concerns over issues ranging from terrorism to a spat over oil between Argentina and Britain. But private messages released by WikiLeaks also highlight Washington's focus on the personalities on a continent largely ruled by leftist presidents, some of them European-style technocrats and others virulently anti-American populists.
"There are some snarky and personal observations," said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a group that tracks American policy in the region. "There's a strange preoccupation with the personal and mental health of leaders, but it doesn't fit the stereotype of America plotting coups and caring only about business interests and consorting with only the right wing."
The broad outlines of the cables have been reported in the past. But the candid nature of the communications provides a window into how American diplomats view some of the region's most pressing problems.
A 2009 cable from Honduras, where President Manuel Zelaya had been ousted by the military, called the coup "illegal and unconstitutional" and the ascendance of an interim leader, Roberto Micheletti, "totally illegitimate." Those were strong words that American diplomats, shortly after the coup, shared privately with reporters.
Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter American Dialogue, said that cable reflected well on the American handling of that case, which sharply divided the region after Micheletti refused to step down under pressure.
"The cable on Honduras would be disappointing for conspiracy theorists," said Shifter, referring to critics of the Obama administration who claimed the United States was behind the coup.
American diplomats also reported on instability in Colombia, which has been locked in a guerrilla war, and how the growing ties between Chavez and Iran have hurt Venezuela, finacially and diplomatically.
"A shared hatred for the USG is the driving force," a cable about Iran and Venezuela says of the U.S. government, describing the anti-American kinship the two countries share.
The messages released by WikiLeaks also detail the outsize role that communist Cuba's intelligence apparatus plays in Venezuela. "Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chavez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting unvetted by Venezuelan officers," the document said.
But for many observers in the region, the most tantalizing messages revolved around personalized assessments of South American leaders and other officials.
One 2009 cable to Washington said that Brazil's defense minister, Nelson Jobim, had reported that Morales had a serious sinus tumor. After the cable became public, Bolivia's government denied that the president had suffered from a tumor.
The cables show a particularly keen interest in Argentina's government. Cristina Fernandez is president and, until his recent death, her husband, Nestor Kirchner, wielded enormous influence in the making major policy decisions.
"We have a much more solid understanding of Nestor Kirchner's style and personality than we do of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner," a 2009 cable reads. "We would like to develop a more well-rounded view of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner."
The cable, addressed to the embassy in Buenos Aires, goes on to ask: "How is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner managing her nerves and anxiety?" It asks how the president deals with stress, and what her husband is taking for his gastrointestinal illness.
On Thursday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Fernandez to "express regret."
"They did talk about the importance of our relationship," Crowley said.
Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, which is critical of American policy in the region, said the cables about Argentina were "garish" but, in the end, did not do major damage to U.S. diplomacy in the region.
"This is low grade stuff," he said. "It's nothing that's going to start World War II. It's going to ignite a lot of belly laughs."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.