A Brazilian who helped kidnap the US ambassador to his country in 1969 should never have received a tourist visa from the State Department last year, according to a US diplomatic cable posted yesterday by Wikileaks.
After the US consulate pasted the precious visa into former student radical Paulo de Tarso Venceslau's passport, but before it returned the passport to him, officials realized what had happened. A top diplomat wrote to Washington asking whether it would be best to let him slide "in light of the distance from the crime, the circumstances under which it took place, and our desire for a forward-looking relationship."
The US had long considered Mr. Venceslau a terrorist for holding former US Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick hostage for four days in 1969 along with a group of radical students that included current Brazilian congressman Fernando Gabeira and Franklin Martins (a minister for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva). The group, known as Revolutionary Movement 8th October (MR-8), demanded the release of 15 political prisoners held by the Brazilian military dictatorship. It worked.
The newly released WikiLeaks cable is the first indication of why Venceslau was approved for a visa last year after having been turned down three times previously for having terrorist affiliations.
Did Obama really change policy?
"Will these be new times? Did Obama really change things?" he said to newspaper O Globo.
Venceslau wasn't the only one to speculate that Obama's administration had relaxed US policy by issuing the visa. Opponents of the US leader took to the Internet to denounce the administration for being soft on terror.
On the website Brazzilmag.com, some readers called the move "revolting," the result of dependence on Brazilian oil exports, and an example of Obama's communism.
Initial visa approval not a policy change
If the WikiLeaks cable is both genuine and complete, the initial visa approval wasn't a policy change at all.
According to the cable, Venceslau didn't mention any past arrests or convictions on his visa application, and he told the consul general in São Paulo that Brazilian law doesn't require people to include political crimes when declaring their criminal record. The consulate checked his name and it came up clean, according to the cable.
Once Venceslau went to the press after he got the visa, Charge d' Affaires Lisa Kubiske wrote: "Cancellation of the visa, which would be the standard course of action, will likely lead to significant and negative reaction in the Brazilian media at a time when both official Brazilians and the public are considering new possibilities for US-Brazil relations."
But Ms. Kubiske didn't blithely advocate for Venceslau, either.
"Issuance of a visa ... might have implications for broader US policy and messaging on terrorism."
She said the minimum the US would accept in return for the visa would be "a public repudiation of the crime and of kidnapping as a tactic."
A spokeswoman at the US consulate in São Paulo wasn't immediately available to comment.
While the initial visa acceptance may have been an error, the follow-up shows that diplomats wanted to take advantage of Obama's popularity after he won the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the effort to foment good will may have been for naught.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who leaves office this weekend, said this week he has been disappointed by how much Obama's policies in Latin America resemble those of earlier US presidents.
"Relations have changed little" between the US and Latin America, Lula said this week. "The reality is they didn't change at all. That makes me sad."