I'm frequently asked, where is the U.S. State Department on the matter of two American pilots held hostage to political and other interests in Brazil, detained without charges or evidence of charges since the Sept. 29 mid-air collision that killed 154 over the Amazon?
Transcript from yesterday's State Department press briefing, deputy flack Tom Casey presiding:
QUESTION: Do you have any update for us on the condition of these U.S. pilots that are in Brazil that were part of that crash a couple of months ago? Any update on their condition and what the U.S. might be doing to expedite their release or assist them in any way?
MR. CASEY: Well, I don't think that there is a lot new that I have to offer you on this. This is the case of several U.S. pilots that are not charged with anything and not under arrest but have been asked to remain in Brazil while Brazilian aviation officials look at the circumstances surrounding the collision of a couple of aircraft. We have continued to be in touch through our consular officers with the individuals themselves and with their family members. We're certainly in regular contact with the Brazilian Government about that case. We do want to see them conclude the investigation in a way that certainly respects their normal legal and regulatory procedures. But in terms of movement on that, I'd have to refer you to the Brazilian authorities.
QUESTION: Do you have information about the U.S. attempts to get them sent over to the United States?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, this is something that's proceeding in accordance with Brazilian laws and practices and our main message to the Brazilian Government is we want to make sure that they are treated in accordance with the laws and the standards that Brazil has.
QUESTION: And just one final follow-up? Do you feel that they are being treated within their norms of international and Brazilian law at this point?
MR. CASEY: My understanding at this is point is that this investigation and the activities surrounding it are proceeding as we would expect them to, but again I don't have any real specifics to offer you. You really have to talk to the Brazilians about the details of that investigation.
MY NOTE: WHEREUPON the State Department Press Corps (35 years in the business and I still can't believe anyone can utter the term "Press Corps" without a belly-laugh, but trust me, they do) obediently swallowed the baloney and turned the page in its collective steno pad and continued faithfully transcribing other things it was told on other matters.
Can you speculate about what the State Department is afraid of here, with its disinclination to rile the unstable authorities in Brazil? I can! Just a guess, but can you say "Chavez?" Yes, I mean the wily Hugo Chavez, strongman of Venezuela, mentee of Fidel Castro, and anti-American propagandist par excellence.
While Brazil nominally remains one of the United States' good friends in Latin America, Brazil's politically agile president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, knows he can also play patty-cake with his new best friend, Chavez. And the State Department wants to stay in the game, lest we lose influence in still another crime-ridden Latin American country where nimble politicians with anti-American agendas are skillfully consolidating power with the support of the huge and growing ranks of the desperately poor. (But Lucky Lula -- so far publicly silent in the matter of the pilots and the obvious problems with Brazil's air traffic control -- should take note of one thing about his new friend. As a younger military officer, Chavez actually had the character to stand up and take personal responsibility for a botched coup in 1992.)
Brazil President Praises Chavez -- Nov. 14:
The Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has visited his Venezuelan counterpart to inaugurate a new bridge over the River Orinoco that will link the two countries. ... Da Silva said: "I come to Venezuela today more convinced than when I came a few years ago that it was worth building an alliance between Brazil and Venezuela. And you, Chavez, have shown that economic growth can be partnered with social justice."
(end of story)
MY NOTE: Uh, oh. Here comes the paranoia/weird irony part:
Venezuela has huge resources of oil and a very popular, engaging, American-hating leader. Brazil has ... well, besides our two pilots, it USED to have a nuclear program, long since officially suspended. You'll recall the obscure Cachimbo Air Base where the Legacy 600 made its emergency landing in the Amazon on Sept. 29? And also recall that the Brazilians -- who were ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964-1985 -- were once preparing to test small nuclear weapons underground? The Brazilian government admitted this in 1990, three years after Brazilian scientists had claimed they had succeeded in enriching uranium. In 1990, Brazilian authorities held a public ceremony to symbolically close the underground shaft that had been dug for nuclear testing deep in the jungle. The location (Cue "Twilight Zone" music, please): Cachimbo Air Base.