Theme: The election of a non-permanent member to represent Latin America on the United Nations Security Council became a duel between Venezuela and the US, with most of the countries in the region remaining almost entirely passive.
Summary: Finally, Panama was elected to replace Argentina on 1 January 2007 in one of the two seats that correspond to Latin America on the UN Security Council. After a bitter struggle, neither Guatemala nor Venezuela achieved their goal and, bending to various forces, ended up proposing Panama as the consensus candidate to represent the regional group of Latin American and Caribbean countries (GRULAC). During this process, which became something of a duel between Venezuela and the US, most of the countries in the region were merely passive spectators and did not actively take sides on the conflicting positions –despite the fact that the process affected them directly–.
Almost all predictions turned out to be wrong in the course of the drawn-out voting process, which left the region’s image very tarnished due to its inability to find a consensus candidate. First, despite its emphatic early public statements indicating that it had achieved its goal, Venezuela proved unable to find the 128 votes it needed to be elected (two thirds of the votes in the General Assembly). Secondly, voting went on for a huge number of rounds –over fifty before a consensus candidate could be found– leading to fatigue and bewilderment on the part of the international community. And, thirdly, most of the votes given to one candidate or another before any given round of voting were based on prior commitments, and there were few changes of vote to facilitate a favourable result for either of the two parties. This occurred despite certain analysts who said at the time that after the fifth or sixth round, support would possibly shift against Venezuela.
Analysis: As was unfortunately predictable, when voting began on 16 October for the non-permanent seats on the Security Council, the Latin American group arrived without a consensus candidate. As a result, the responsibility for electing one fell to the General Assembly and not the regional group, as UN norms generally dictate. Venezuela wanted, at all costs, to takes its place in the club of the Fifteen. The US was equally opposed to this and used all available resources to prevent it, instead supporting Guatemala’s candidacy. This was a candidacy that had been presented a considerable time before and the US took full advantage of recycling it to support its stance. As a result, GRULAC arrived at the General Assembly with two irreconcilable candidacies and no one was willing to give way to reach a necessary consensus; nor did any country in the region decide to assume the risk of taking the lead to solve the problem. And as had occurred months before with the election of the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), the lack of agreement among Latin American countries favoured US actions and also led to the process going on longer than was reasonably acceptable. It must be borne in mind that, from the perspective of the US State Department, Venezuela’s presence on the Security Council in 2007 and 2008, combined with the fact that it would preside the Council during two one-month periods, would have been a destabilising factor in the Council’s operations that would have impeded the work of US diplomacy on a number of very sensitive issues, notwithstanding the US’s right to a veto.
The Various Latin American Positions
Chile was one of the few Latin American countries that indicated from the start –discreetly but firmly– that the situation was doomed to lead to a dead end and that something had to be done to prevent this. For this reason, it urged both the US and other friendly countries, including Spain, to find a compromise solution that would prevent giving the impression that the regional block was fractured. But Chile plays a secondary role in continental geopolitics.
A compromise such as the one suggested by Chilean diplomacy would have meant Guatemala giving up its candidacy to force Venezuela to do the same –as was finally the case– and searching for a third option. The Chilean government was far from thrilled by the prospect that the two initial candidates would continue until the very end, since this would significantly reduce Chile’s scope for manoeuvre to finally vote for the Venezuelan candidacy –something seen as a costly and difficult decision–. However, it seemed that the Bachelet Administration was tied hand and foot from the start by the great debt it owed to Hugo Chávez, whose support for José Miguel Inzulza as candidate for Secretary General of the OAS had been a determining factor in winning (with Cuba’s help) the vote of most Caribbean countries and ensuring the victory of the Chilean candidate in the election.
At the same time, Chile, like many other countries in the region, began to feel pressure from the US. This could be seen last July, when the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took the unusual step of asking the Chilean Defence minister Vivianne Blanlot for her country’s vote to prevent Venezuela from sitting on the Security Council, arguing that this was important for strategic reasons. Undoubtedly, Rumsfeld took the opportunity to remind her that in 2006 the Pentagon had agreed to sell Chile 10 F-16 fighter planes, missiles and replacement parts, as well as setting up a programme to train Chilean pilots, all worth US$547 million, while at the same time banning the sale of replacement parts for planes of the same kind owned by Venezuela.
Finally, the Bachelet government decided to abstain, a position that in the end was made easier by various circumstances, some of which would have been unthinkable when the process began. First, there was the great reluctance of the Chilean Christian Democrats (Democracia Cristiana, DC) and other sectors of the governing coalition to vote for Venezuela; then there was the inexplicable gaffe by the Venezuelan ambassador in Santiago, Victor Delgado who, in a clear attempt at political interference, criticised the DC’s position on the issue. Delgado said that by not supporting Venezuela’s possible entry into the Security Council, the Chilean DC party was displaying the same attitude it had with Salvador Allende shortly before the coup d’état of 11 September 1973. These statements not only forced the recall and later replacement of Ambassador Delgado by former Health Minister María Lourdes Urbaneja, but also gave the Chilean government more than enough reason to decide to abstain, thereby breaking its prior commitment to Caracas. The list could end with the harsh speech that Hugo Chávez gave to the UN General Assembly, which ended up costing him the Chilean vote as well as many others. The great mistake of Venezuelan diplomacy was to not properly recognise that the DC’s leading role in the political coalition governing Chile.
However, the lack of flexibility shown by Venezuela and by the US (especially Ambassador John Bolton, who has since resigned), along with the passivity of a good number of the governments in the region, who for various reasons did not want conflict with either Hugo Chávez or George W. Bush, made it impossible to find a consensus candidate, something that would have been possible if the various Latin American governments had taken a more coherent and ambitious approach. Venezuela did not want to give up its candidacy for anything and the US believed Guatemala was an excellent candidate and a good ally, and did not want to risk an alternative solution either. In fact, Guatemala had too many handicaps. First, the long-standing dispute with Belize made it difficult for Caribbean countries (which also receive highly-subsidised Venezuelan oil) to support its candidacy, despite certain recent moves to normalise the situation. Furthermore, because of Guatemala’s diplomatic and economic relations with Taiwan, China would never have accepted its candidacy, which gave Venezuela an excellent way to lever the vote of the Asian superpower.
There were also many factors limiting Venezuela’s chances of taking the seat, starting with its noisy clashes with the US. In fact, this was also a point in its favour, since many countries were not averse to making the Bush Administration pay some of the many bills it had accumulated for various reasons since the start of the Iraq War, while also taking advantage of the anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment now prevalent in many countries, as the Latinobarometer 2006 report confirms. But there were other issues to consider, beginning with Venezuela’s total lack of contribution to the UN peace missions, despite its oil wealth. This was seen very unfavourably by some of Venezuela’s possible backers, especially those who most support multilateralism and UN involvement in the resolution of international disputes.
There was a very wide range of Latin American positions on the Security Council vote, ranging from the Mercosur countries’ commitment to Venezuela and the absolute support of Cuba and Bolivia (Evo Morales said he was ready to ‘die by Chávez’s side’), to Central America’s alignment with Guatemala. In between, others including Mexico and Peru refused to back Chávez, although Peru finally abstained. Most Caribbean countries sided with Venezuela, due to the oil provided by Chávez. The territorial dispute between Guatemala and Belize also came into play here, as did the active work of Cuban diplomacy to encourage Caribbean countries to finally support Caracas.
From the start, the Mercosur countries declared their support for Venezuela and promised their votes. Argentina may have offered the most obvious support to Chávez, given its strong financial ties with Venezuela. In this regard, the Chávez government has bought several million dollars in Argentine public debt and has also committed itself to a programme under which the two countries would issue common financial instruments. However, especially in Argentina, there has been recent talk that the Kirchner government has begun to warm to the US, particularly to certain powers within the Democratic Party, beginning with the highly publicised contacts between Hillary Clinton and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This means a certain cooling-off of relations with Venezuela, at the political level, if not in the economic or commercial realms. This was highlighted by the replacement of the Venezuelan ambassador to Argentina, Roger Capella (by Roy Chaderton) after he was accused by the Argentine press of financing certain social movements critical of the government –including certain groups of piqueteros– and for criticising the Argentine justice system –as did piquetero leader and former Undersecretary of State for Land and Habitat, Luis D’Elía– when it requested the capture of certain Iranians after the AMIA bombing. Journalistic sources say that Capella’s position was profoundly irritating to the Argentine government, which had to demand his recall and replacement, in what is now a common occurrence in Venezuelan diplomacy in Latin America.
Brazil is also an interesting case, given President Lula’s position of not being too critical of President Chávez, but of not wanting to go too far with him either. To some extent, this is an ‘appeasement’ policy aimed at convincing Chávez of keeping away from excesses that would benefit neither their own two countries nor Latin America. As positive examples of this line of action, the Brazilian authorities often point to Lula’s mediation with Chávez at the request of Alvaro Uribe and Ricardo Lagos, to deal with situations of increasing conflict. Based on these examples, Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur was given new impetus and there was increased support for its candidacy for the Security Council seat. Other factors to consider are the returns Lula could obtain from certain segments of public opinion for his support for Chávez, as well as the scant interest in foreign policy in Brazil and in other countries in the region.
The Limitations of Oil Diplomacy
President Chávez made the UN election a crucial issue on which he staked a good part of the leadership credentials he had garnered in the Third World. Apart from Venezuela’s huge and very costly diplomatic effort (presidential tours around the world, promises of multi-million-dollar investments here and there in various energy projects, and of arms purchases, oil sales at subsidised prices and long-term loans at very low interest rates) there were two things that ended up pulling the rug out from under the venture. First, the speech at the United Nations, mentioned above, highlighted the worst aspect of Commander Chávez: a brutal, grotesque and quarrelsome leader incapable of abiding by the norms of multilateral diplomacy. And there was also the nuclear explosion detonated by North Korea one week before voting started in the General Assembly. It must be kept in mind that Chávez once supported Kim Jong Il, justifying his right to develop long-range missiles and to possess nuclear weapons.
All this was going on at the same time that Iran was redoubling its defiance of the international community. The prospect that the theocratic regime in Teheran would have an ally like Venezuela on the Security Council finally cooled some of the support that the Bolivarian government had initially enjoyed. Significant points in this regard were the convergent positions of Iran and Venezuela, the exchange of visits by their leaders, Chávez and Ahmadineyad, President Chávez’s statement that he was in favour of his country developing nuclear energy, and his condemnation of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, as a result of which he called for diplomatic sanctions and recalled Venezuela’s commercial attaché in Tel Aviv, Hector Quintero, in early August. Added to this was the comment Chávez made in Damascus during a visit to Bashar al-Assad, that ‘Israel, in its current state, brings to mind Nazism’.
For Iran, Venezuela provides important backing in its race toward nuclearisation, while Chávez is hoping for strong support in his campaign for greater international influence. Both leaders agreed to push for the ‘democratisation’ of the UN and defended Iran’s right to maintain its nuclear development programme. ‘Iran is not making an atomic bomb. Those who have plenty of atomic bombs are the US imperialists and their allies around the world’, Chávez asserted at a ceremony in which Ahmadinejad was made a member of the Order of Simón Bolívar the Liberator. While in Venezuela, Ahmadinejad said that both countries have common interests in their fight ‘against global hegemony’, meaning against the US. ‘Venezuela and Iran have shown that together, beyond the reach of hegemony and beyond the reach of US imperialism, we can work and make progress’, said Ahmadinejad in a speech to oil engineers from the two countries. Iran and Venezuela have not yet defined any joint nuclear plans, but Chávez does not rule out that ‘there could be’ cooperation and transfers of Iranian nuclear technology, although he denied the possibility of supplying Venezuelan with uranium ‘for now’.
President Chávez said that Iran will be helping Venezuela ‘to emerge from its backwardness, despite being threatened by the empire’. He reiterated that the Islamic Republic has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses and that no one can prohibit it, including Venezuela. He urged world powers, including the US, to destroy the atomic bombs they have in their power. ‘They go around saying we have a mine in Guyana to make an atomic bomb’, said Chávez, denying stories that the agreements with Iran include uranium processing. In the south of the country, in the state of Bolivar, where Iranian companies have set up operations, there are large uranium deposits that have not been exploited even for industry. Chávez has always wanted to build a nuclear power plant to produce electricity. Before the visit, when the CNN television network asked Chávez to what point he would support Iran if that country were sanctioned for its uranium enrichment programme, he responded that this was a strategic geopolitical secret that he could not reveal. The two leaders signed 29 cooperation agreements on mining, agriculture, oil and technology, five memoranda of understanding and a joint statement. Among the most important of these was the creation of the ‘Venezuela-Iran Heavy Fund’, to which each government will contribute US$1 million to finance works and trade. They also agreed to establish four companies, including one to manufacture aeroplanes, one for vehicles and one for ships. The fourth joint company is petrochemical, at a cost of US$1.5 billion. It will produce 1.6 million tons of petrochemical products and will be located in Güiria, in Sucre state, in the north-west of the country.
Thanks to huge and unconditional US backing in one case, and to the high available cash flow from oil revenue on the other, both candidates went to the October election with very strong support and also major detractors. Guatemala, backed firmly by the Bush Administration, with Ambassador John Bolton at the forefront, went to the General Assembly with more than 100 votes, but at no point was able to reach the necessary two thirds it needed to be elected (in principle, 128 votes, though fewer than that number could have been enough, depending on the number of abstentions). Its major backers included European Union countries, Israel, Taiwan and some Latin American countries, including Mexico and Colombia.
As for Venezuela, on his many trips to the far corners of the world, Chávez was able to win the backing of China, Russia, Belarus, Iran, the Arab League and some African countries, including Zimbabwe. The support of Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) was also important. Venezuela had joined this block only months before, in a process that skipped all established time frames and ignored the harmonisation of laws and regulations in all areas necessary for the integration project to work correctly.
Conclusions: The Venezuelan candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council has once again divided Latin America, instead of uniting it. President Chávez’s international political ambitions are so high that he ends up not achieving them. Something similar may be happening with his regional integration project, since after giving up on the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), he has taken a similar approach to Mercosur. Regardless of whether or not his opinion is reasonable, wisecracks such as ‘Latin American integration needs a political Viagra’ will not move his project forward, given the great difficulties involved in the integration process.
At the same time, the struggle between Venezuela and Guatemala highlighted the great weaknesses of Latin American diplomacy: the difficulties it has with establishing positions of principle, its subordination to rhetoric, the belief that it is better not t face up to problems and, clearly, not knowing when to say ‘no’ to anyone. In this regard, it remains to be seen if the well-meaning words spoken at the South American summit in Cochabamba –aimed at creating a sense that bilateral tensions are easing after the electoral period– are only words or if they might indicate something of a new turn in the direction of events, away from the divisions seen during the Security Council process.
Senior Analyst, Latin America, Elcano Royal Institute