Jorge G. Castañeda
Latin America's New Proxy War
Sept. 25, 2006 issue - The summit of nonaligned countries held last week in Havana was an occasion for all sorts of things: speculating on Fidel Castro's health, supporting all the "worthwhile" causes in the world—from Iran's nuclear program to Bolivia's stalled natural-gas nationalization—and predictably, bashing George W. Bush. This last contact sport is beginning to give traditional anti-Americanism a bad name; it is vicious, uninterrupted and, unfortunately, not often easy to rebut. But the summit also provided a marvelous opportunity for one of the stars of the show—Venezuela's Hugo Chávez—to lobby strong and hard for his cause of the day, getting his country elected as one of Latin America's two nonpermanent members of the United Nations Security Council for the 2007-08 term.
The Non-Aligned Movement has well over 100 members; all of them vote in the U.N. General Assembly, which, sometime next month, will elect Argentina's replacement as one of Latin America's two representatives on the Council. Chávez wants the seat badly. Next year there is another dramatic battle shaping up: Turkey, Iceland and Austria will compete for two of the three European slots. But the main event this year is the contest between Venezuela and Guatemala for the Latin American post. This is, in fact, a proxy battle between Bush and Chávez. Washington has gone all-out to stop Chávez from winning; the Venezuelan has been personally campaigning for months all over the globe, doling out petrodollars, oil and gas projects, schools and hospitals as he jets from capital to capital in Africa, Asia and his home region.
A two-thirds majority is needed to win; that's 128 votes to triumph, or 64 votes to defeat one's rival. The voting goes on until a candidate reaches the magic number; there is an unwritten rule that after three rounds, previous commitments are withdrawn and everything goes. Actually, everything goes most of the time: promises are broken, votes are bought and sold and betrayal is ever-present. All of this occurs, of course, because the stakes are high, and higher in Latin America than at any time since 1979, when Fidel Castro attempted to win the regional seat, claiming that Cuba, being chairman then—as now—of the Non-Aligned Movement, was entitled to membership. The United States blocked Castro, using Colombia as a stalking horse, and Mexico was elected as a compromise candidate. This time, things might be more complicated.
The risk for the United States is real. Chávez would probably occupy the seat personally for extended periods at a time, in lieu of his permanent representative or his foreign minister. He would use that magnificent pulpit to glorify his Bolivarian Revolution, to help his friends in Latin America and to thwart his enemies—Bush, incoming president Felipe Calderón in Mexico, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Most significant, he would get directly involved in many of the issues the Security Council will have to address in the next two years, including sanctions against Iran. No wonder Washington and other capitals are terrified at the prospect.
But it is not clear that there is much they can do about it. Guatemala claims it has 90 committed votes. Attrition—a euphemism for promises unkept—and Chávez's oil-fueled largesse mean that number is likely to shrink. The only chance to keep Chávez out of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is to lock in a blocking third of the votes indefinitely, and hope that, like 37 years ago, the Latin American group will seek a compromise.
It won't be easy: Cuba, Brazil and Argentina all support Venezuela. Even Chile probably will, and the only major countries behind Guatemala are Mexico and Colombia. Chávez has not helped himself by wondering out loud in Havana whether Mexico's elections were free and fair, and whether he will recognize Calderon's victory. The question is, though, if anyone else in the region wants to face his wrath and meddling by finding a way out of the quagmire. Right now only Uruguay and the Dominican Republic qualify as acceptable alternatives; but the last thing Presidents Leonel Fernández or Tabaré Vázquez probably want is to mess with Hugo.
So the betting right now is on Venezuela, and against Washington. It would be an uphill fight for the United States under any circumstances, but it's almost an impossible one given George Bush's unpopularity in what was once known as the Third World. Most of its members just met in Havana, and they don't like 43; they don't like Israel, they don't like Tony Blair and they certainly don't like U.S. policy in Iraq and Iran. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has his work cut out for him.