Venezuela: a seat at the top table

About the author
Phil Gunson is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela.

On 16 October 2006, the United Nations general assembly votes to fill one of the two rotating Security Council seats allocated to Latin America. The contenders for the two-year posts (whose mandate begins on 1 January 2007) are Venezuela, a fierce adversary of Washington, and Guatemala, which has received the backing of the Bush administration.

The run-up to the election has been dominated - in public at least - by controversy over Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the already-infamous speech, in that same forum on 20 September, in which he described George W Bush as "the devil".

That is the ground on which Chávez himself wants the debate to take place: the choice between Venezuela and Guatemala, he implies, is really a choice between Chávez and Bush.

Analysed in these terms, there is every reason to see Venezuela as representing a wide swathe of public opinion around the world, much of which - while not necessarily sharing the language - broadly agrees with the sentiment.

Phil Gunson is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela

Also by Phil Gunson on openDemocracy:

"Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity"
(14 June 2006)

"Venezuela's media in a Bolivarian storm"
(7 August 2006)

Phil Gunson chooses his favourite Venezuela-related blog in oD Today's "blog of the week" feature – and provokes immediate flak; to read and respond, click here

Moreover, as a major oil producer, not dependent on Washington's goodwill for aid or military protection (and unlikely to suffer trade sanctions), Venezuela is in a privileged position to take an independent stance on issues of global importance.

By calling Bush "the devil" (not to mention insulting him at a public meeting in New York), Chávez lost a good many of the liberal fellow-travellers - notably among US Democrats - who had hitherto chosen to overlook his authoritarian behaviour and concentrate on his supposed virtues as a champion of the poor.

Nonetheless, he consolidated his role as leader of a loose coalition of states, and non-state actors, radically opposed to current US policies. It is in this capacity, and not as a representative of Latin America (which is deeply divided over his candidacy), or a responsible citizen of the global village, that Chávez wishes to be judged.

The issue, however, is not that simple.

First principles

For one thing, Chávez and Bush have a great deal in common, not least the fact that they both abhor multilateral bodies that won't do their bidding, or that impinge on their sovereignty.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), for instance, has been trying fruitlessly since 2002 to persuade Venezuela to accept a visit from an IAHRC delegation.

The Venezuelan government has failed to implement many of the Commission's rulings, arguing that they are not binding on member states.

Several of its spokesmen have argued that the commission is guilty of unwarranted "interference" in Venezuela's internal affairs, suggesting that this forms part of a campaign by the United States to undermine the Chávez government.

This is despite the fact that Chávez has frequently intervened in his neighbours' internal affairs, even going so far as to give explicit support to like-minded presidential candidates and to refuse recognition (in the case of Mexico's Felipe Calderón) to a president-elect on grounds of alleged fraud.

In keeping with its views on foreign "interference", Venezuela consistently rates human-rights issues as far less important than national sovereignty when debating such matters in international forums.

Research by the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch, for instance, found that Venezuela's UN voting record was considerably worse than that of any other Latin American nation except Cuba when it came to resolutions involving human rights.

This notion that the outside world has no role to play in monitoring human-rights abuses, or threats to democracy, is reflected in pending legislation that threatens to restrict the activities of NGO's receiving funding from abroad.

It also found expression in Venezuela's hostility to the adoption by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 2001 of a "democratic charter" which seeks to limit membership of the organisation to countries that conform to a set of democratic rules.

Chávez rejects these rules, because he believes that representative democracy is a sham and should be replaced with what he calls "participatory" democracy. This plays down the role of institutions and stresses identity between "the people" and a charismatic strongman.

Second thoughts

In this context it is easy to see why Venezuela has given unstinting support to Iran in its refusal to abandon the enrichment of uranium. If elected to the Security Council, it is likely to remain as inflexible on the issue as the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government itself.

And although foreign minister Nicolás Maduro condemned the claim by North Korea on 9 October 2006 to have tested a nuclear device, this was at odds with the government's previous stance, as expressed by vice-president José Vicente Rangel.

After the Kim Jong-Il regime performed seven missile tests on 5 July, Rangel said any country, including North Korea, had "the right to carry out its tests and develop its weaponry to suit itself and in line with its technology."

This made nonsense of the country's policy on the Iran crisis, which stressed the right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

There is good reason to think that Maduro's more recent statement - even though it appeared to correct this inconsistency - was merely a pragmatic reaction to the worldwide condemnation of Pyongyang, and to the likelihood that any other stance would have cost Venezuela votes at the UN.

Even those countries that have pledged their vote to Venezuela on 16 October
- which include Russia and China - might want to reflect on this. Does a country whose president believes the UN is "useless" as presently constituted, and that governments should be free to do as they wish within their own borders, really belong on the Security Council?

If the vote is approached merely as a vote of no-confidence in United States foreign policy, the interests of international peace and security are likely to be poorly served.