Chavez Rhetoric Undermining Bid for Security Council

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

( - Some ambassadors to the United Nations who were previously sympathetic to the idea of elevating Venezuela to a seat on the Security Council took advantage of the secret ballot process this week to vote no, according to policy experts on Latin America.

An incendiary speech on the floor of the General Assembly on Sept. 20 in which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush "the devil" and equated U.S. policy with "imperialism" translated into a loss of support, said Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow of international relations at the Century Foundation (TCF).

"It is striking that Venezuela has been unable to score a lead in a single ballot," Laurenti told Cybercast News Service. Even member states that object to U.S. policy prefer "active engagement" to "endless confrontation" on the Security Council, he said.

For this reason, Laurenti is convinced certain Latin American countries that had made commitments to Chavez ultimately voted against granting Venezuela a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Countries with left-of-center governments like Brazil, Chile and Argentina all believe they have a stake in the continued utility of the Security Council, and they were greatly unsettled by the rhetoric Chavez used in his speech attacking Bush in such stark terms, Laurenti explained.

"The Chilean diplomats, for example, were very shaken up by the speech," Laurenti said.

With the exception of one round of voting that ended in a tie, Guatemala has held a clear lead over Venezuela in the 22 rounds of voting held on Monday and Tuesday. In the latest round, Guatemala had 102 votes and Venezuela had 77. There were 12 abstentions.

But with both countries shy of the two-thirds majority needed, a third-party candidate might emerge, noted Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). He named El Salvador, Uruguay and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago as possibilities.

Voting is scheduled to resume on Thursday.

The applause that erupted on the floor of the U.N. when Chavez harshly criticized the U.S. - and President Bush in particular - is best ascribed to political posturing as opposed to a genuine embrace, said Steve Johnson, a senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.

"Heads of state and political leaders are looking at Chavez and seeing someone who is not stable," Johnson said. "Chavez thought he had the votes, but following his performance at the U.N., he made other countries reconsider whether Venezuela would be a responsible actor."

Johnson also said overt displays of support such as applause are made by some member states to derive favorable economic benefits such as low-cost oil contracts. The applauding members might also be trying to placate Chavez so he does not stir political turmoil in their own countries.

"As long as countries have a secret vote, the outcome is unpredictable," Johnson added. "They [the member states] may say they'll vote for Venezuela, but when it comes to crunch time, they simply won't."

The U.N. General Assembly has already elected Belgium, Indonesia, Italy and South Africa to serve as non-permanent members on the Security Council for the two-year terms that begin on Jan. 1. The fifth seat, still in dispute, will be awarded to either a Latin American or Caribbean nation.

"This particular seat was crowning with unimportance until the U.S. and Venezuela made it important," said Birns. "They made it a test of how large a shadow you cast."

Birns estimated that the Chavez speech deprived Venezuela of about 15 votes it would otherwise have received.

"The occasion here was to project an element of gravitas," Birns said. "Instead, he carried on in a playful manner like this was an 'animal house.' He [Chavez] has no capacity to censor himself."

Although he did not name specific nations that flipped their votes as a result of the Chavez speech, Birns did say Venezuela most likely lost necessary support among the Caribbean nations and a couple of the African countries.

In some instances, the U.S. pressured African countries on the receiving end of financial assistance, Birns told Cybercast News Service.

"The U.S. plays the aid game very aggressively and very successfully," Birns said.

Another factor behind the diminishing support for Venezuela may be rooted in the negative memories some member states have of the Cold War, according to some policy experts. Laurenti offered a historical perspective on that aspect of the situation.

In 1979, the administration of President Jimmy Carter went to great lengths to prevent Cuba from obtaining a seat on the Security Council. U.S. officials instead favored the ascension of Colombia. With the communist block firmly behind Cuba, 154 ballots were cast before Mexico finally emerged as a compromise candidate, Laurenti recalled.

The so-called non-aligned nations do not have the same clout as America's communist agitators in the late 1970s, Laurenti indicated. Moreover, he said that member states have little appetite for a return to Cold War-type conditions that could lead to paralysis on the Security Council.

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