Victory in failure

Print edition : November 17, 2006

JORGE VALERO, DEPUTY Foreign Minister of Venezuela, and John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., during the October 19 General Assembly vote. - STAN HONDA/AFP

By blocking Venezuela's entry into the U.N. Security Council, the Bush administration shows that it cannot tolerate an unfriendly regime.

IT took the personal intervention of United States President George W. Bush to deny Venezuela one of Latin America's two rotating United Nations Security Council seats. The other country competing for the lone seat that is to be filled in the 15-member body is Guatemala, which has come to be widely perceived as the proxy candidate for the U.S. With the Arab League, the African Union and the Caribbean Community voicing their support for Venezuela, it was virtually taken for granted that the seat would go to Caracas. At the recent Non-aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Havana, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had campaigned vigorously for the Security Council seat. In the past six months he travelled across the world almost non-stop to garner support.

Apparently, Bush was equally determined to see that Venezuela was thwarted in its attempts. The Bush administration's efforts seem to have redoubled after Chavez delivered his "the devil was here yesterday - and it still smells of sulphur" speech to the General Assembly in the last week of September. Chavez received an unprecedented 10-minute standing ovation from the representatives of developing countries and opprobrium from the Western media for the speech.

Before the first round of voting in the third week of October, Bush made personal calls to many heads of state requesting them to vote on behalf of Guatemala. There was a call to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too. Indian officials, however, insist that the conversation related mainly to terrorism and the India-U.S. nuclear deal. India had committed itself to supporting Venezuela's candidacy only at the 11th hour. To New Delhi's credit, despite the immense pressure from Washington, it supported Venezuela in the several rounds of polling that have taken place so far.

In the run-up to the vote, the Bush administration virtually threatened small states, especially those in the Caribbean region, with punitive economic measures if they did not switch their support to Guatemala. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Latin American and Caribbean countries not to be "losers" by voting for Venezuela. According to Cable News Network (CNN), 15 diplomats at the U.N. expressed concern at the U.S.' "aggressive" diplomatic intervention on behalf of Guatemala.

Prime Minister of the Dominican Republic Roosevelt Skerrit said before the vote that it would have been better if Guatemala had done its own lobbying and not depended on the U.S. "It is not the U.S. that is seeking a seat on the United Nations Security Council; none of us has seen a representative from Guatemala," he said. According to the Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.N., it was pressure and "bribes" from Washington that made many countries go back on their commitment.

Chile, for instance, decided to abstain from voting, with the ruling coalition split on the issue. The Los Angeles Times reported that Washington had threatened Santiago that it would withhold training to Chilean pilots in F-16 planes, which it had agreed to sell. Outgoing U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick also said that Washington would not be as forgiving with Chile as it was in 2003, when the country voted in the U.N. against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The vote to elect a non-permanent Security Council member is done through secret ballot, making it easy for some countries to go back on their commitments.

Chavez, who is something of a cult figure on the Arab street, is viewed with suspicion by the conservative regimes in West Asia. All South Asian countries and most countries following independent foreign policies opted for Venezuela. Venezuela's election to the Security Council would have meant the presence of a strong and principled defender of the interests of developing countries. In the words of Venezuela's Ambassador to the U.N., his country's candidature was motivated by the desire to bring about "an element of balance against hegemonic trends, in favour of the interests of countries from the South with an independent position". Chavez has stated repeatedly that his fight is on behalf of the majority of U.N. members, who are against the "Empire".

That more than 80 members remain steadfast in their support for Venezuela in the face of fierce lobbying by the U.S. shows that a large section in the world body is keen to end the U.S. dominance of the U.N. At a time when the U.S. is contemplating military action against countries like Iran and North Korea, many people thought that there was an urgent need for a voice in the Security Council to articulate the fears and opinions of the majority in the U.N. Venezuelan officials have said that their current battle in the General Assembly is to focus attention on the inhuman sanctions being implemented by Washington on countries opposed to it.

John Bolton, the U.S Ambassador to the U.N., reiterated in the last week of October that sanctions were a good way to effect "regime change". Bolton was campaigning for Guatemala among the Ambassadors when voting was going on.

Guatemala, however, is far from being the ideal candidate to sit in the Security Council. The country has a poor human rights record. In the civil war from 1962 to 1996, around 200,000 Guatemalans were killed with state sanction. The present government has failed to bring the murderers to justice. The U.S. case against Caracas was that its presence in the Security Council would be a disruptive influence and that it would be a "non-consensus" force.

All the same, the best efforts of Washington have not ensured the victory of Guatemala. Chavez said that this fact by itself constituted a victory for Venezuela. For a country to be elected to the Security Council, it needs to win two-thirds of the votes polled. Until the end of October, both Venezuela and Guatemala failed to get anywhere near that figure. Chavez offered in late October to withdraw his country's candidacy if Guatemala did likewise. At the same time, he floated a proposal to get Bolivia adopted as the consensus candidate. Bolivia is willing to be the consensus candidate but Washington has indicated that it will not like an ally of Venezuela to enter the Security Council. As if on cue, Costa Rica, one of the few close allies of Washington in the region, has said that it is not be averse to a two-year stint in the Security Council.

This is not the first time that there has been a stalemate. In 1979-80, the contest between Cuba and Colombia went through 155 rounds and lasted three months. Eventually both countries bowed out of the race. Cuba could make it to the Council only a decade later. It was the only country in the Security Council that opposed the first Gulf War.

The current logjam is a reflection of the polarisation that has once again affected Latin America. As more and more countries in the region are lurching towards the Left, Washington and its remaining allies such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are playing a divisive role. The contest for the Security Council seat shows that Venezuela, far from being beaten, has sizable support in Latin America and in the world community. But for the Bush administration's ability to pressure small countries economically, Venezuela would have come out on top. Anyway, as things stand, Venezuela has scored a moral and political victory over the only remaining superpower by preventing it from having its way.

It may be months before Latin America is able to decide on a consensus candidate. Finally, it could be a country like Brazil, because of its independent foreign policy, that emerges as the most acceptable candidate. It would also be difficult for the U.S. to oppose Brazil openly as it did in the case of Venezuela.

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