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Friday, November 03, 2006

Venezuela politics: Final blow at the UN


Venezuela and Guatemala have both yielded to the inevitable, ending their efforts to secure the next available Latin America seat on the UN Security Council in favour of a compromise candidate, Panama. It took 47 rounds of voting over two weeks, in which neither got the required two-thirds, to get to this point. While agreement on Panama offers a safe route out for the two rivals, Venezuela is the clear loser in the competition.

The contest pitted Venezuela against Guatemala for the non-permanent seat to be vacated by Argentina in January (Peru holds the other Latin America post). Venezuelan diplomats, and the country’s president, Hugo Chávez, had invested great effort to attract support, portraying the battle for the two-year spot as a fight between the interests of developing countries and the hegemony of the US. This reflects the ongoing tensions in US-Venezuelan relations, as well as Mr Chávez’s use of anti-US rhetoric in recent years to boost domestic nationalist sentiment and hence support for his administration.

While this has played well with Mr Chávez’s Venezuelan base, the strategy backfired at the UN. It raised concerns that Venezuela would be a disruptive force on the Security Council. In particular, Mr Chávez’s sharp personal criticism of US President George Bush during his September speech at the annual General Assembly meeting seems to have lost him votes.

Mr Chávez will attempt to portray the battle as a victory nonetheless, despite his inability to secure the seat for his country, since he held out and thereby blocked Washington’s choice, Guatemala. But it will be difficult to spin events so positively outside of Venezuela. Instead, his unfruitful effort to gain a new and high-profile international platform is a defeat for Mr Chávez’s regional and global ambitions.

Star is falling

Within Latin America, Venezuela certainly has its allies. In the UN voting it garnered the support of the other Mercado Común del Sur (Mercosur) members, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay (Venezuela gained full membership in that trade grouping in July). It also had the backing of most of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), whose members have been among the beneficiaries of a series of preferential oil-supply deals. Bolivia, run by a close ally, President Evo Morales, also certainly voted for Venezuela.

Other countries in the region, however, are uncomfortable with Mr Chávez’s increasingly provocative international agenda. This has included tightening relations with some traditional US adversaries, such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran, and taking stands against US allies such as Israel. Given North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s intransigence over its nuclear development programme, courting such friends may not be wise international policy at this time

Moreover, Mr Chávez’s goal to lead a leftist and anti-US bloc in Latin America has been largely thwarted by recent presidential elections. Left-wing or radical candidates favoured by Mr Chávez lost in Mexico and Peru, and one looks headed for defeat in a November 26th runoff in Ecuador. Only in Nicaragua, on November 5th, does a fellow leftist traveller seem to have a chance.

Washington, too, failed to convince enough countries to back its choice, Guatemala, although the latter did lead in all but one round of balloting. This is unlikely to have any major impact on the US, and certainly will not diminish its clout at the UN. Further, Panama is a friend of the US, though it could be expected to take an independent line when voting on the Council, something certainly factored in by Caracas.

For President Martín Torrijos of Panama, the enhanced role at the UN is another piece of good news. It comes after his major political victory of October 22nd, when Panamanians overwhelmingly approved in a referendum a government plan to expand the 92-year-old Panama Canal. That expansion, and now the UN seat, will serve to raise Panama’s profile internationally. The choice of Panama must still be approved by the full Latin America and Caribbean bloc at the UN, and by the General Assembly, but this is considered a formality.

Trouble at home?

Meanwhile, Mr Chávez’s apparent blunder at the UN—when he turned off prospective backers with his attack on Mr Bush—and his loss in the balloting may also cost him domestically. His antics on the global stage are playing into the hands of his challenger ahead of the December 3rd presidential election, Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales. Mr Rosales has gained substantial backing for his harsh criticisms of the president’s international ambitions and in particular his oil-backed fiscal largesse abroad.

Mr Rosales still trails in opinion polls by a substantial margin, however. Based on Mr Chávez’s formidable campaigning skills and the oil windfall he has used to fund popular spending programmes, the Economist Intelligence Unit still expects him to triumph on Election Day. But at least in part because of the UN failure, winning re-election could be a bit more complicated than it appeared just a few weeks ago.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: ViewsWire

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