Chávez's U.N. Moment
Why Do Latin Democrats Support Him?

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, October 16, 2006

It's election day for Hugo Chávez -- not in Venezuela but at the United Nations General Assembly. Today a vote is due on his government's bid for a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council. Chávez has spent most of this year campaigning for the job, traveling the world and promising tens of millions of dollars in aid to poor countries in Asia and Africa whose votes he's counting on. His ambition is a big one: to become the leader of global opposition to the United States, or, as he puts it, to "radically oppose the violent pressure that the empire exercises."

There's a fair chance he'll lose. Most vote counters at the United Nations think Venezuela will fall short of the 122 General Assembly votes it needs on the first ballot, as will its opponent for the seat, Guatemala. One of the two might win on subsequent ballots, but Latin American governments are already anticipating that a third candidate from the region -- such as Uruguay or the Dominican Republic -- will end up getting the job. If so it will be a wounding rebuff for Chávez following his Bush-as-devil tirade before the assembly last month, and one that could hurt him in another vote, if it is free and fair: his bid for reelection as president in December. His opponent in that race has been hammering home the point that Chávez is squandering the country's oil revenue on foolish foreign adventures.

A Chávez defeat would save the Bush administration from embarrassment and spare the Security Council a nuisance factor. Still, there won't be much to celebrate. The fact that a clownish populist who has eagerly embraced the presidents of Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Libya could even come close to getting two-thirds of the votes of the 192 U.N. members is testimony to how low U.S. prestige has sunk around the world. More specifically, it's a measure of how twisted U.S. relations with Latin America have become -- and also, how fragile the appeal of democratic values is in that region.

How twisted? Let's look at Chile, a country that has been convulsed by debate the past two months over whether to vote for or against Chávez. Chile's democratic president, Michelle Bachelet, is a moderate leftist; her government has a free-trade agreement with the United States and just took delivery of new F-16s for its air force. Some in her party were sheltered during the Pinochet dictatorship by Venezuela's then-liberal democratic government. Chávez has not only dismantled that democracy but has vociferously supported Bolivia's claim to a piece of Chile's coastline. Under a military pact he signed with Bolivia's leftist government, Venezuela is committed to building new military bases on Bolivia's border with Chile.

All this, and yet Bachelet was unable to decide on her government's vote by yesterday. Only strong opposition from the centrist Christian Democratic Party, a member of her coalition, prevented her from backing Chávez. Why? A vote for Guatemala, she told Christian Democratic congressmen earlier this month, "would be a signal of little independence from the United States," which has been pressing hard for Guatemala's candidacy, according to an account of the meeting by the newspaper El Mercurio.

In other words, as Chile's president sees it, it's better to support a budding autocrat who promises to defend Iran's nuclear program on the Security Council, and may threaten her own country's security, than to be seen as close to Chile's largest trading partner and strategic arms supplier at a time when it is trying to use the Security Council to stop Iran (and North Korea) from acquiring nuclear weapons.

This certainly says something about Chile, and neighbors Brazil and Argentina, which are also supporting Chávez: that they value Venezuela's investment in their economies more than preventing nuclear proliferation (Chávez is buying debt from Argentina and aircraft from Brazil); that solidarity with a neighbor matters more than solidarity with other democracies (probably the only votes for Venezuela in the free world will come from Latin America and the Caribbean); that their governments prefer a weaker United States to a chastened Hugo Chávez.

But this affair also underlines the continuing fecklessness of the Bush administration's approach to Latin America. There is its overreliance on faithful but small allies in Central America and its inability to come to terms with the region's giant, Brazil. There is its heavy-handed lobbying, which prompted Guatemala's foreign minister to say that he wished Washington "would not promote our cause so much." Most disturbing, there is the inability to win support from a nominally close ally such as Chile, even against an autocratic demagogue. Chávez may lose the U.N. vote, but in the contest for Latin America, the United States isn't winning.

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