Chavez: Undiplomatic Polarizer or Champion of Anti-Imperialism?

The battle for the UN Security Council seat between Guatemala/the U.S. and Venezuela highlights that the political divide between North and South is growing again. The coalition against US dominance, though, has problems of its own.

Caracas—By now it looks like Venezuela and Guatemala will want to cut their losses and agree on a compromise candidate for the UN Security Council. How did it get this far, though? Why are both Venezuela and Guatemala pursuing this unusual battle for the UN Security Council? What is at stake? The last time such a battle took place was 25 years ago, in 1979, when Cuba and Colombia battled for the UN Security Council, dragging exhausted UN delegates into marathon voting sessions that went through 155 rounds.

North vs. South

The ambassadors of the U.S., Guatemala, and Mexico are arguing that Venezuela should throw in the towel, since it did not attain the necessary two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly. Such self-serving arguments, though, seek to distract from what is actually happening, which is that a tremendous gap has opened up between North and South. That is, despite Venezuela not achieving a majority of votes in the UN, the 77 to 82 countries that support Venezuela are holding very steady in the face of massive U.S. pressure (and probably peer pressure) to give the seat to front-runner Guatemala. This firmness of support for Venezuela is a clear sign of the determination with which a significant section of the world’s governments and the world’s population wants to put brakes on U.S. dominance in the world and in the UN.

The UN Security Council seat vote is thus quite similar to the way in which Chavez’s speech to the opening of the 61st UN General Assembly was greeted. That Chavez called George Bush “the Devil” was greeted with shock and disgust by most people in the First World and with applause by people in the Third World. That U.S. liberals, such as Charles Rangel[1] or Nancy Pelosi,[2] didn’t seem to be aware of or care about this completely dichotomized reception of Chavez’s UN speech shows just how little they seem to care about the gap between the two worlds, between North and South. To First World conservatives and liberals alike, what counts is being diplomatic (and they have perfected the art of invading countries diplomatically). No doubt, diplomacy is important, but if it merely serves to gloss over the North-South gap, then perhaps an anti-diplomat such as Chavez is necessary, to shine a spotlight on a serious problem as sometimes only harsh words can do.

Chavez’s UN speech and the rock-solid support he is receiving in the UN Security Council vote show just how much his brand of toughness with the U.S. Empire is being appreciated around the world. A friend of mine in Algiers reported that immediately following Chavez’s UN speech countless new-born babies were being named “Chavez” that week in Algeria. Already earlier, Chavez’s uncompromising support for Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s relentless attack significantly boosted his popularity in that region of the world. However, Chavez has become popular not just in the Middle East, but throughout the Third World, where people are aware of Chavez’s anti-Bush positions. It is thus no surprise that even a conservative and otherwise pro-Bush government such as India’s is supporting Venezuela for the UN Security Council. If one were to add up the populations of the countries supporting Venezuela, such as Russia, China, and India, and most of the larger countries of Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador), then it is quite safe to say that Venezuela is probably enjoying the support of the representatives of well over two-thirds of the world’s population. The fact that neither U.S. liberals nor even a nominally socialist government of the North, such as Spain’s, have declared their support for Venezuela in the UN, shows that adherence to the club of the privileged trumps an ideology dedicated to fighting for the underdog.

Of course, some question whether Venezuela is actually fighting for the world’s underdogs or whether Chavez is merely seeking self-aggrandizement. No doubt, his unequivocal support for a women-bashing government such as Iran’s or the rather shady authoritarian governments of Zimbabwe and Belarus indicates that Chavez places a far higher premium on these countries’ anti-U.S. imperialism credentials than on their domestic human rights record.

Anti-Imperialism vs. Human Rights?

The dilemma is quite real. What is more important: fighting against U.S. imperialism or fighting for human rights? Given that the human rights issue has been abused by the U.S. and by international NGOs so often, to only condemn countries they don’t like and to ignore the record of those they like, it is difficult to blame Chavez for prioritizing anti-imperialism over human rights. After all, in the international arena Venezuela has received much criticism on human rights, even though Venezuela’s human rights record is better than most other countries in the region or than previous Venezuelan governments. This doesn’t mean that one should ignore Venezuelan human rights abuses (particularly such as the still enormous number of extra-judicial police killings of presumed criminals). However, the inability of international observers to put Venezuela’s human rights record in its historical and regional context and their frequent singling out of Venezuela makes the government far less sensitive to criticisms than it otherwise might be. It thus also contributes to Chavez’s willingness to overlook the human rights record of his allies in the fight against imperialism, believing that their record is being distorted just as much as his has been.

Unfortunately, in the imperfect world that we live in, the number of anti-imperialist human rights respecting countries can be counted on one hand. Certainly, their numbers will never be sufficient to oppose US imperialism on their own. It is thus not too far-fetched to argue that first one should oppose the uni-polar world in which the U.S. dominates and only then can we focus on the global struggle for both social and political human rights. As long as the dominant powers can abuse the human rights issue for their own purposes, it merely ends up supporting their dominance, while also failing to truly promote social and political human rights.

Compromise Candidates

What country, then, should an anti-imperialist human rights defender support for the UN Security Council? Venezuela, it would appear, has lost and thus is no longer an option. Guatemala, as both a U.S. flunky and with a far worse human rights record than Venezuela’s is certainly out of the question. Also, it seems that small countries that the U.S. could easily pressure with economic threats, such as practically all Caribbean countries, are not good candidates either, no matter how principled or strong their opposition to U.S. foreign policy. That leaves the larger Latin American countries. However, with the election of numerous leftist governments in the region, the ideological divisions between these countries has become quite strong in the past few years, which means that it is going to be nearly impossible to find a consensus candidate. Uruguay has been named as the most likely consensus candidate, but it seems that Argentina doesn’t like that suggestion because of its conflict with Uruguay over paper mills it built near the Argentinean border. Brazil seems to be the best choice because of its more independent-minded foreign policy, its ability to resist U.S. pressure, and because it has practically no opponents within the continent.

[1] Charles Rangel (D-NY) said, “You don’t come to my country, you don’t come into my congressional district, and you don’t condemn my president.”

[2] Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called the Chavez, “an everyday thug.”