COHA Open Letter to the Financial Times

Dear Financial Times Editor:

In his September 14 Financial Times article, “Treating Chávez as a Harmless Idealist is Dangerous,” your lead Latin Americanist, Richard Lapper, makes an important if wrongful decision to deprecate Venezuela’s bid for the two-year non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). He laments the fact that a number of countries will allow their antipathy toward Bush’s foreign policy sway them to back Caracas. Lapper would probably say that Chávez’s recent shrill speech at the UN proves his point.

First of all, regarding Chávez’s human failings, Lapper would have to admit that Venezuela is anything but a dictatorship and that it is far more qualified to hold the UN seat than rival candidate Guatemala. Under Chávez, we may have seen the triumph of the loud mouth, but there have been no massacres, jailings, torture, or forced banishments, all of which characterized Guatemala’s endless military regimes. In other words, with Chávez, we have witnessed a lot of bark but no bite. If Venezuela is a dictatorship, then it is the only one in the world that permits its rabid opposition to control most of the nation’s media.

A veteran specialist like Lapper should be an easy convert to the belief that Guatemala – Washington’s choice for the UN seat – is the antithesis of what a UN member should embody, while Venezuela boasts a thriving democracy featuring a decent, honest, open-hearted, if often imprudent president. But what would Lapper have? Does he really want a country like Guatemala representing the region, whose brutal modern history accounted for the murder of some 200,000 civilians? This includes an entire generation of democratic leadership, including Foreign Minister Alberto Fuentes Mohr and Guatemala City’s mayor Manuel Colom Argueta.

Underneath Chávez’s unfortunate, unchecked instinct for confrontation is someone who dares to think beyond the box. He frames arguments and proposals that are often new, vital and worthy of deliberation. Even if he at times dispenses snake oil, he is also responsible for some of the most inventive political and economic thinking now circulating the hemisphere. In terms of his commitment to sharing his country’s wealth with less fortunate neighborhoods and nations, he has introduced into the Bretton Woods’ international financial formula the concept of social justice. This is meant to advance his dream of fusing economic socialism with a political system featuring democratic constitutionalism. Where else is this kind of thinking taking place? When did Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last come out with a transformative idea comparable to Chávez’s daily output? In contrast to Whitehall and Foggy Bottom’s humbug, Chávez is raising questions that can change peoples’ lives for the better.

An administration’s ability to have a constructive dialogue with other governments should be one of the primary qualifications for membership on the UNSC. By his many trips abroad, President Chávez has proven this ability, even though the effect is often undone by the lure of drifting into excessive rhetoric. Venezuela has also demonstrated its hemispheric leadership by helping to frame the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) initiative. This may be rubbish to some, but it might just serve as the primary coat in gussying up Washington’s proposed self-serving Free Trade Area of the Americas, which serves the interest of U.S. and foreign multinationals, but not the average citizen. Likewise, Chávez has championed Petrocaribe, a thoughtful subsidized oil export program to help ameliorate the Caribbean basin’s energy crisis. He also has honored his pledges to sell discounted oil supplies to poor neighborhoods in New York, Boston, London, and now even Alaska.

Guatemala, in recent decades, has served as a negative model for the region. In striking contrast to Venezuela’s relatively benign reputation, for decades Guatemala was Latin America’s most notorious human rights violator, launching a genocide which killed tens of thousands of indigenous peoples from 1969 until the mid-1990s.

The fact that Lapper didn’t allocate a word to the complete inappropriateness of Guatemala’s candidacy – or its refusal to honor all of the provisions of the 1996 UN-brokered peace accords – is an unfortunate omission. This represents a slap-on-the-face to the UN’s efforts to bring peace to this country.

The refreshing notion that Venezuela might have the willingness to challenge some of the positions of the five-permanent members of the Security Council makes it the most appropriate candidate. Instead of wasting time casting President Chávez as an out-of-control and rabid paranoid, who is doubly dangerous due to his large oil purse and schizophrenic personality, why not try to deal with the man? Why not see him for what the facts say he is: an undeniable international icon that genuinely incorporates the caudillo tradition of standing up against area hegemons, even if it means taking on the global behemoth in Washington?

One would think it is a good thing to recognize the positive impact a non-formulaic country like Venezuela could bring to the Security Council. Once there it could challenge the swaggering of various industrialized nations who demonstrably vend their own snake oil to suit the prerogatives of rich nations.

Financial Times Article:

Chávez is no harmless idealist
Financial Times, 14.09.2006

Over the past few months Hugo Chávez has put the most inveterate traveller to shame. One minute the endlessly energetic, anti-American president of Venezuela is in Moscow signing a deal to buy military helicopters and manufacture Kalashnikovs; the next he is in Beijing promising to step up oil sales to China; and then he is in Damascus threatening, alongside Bashar Assad, president of Syria, to “dig the grave of US imperialism.”

In between, he finds time to visit assorted African and Asian capitals in order to press his campaign to win one of the temporary seats on the United Nations Security Council. This week he is in Havana where he is soon likely to be bashing the Americans again at the summit of the non-aligned movement.

It is still customary for critics, outside Venezuela at least, to dismiss Mr Chávez as an eccentric idealist lost in the kind of romantic fantasies that one of his favourite literary characters, Don Quixote, used to pursue. Mr Chávez might sound like a dangerous extremist but like Cervantes’ hero he is essentially harmless, the argument runs.

Apologists, such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, al­ways draw the distinction between what Mr Chávez says and what he does. “I know that speeches often worry people. But a speech is a speech,” Mr Lula da Silva told the Financial Times a couple of months ago. Mr Chávez, after all, they argue, has been democratically elected. The scope for radical action is tempered by harsh economic realities. He may rail about blocking oil sales to the US but this is an empty threat. Caracas is dependent on its hated northern neighbour for about half its oil revenues.

Unfortunately, this kind of benign interpretation of Mr Chávez and his government is looking a lot less credible. Venezuela’s oil sales are being slowly diversified towards China and other countries. Mr Chávez’s democratic credentials are more than a little tarnished of late. If he is such a convinced democrat why has he begun to talk about the need – as he did 10 days ago – for a constitutional change that would allow him to remain in power indefinitely?

Once seen as an outlier against a more moderate underlying leftwing trend, Mr Chávez no longer looks so isolated in his region. Cuba and Bolivia are firm allies. No foreign leader has visited Fidel Castro more than Mr Chávez since the Cuban president’s stomach surgery at the end of July. Politicians close to Mr Chávez are well placed in upcoming presidential polls in Nicaragua and Ecuador.

Mr Chávez’s latest phase of international activism has been accompanied by ever more strident anti-Americanism. Underpinning this is a Manichean view of the world. Listening to him, it seems that US “imperialism” is responsible for all the world’s ills. Mr Chávez rarely misses an opportunity to bait the giant. This week, for example, he claimed that the US might have fabricated the September 11 2001 attacks on the twin towers in New York.

Anyone the American empire opposes is his friend, a stance that explains why he is such a fan of dictators such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Links with Iran and Syria have become more prominent. Indeed, along with Cuba and Syria, Venezuela is leading international support for Iran’s nuclear energy ambitions.

Membership of the UN Security Council would offer Mr Chávez another platform. He would not enjoy a veto over the body’s decisions. But his style could make the search for the diplomatic middle ground harder. While Europe, Asia and the US grope towards a more consensual, multilateral approach to the complex problems of the Middle East, Mr Chávez or his representatives are likely to grandstand and shoot from the hip, creating conflict and division.

Mr Chávez is unlikely to win the regional consensus that would automatically entitle him to the seat but he could well win the two-thirds majority at next month’s general assembly meeting. UN members should turn him down. Countries should not be blinded by their own difficulties with the US into offering support.

In Latin America, moderate leaders such as Mr Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet have a particular responsibility. Standing firm against Mr Chávez is not the same as accepting the dictates of the US administration. They may disagree strongly with the US administration’s policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But they should not – in reaction to that – give encouragement to knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

The writer is the FT’s Latin America editor

By Richard Lapper

© The Financial Times Limited 2006