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COHA Letter to the Financial Times On Chavez

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Friday, September 22nd, 2006
Venezuela, Guatemala, United Nations

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.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Associate Eytan Starkman
September 22nd, 2006
Word Count: 800

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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