Chile's Decision

As a long time observer and (I hope) friend of Chile, it’s difficult not to feel enormous sympathy for La Moneda these days, when every foreign policy move is weighed by its critics and neighbors as a plebiscite on Chávez-versus-Bush rather than a decision based on its own merits. I watched with enormous discomfort while this fraudulent dialectic was applied last year to the selection of a secretary-general to the OAS. Now, alas, we see it brought to bear once again to the question of whether Chile should support Guatemala, Venezuela or some (yet undesignated third country) to occupy the Latin American seat on the UN Security Council. As Senator Alejandro Navarro (PS) informs us, “se trata de un voto por la autonomía y no por la presión.”

Resident Scholar Emeritus Mark Falcoff
Really? Are relations between the U.S. and Chile nothing more than a zero-sum game? That would be news to a great many of us. Or worse still, is the only way Chile can prove its independence of the United States to support whichever country declares itself to be Washington’s máximo enemigo de turno? This amounts to asking one of the most serious countries in South America to behave like a resentful banana republic, a request rendered more remarkable still coming from leaders of Chile’s renovated left. Of all people they should have the least amount of trouble identifying, as Peruvian president Alan García aptly puts it, “a midget dictator with a fat wallet” when they see one.

That Venezuela has already garnered considerable support within the Latin American bloc at the United Nations is not surprising. All the Caribbean countries, including Cuba--the largest single group within the Latin American community there--are now beneficiaries of special facilities to purchase Venezuelan oil. Two major South American powers, Brazil and Argentina, stand to benefit if Chávez succeeds in building his vast gas pipeline through the heart of the continent. Moreover, support for Venezuela, or rather, for Chávez, on minor, symbolic matters like the Council seat pays significant political dividends at home for both Presidents Kirchner and Lula, but particularly for the latter, facing reelection next year against the background of accusations by many former followers of having sold out to the business establishment and the international financial community. It is wholly understandable that, whatever distaste President Bachelet or Foreign Minister Foxley might feel privately for Chávez (either for the way he is ruling Venezuela or his unfortunate involvement in Peruvian and Bolivian politics, or more likely both) they are reluctant to risk isolation within the region by voting for Guatemala, the putative stand-in for the United States. Evidently the choice of a third country would relieve La Moneda of its present discomfort; one hopes such a compromise could be found. But it is very late in the day and the cards are probably too heavily stacked in favor of Chávez.

If Senator Navarro thinks he is revealing some horrible political secret concerning the preferences of the United States for the council seat, he is quite wrong. Indeed, given Chávez’s deliberate provocations and choice of allies outside the region, Washington could hardly be expected to register no opinion in the matter. Unfortunately for Chile (perhaps even more for the United States) the vast discrepancies between power, wealth and geopolitical weight between the two countries make it easy to interpret any diplomatic efforts--even the most innocent exchange of notes--as undue interference in the smaller country’s chosen international course. Indeed, in the dichotomy established by Chávez’s supporters in the Chilean Senate, short of either total silence on the subject or better still, voting for Venezuela, there is no way in the world Washington can “prove” its respect for Chilean sovereignty. We have already been down this road once before three years ago when Chile was facing the prospect of having to vote against the U.S. position on Iraq just negotiations for a free trade treaty were drawing to a conclusion. Both countries survived that episode, and doubtless they will survive this one as well.

Evidently the United States would prefer not to have Venezuela on the Security Council. But one should not exaggerate. That body is already home to three permanent members--France, Russia and China--who are hardly less hostile to the Bush administration and (certainly in the case of the last two) to the United States generally. If it is merely a matter of anti-US rhetoric even on the Security Council or in Geneva Venezuela may find itself outclassed in this regard by Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria, North Korea, and Iran, to mention just a few possibilities. Voting for Venezuela may turn out to be the least of a series of bad alternatives for the Bachelet administration, but even so, nobody in Washington who knows the country and its leaders is likely to doubt where Chile’s genuine preferences and sympathies lie, both for itself and for the larger region of which it is a part.

Mark Falcoff is a Resident Scholar Emeritus at AEI.

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