Transitions

Venezuela Set to Play a Bigger Role at the U.N.

When the late Hugo Chávez came to the United Nations, it was usually a media event. Journalists would swarm around him looking for a juicy quote, and he frequently obliged. The apex of Chávez’s performances at the global forum came in 2006, when he called George W. Bush "the devil," and said the podium, the ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

When the late Hugo Chávez came to the United Nations, it was usually a media event. Journalists would swarm around him looking for a juicy quote, and he frequently obliged. The apex of Chávez’s performances at the global forum came in 2006, when he called George W. Bush "the devil," and said the podium, the same one Bush had used, "still smelled of sulfur."  The media was enthralled.

Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, shares none of his charisma, as his inconsequential trip to the U.N. this week showed. In spite of this, the folks at the U.N. would do well to get used to Maduro, as Venezuela is set to take a two-year non-permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council. (In the photo above, activists stage a protest against Maduro outside of the U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 24.)

The rules for choosing which countries go to the Security Council are the result of long-standing diplomatic traditions. Latin America always has two seats, and each year the holder of one of those seats is rotated. The countries in the region usually agree on a single candidate for the seat that will rotate that year, and the General Assembly then votes on their choice.

The last time Venezuela tried to get a seat, the year was 2006, the same year Chávez made his infamous "sulfur" speech. This was at the height of the Iraq War, and Venezuela’s bid was deemed to be an unnecessary provocation. A majority of Latin American countries nominated Venezuela, but some countries in the region broke with the tradition of nominating a single Latin candidate, and put forward the name of Guatemala instead. After 47 rounds of voting between the two countries, the third longest in U.N. history, the deadlock was broken when both countries withdrew and Panama emerged as a consensus candidate for the region.

The international community should expect less controversy in the election this time. Latin American countries are unanimous in their support of Venezuela, and the United States has already said it will do nothing to prevent it from winning the seat. In spite of blistering editorials from the New York Times and the Washington Post opposing Venezuela’s bid, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed them by saying, "[i]t’s a bit late to take an opposing stance on something that, I think, has been cooking for a while."

What can the world expect from Venezuela during its expected two-year tenure?

First, a bit of star power. María Gabriela Chávez, the daughter of the late president, has just been named Alternate Ambassador to the U.N., a position that will allow her to fill in for the nominal ambassador. She has never held a job before, and doesn’t have much public speaking experience.

But Ms. Chávez can probably rely on her well-known family name to compensate for this. Her carefully prepared speeches will surely be broadcast all over Venezuela in order to raise her profile. It remains to be seen whether the late Comandante‘s daughter has inherited her father’s media savviness, but the choice is sure to keep Venezuelans interested in what happens in New York.

On more substantive issues, expect Venezuela to support many of the planet’s rogue nations. Its support of Cuba is almost a given, as are its harsh denunciations of Israel. Furthermore, Venezuela has cultivated close relations with the governments of Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Belarus. In fact, Venezuela was embroiled in controversy when it was discovered that it was sending fuel to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in the midst of that country’s civil war.

One of Venezuela’s more recent allies is North Korea. While the government has not talked about North Korea much, Pyongyang’s recent announcement that it is opening an embassy in Caracas raised more than a few eyebrows.

Yet all this is mere window dressing. The bottom line is that Venezuela’s presence at the U.N. will serve to back Russia and China. Both countries are heavily invested in Venezuela, and they have come to the aid of the cash-strapped revolution on numerous occasions. Venezuela would risk being cut off from much-needed international financing by adopting positions contrary to Russian or Chinese interests.

It is often easy to dismiss Maduro as a buffoon. At the U.N. this week, he gave a speech on global warming, blissfully unaware of the irony that Venezuela is one of the continent’s most egregious polluters, and that his government gives away gas for free. In fact, just a few weeks ago he did away with the Ministry for the Environment by decree, merging it with another entity, infuriating the local green movement. At the U.N., he said that "[c]apitalism has ignored over decades nature’s capacity to load and recover, [the] laws of thermodynamics and [of] entropy."

Yet Maduro should not be underestimated, at least when it comes to the international stage. He spent six years as Chávez’s Foreign Minister, and he traveled the world extensively, cultivating relationships with many leaders.

As Venezuela takes its seat on the globe’s most important international body, expect Maduro to use all that experience in making sure Venezuela does not go unnoticed.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

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