The Race for Latin America’s Security Council Seat

The United States has launched a diplomatic offensive to block Venezuela’s bid for a two-year rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. instead is lobbying heavily for Guatemala to take over the seat being vacated by Argentina.

U.S. officials claim that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a threat to democracy in Latin America and that his presence within Security Council circles would be counter-productive for the world body.

"It should come as no surprise that we believe Venezuela would not contribute to the effective operation of the Security Council, as demonstrated by its often disruptive and irresponsible behavior in multilateral forums," said State Department spokesman Eric Watnick.

In contrast, Washington believes Guatemala is a "viable candidate." State Department officials cite Guatemala’s previous work with the U.N. and its contribution of peacekeepers as evidence of its qualifications.

Guatemala’s Qualifications

U.N. High Commisioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour after an official visit to Guatemala last month expressed concern that democratic reforms were "progressing slowly." Guatemala is ten years removed from the 1996 Peace Accords which ended a 36-year civil war that left over 200,000 people (mostly indigenous) either dead or disappeared.

"Nothing can exemplify this better than the delay encountered by victims of the armed conflict in obtaining justice and reparation," said Arbour. "Where impunity is the rule for past violations, it should come as no surprise that it also prevails for current crimes."

Arbour cited a list of problems plaguing the country, which include: ongoing threats and violence directed at human rights workers, the government’s meager investment in social services (the lowest in the region), the continued discrimination and marginalization of indigenous peoples, as well as the continued rise of homocides. Also, after ten years Guatemala has failed to adopt and enforce the Peace Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The U.N. is not alone in its criticism and concern about the Guatemalan government’s failure to address discrimination, violence and impunity. Amnesty International issued a report in April 2006 that examines Guatemala’s enforcement of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment and Punishment.

"The vast majority of human rights violations committed in the present remain unpunished with the vast majority [of those violations] lacking thorough investigation," Amnesty’s report stated.

Concerned about a spike in the murder rate of Guatemalan women, the Amnesty report focuses on violence against women and the government’s failure to bring perpetrators to justice. Sexual violence and mutilation are associated with a large percentage of the killings. Yet, despite the rapid rise of these gruesome crimes, there has been no increase in prosecutions by the state. Amnesty cites a report that reveals that "between 2001 and 2005 only five of the 1,897 cases had been resolved in the courts."

Amnesty attributes this failure to gender discrimination and reports that prosecutors and police often blame victims and falsely accuse them of being prostitutes or gang members. The government’s inability to expeditiously prosecute these murders and the subsequent suffering this inflicts on victims’ families amounts to violations of the U.N. convention.

In addition, Amnesty raised concerns about Guatemalan government policies of home demolition and violent eviction of campesinos (subsistence farmers) as a method of settling land disputes. Guatemala counted 1,052 disputed land claims as of December 2005. In the small Central American country less than two percent of the population own 60 percent of the land. This disparity in land ownership resulted from land tenure policies carried out by successive dictatorships during the county’s civil war and led to widespread internal displacements of Guatemala’s rural poor. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international body monitoring conflict-induced internal displacement, estimates that as many as one million people have been displaced in Guatemala, most of them indigenous.

Under current President Oscar Berger, a former businessman and wealthy landowner, forced evictions marked by violence, house burnings and demolitions have been used to settle these disputes. Not only does this amount to violations of the Convention against Torture, it also fails to meet obligations under the Peace Accords which guaranteed land redistribution and resettlement for poor people uprooted during the war. In addition, human rights and indigenous activists have suffered threats, attacks and executions.

Berger’s propensity for violence-as-conflict-resolution was exposed again in January 2005 over a disputed World Bank mining project. Indigenous protestors raised a blockade to prevent Canada’s Glamis Gold from bringing in its mining equipment. Berger sent in the military and police who opened fire on protestors, killing one person and injuring dozens of others.

Like the U.N.’s commissioner for human rights pointed out, since impunity rules for crimes in the past the current situation in Guatemala should come as no surprise.

According to Amnesty International, "Those responsible for past human rights violations including policies of systematic torture, forced ‘disappearances’ and genocide remain at large, unaccountable for their actions, in some cases enjoying considerable political influence in present day Guatemala."

One notable example is Efrain Rios Montt, the military man who became president in 1982 after launching a military coup. Upon winning power, Montt, with a nod from Washington, launched a scorched earth campaign against the Mayan population that killed and "disappeared" thousands of indigenous. In recent years, Montt has served as head of Congress and ran for president in 2004 before losing to Berger.

Rhetoric and Reality

U.S. concerns over Venezuela’s bid has nothing to do with democracy and respect for international law. What’s at stake is Washington’s waning influence over the region, its ability to call the shots globally and the U.N.’s institutional acquiescence in maintaining a global heirarchy marked by violence, disrcimination and impunity—much like in Guatemala.

Recent elections throughout the region have left many leaders in Washington (both corporate and political) reminiscencing for the good old days when Latin American heads of state could be counted on to push through neoliberal reforms and support U.S. foreign policy, even if it meant these same leaders had to use violence and oppression. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the aforementioned Montt serve as good examples.

Leaders representing the new Latin America such as Venezuela’s Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and to a lesser degree Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are a threat to the current global heirarchy led by Washington and supported by the U.N. These countries, along with Uruguay and Paraguay, are expected to support Venezuela’s bid for the open seat. The U.S is using diplomatic pressure to urge Chile, seen as a critical vote, to push Guatemala through. But if the 2005 OAS election where the U.S. backed candidate lost to Chile’s José Miguel Insulza is any indicator, Washington may be in for another disappointment, and dose of reality.

And even though the Security Council doesn’t rubber stamp everything coming out of Washington, like the war in Iraq, the war still happened (in violation of the U.N. Charter), over 100,000 Iraqis are dead and the U.S. government has yet to be held accountable. Other U.N. crimes that come to mind are the sanctions that left over 500,000 Iraqi children dead, and more recently its support of the coup in Haiti and the use of death squads in that country.

Venezuela’s election to the Security Council could very well challenge this inhumane system and global hierarchy that smaller nations have fallen prey to. It is feared that the Venezuelan government’s outspoken and harsh criticisms directed toward U.S. foreign policy could prove to be contagious. Chavez has even called out the U.N. for its institutional failures.

In September 2005 he spoke before the U.N. and demanded a "re-founding" of the organization. Part of the institutional changes he suggested were terminating the veto vote and expanding the Security Council to include newly developed and developing nations.

This is why Washington objects to Venezuela’s candidacy.

Cyril Mychalejko is the assistant editor of and is currently based in Ecuador.