Lost amid Chávez's rants on Libya, a quieter Latin American foreign policy

Hugo Chávez's offer to mediate between his embattled Libyan friend and rebel factions was quickly dismissed. Meanwhile, other Latin American nations are taking a unified approach to foreign affairs.

By , Contributor

Venezuela's offer to mediate a peace deal in Libya was pushed off the negotiating table just as quickly as President Hugo Chávez placed it down. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's son dismissed the idea, and Libya's opposition rebels dually responded to the offer this week by defacing Hugo Chávez Football Stadium in Benghazi (the base of Libya's rebels).

Why is a stadium in Libya named after Mr. Chávez? For the same reason that Colonel Qaddafi owns a replica of independence hero Simon Bolivar’s sword. The two men are tight.

But lost amid all the bombast of Chávez's ¡Viva Libya! antics, cooler Latin American heads are pursuing a similar foreign policy to more credible effect. And that may provide a telling example to developing economies, and also to Chávez himself – if he stopped tweeting long enough to listen.

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Indeed, less entertaining than Chávez but more interesting is how many of Latin America’s former dictatorships have transformed themselves into booming social democracies, still clinging to the goals of social inclusion and international sovereignty espoused during the radical 60s but now adopting orthodox economic and diplomatic tools to achieve their aims.

Two recent examples of Latin American forays into Arab politics provide illustrative contrasts. Chávez's offer to convene a Peace Commission to mediate between his embattled Libyan friend and rebel factions was an embarrassing failure, albeit consistent with his oft-stated goal of “south-south” solutions to developing world problems.

In practice, Chávez's version of "south-south" diplomacy seems to mostly consist of giving away Venezuelan oil at deeply discounted rates to countries like Dominica and Nicaragua. Perhaps because he’s so chummily embraced international pariahs, such as Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudanese indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir (whom he invited to Venezuela), his “south-south” agenda invites ridicule.

Other than Venezuela’s reliable Latin block – including fellow Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas members Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia – no one else seemed to take the proposal seriously.

“It is as if I were to facilitate an agreement in the Amazon,” Said el Islam Qaddafi said in a March 3 interview with Britain’s Sky News, bringing Chávez's quest for peace just west of the Middle East to an ignominious end. “[Venezuelans] are our friends and we respect them...but they are far and have no idea."

Chávez has also been among the most stridently supportive of Palestinian statehood, though it’s probably not causing too much consternation in Tel Aviv. His support starts to assume a potentially ugly tinge when taken alongside his occasional declarations that Israel is supporting his opposition and Mossad agents are in the region to assassinate him.

However, when eight other Latin American nations declare their recognition of Palestinian statehood, as they did in December and January, including regional heavyweights Argentina and Brazil, Israel’s diplomatic corps is forced to take note.

“The decisions are largely symbolic but highlight the continuing trend in Latin America to pursue an independent foreign policy that to some degree reflects domestic political considerations,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

Israel said the recognition was meaningless. Still, no other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt compelled to call Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera hoping to avoid a similar move by the center-right government. The call was ineffective. Chile recognized an independent Palestinian state on Jan. 7.

This week, Mr. Piñera traveled to the Middle East to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials, laying wreaths at the tombs of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Zionist founder Theodor Herzl.

Meanwhile, Chávez's travels are largely confined to visiting the world's most autocratic outposts, with an occasional side trip to sign oil agreements. Billions of barrels of oil might be enough to buy the support of energy-impoverished nations all over the world but it still hasn’t brought him what he seems to yearn most – international respect.

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Jasmina Kelemen is a guest blogger at Backchannels.

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