Chávez as David to an American Goliath

On Monday, the world's nations will, in effect, be asked what they think of the US. The UN General Assembly votes on giving a Security Council seat to Venezuela, whose leader plans to use the platform to "oppose US attempts to finish off the world."

President Hugo Chávez's well-oiled campaign to win the necessary 128 votes was highlighted Sept. 20 when he used a General Assembly speech to call President Bush the "devil." He has also declared that the 192-member Assembly, not the 15-member Council, should wield the power at the UN. Nonetheless, he says Venezuela would use its two-year seat on the Council to represent "the voice of all the peoples of the planet."

Mr. Chávez certainly does not lack for fiery rhetoric. His US-baiting tirades and obstructionist style would certainly alter the diplomatic tone on the Council, especially when it would be Venezuela's turn to chair it, perhaps making it less workable than it already is.

But enough nations may decide that both the US and the UN are in need of a shaking, even if it turns out to be a symbolic one.

Chávez's claim to represent the neglected voices of the world is undermined by the fact that he has failed to win a consensus in Latin America for his UN quest, despite his use of billions in oil revenue to shower benefits on many of his neighbors. In fact, his attempts at influence have sometimes backfired, such as in recent presidential elections in Peru and Mexico, where leftist candidates lost (barely in Mexico).

The usual UN practice is for each region of the world to put forth a single candidate for one of the five rotating Council seats. This time, Latin America failed to do that. Guatemala, which made its bid long before Venezuela did, has never been on the Security Council, although it has contributed troops to UN peacekeeping efforts. Venezuela has been on the Council four times (all before Chávez came to power in 1999). And under Chávez, Venezuela has not participated in UN peacekeeping.

His bid to represent the world against the US is also undercut by an erosion of democracy under his rule. While the media is largely free in Venezuela, the courts have been co-opted, and Chávez wants to rewrite the Constitution after this election in a move that would allow him to stay in power.

It is unlikely Chávez will lose a December election for another six-year term as president, despite stubbornly high unemployment in a nation flush with petrodollars. But it doesn't hurt that he paints himself as a David against a US Goliath, or the next Castro of the third world.

His credibility about opposing the US is also in doubt because his economy remains highly dependent on oil exports to the US. His threats to cut off that oil supply ring hollow.

Chávez's travels this year to more than 2 dozen countries to whip up support may end up in a stalemated vote with Guatemala. (The votes of each General Assembly member will be secret.) In that case, a third Latin American nation may make a bid and win a later vote.

Then this largely artificial confrontation between the US and Venezuela may start to simmer down. And the Security Council can continue to act without distraction in trying to solve the world's problems.

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