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President Michelle Bachelet came to Washington on Thursday for a one day whirl wind trip that included a meeting with George Bush. Both exchanged pleasantries after the meeting, neither referring to the heavy-handed efforts of the Bush administration to pressure Chile to oppose Venezuela’s bid for a seat on the United Nations security council.
Just 11 days before the White House visit the Chilean daily La Tercera published a report on a meeting between Condoleezza Rice and the Chilean foreign minister, Alejandro Foxley, in which the US secretary of state insisted that Venezuela’s candidacy for the UN seat “aims at the heart of US interests”. Rice warned that “Chile could fall into a group of losers against US interests …” and that the United States “will not understand” a Chilean vote for Venezuela.
The Bush administration is backing the candidacy of Guatemala in its campaign to stop President Hugo Chávez from winning a seat for Venezuela. Five of the 10 rotating seats on the security council are opening up in October, and one of them traditionally goes to a Latin American nation. Although the UN general assembly formally votes on the council members, the candidate is usually selected beforehand by a consensus among the countries of the region.
It is no surprise that the United States in its meddling in Latin American waters is backing Guatemala, a country with an atrocious human rights record. Under the current government of Oscar Berger, who took office in 2004, there have been charges of human rights abuses and he has done virtually nothing to bring to justice the perpetrators of a genocidal war against the country’s Indian population in decades past.
At a meeting of Latin American and European nations in Austria in May, President Bachelet, alluding to the growing US hostility towards the so-called “power axis” between Venezuela and Bolivia, stated: “I would not want us to return to the cold war era where we demonise one country or another. What we have witnessed in these countries [Bolivia and Venezuela] is that they are looking for governments and leaders that will work to eradicate poverty and eliminate inequality.”
Regarding the UN seat, Foreign Minister Foxley says, “Chile has not made a decision, we will make it only as we get closer to October.” He added: “We are interested in a region that has a strong sense of unity …”
At the White House Bachelet hailed “political, commercial relationships” with the US. None the less Chile has demonstrated a streak of independence in its dealings with the Bush administration. Chile held a security council seat in 2003, in the leadup to the US invasion of Iraq, and the government of Carlos Lagos, in which Bachelet served as minister of defence, refused to buckle under US pressure to support the invasion.
In Washington, Bachelet stopped off to see another colleague from her days in the Lagos cabinet, Jose Miguel Insulza, who is now secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS). Insulza was elected to the post in May 2005 over the strong opposition of the Bush administration, which backed a candidate from El Salvador, another county with an atrocious human rights record.
The secretary general of the OAS has generally played a largely subservient role, given that the US pays most of the bills. In recent months Insulza has struck an independent pose, criticising the US last month when it broke off trade talks with Ecuador after it nationalised the holdings of Occidental Petroleum. When the Bush administration set up a post-Castro transition office in the State Department, Insulza declared “there’s no transition and it’s not your country.” Regarding Venezuela, Insulza – who is no fan of Chávez – has none the less made it clear the Bush administration is overestimating the dangers that Venezuela poses to the hemisphere.
Bachelet during her trip to Washington refused to comment on the controversy over Venezuela while the foreign ministry in Santiago is tight-lipped about its leanings over the UN seat. To be sure, Chávez has made his share of enemies in Latin America, including the newly elected president of Peru, Alan Garcia, whom Chávez called a “cheat and a scoundrel”. And the central American countries along with Mexico are already known to be backing Guatemala’s candidacy.
Regardless of which way Chile jumps in this hemispheric debate, it is clear Bachelet will not let herself be pushed around by the United States and that she will do what is best for Chile and Latin America.
ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is co- author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,” He released late last year “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”