Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose megalomania seems to rise in direct proportion to his country's oil income, will be fighting for his most coveted prize over the next few weeks: winning a seat on the U.N. Security Council, from which he could grab the biggest headlines around the world.
Will he succeed in getting the U.N. seat? And if he does, how will that affect the United Nations, the United States and Latin America?
Before we try to answer these questions, let's look at the facts. As you may know, Venezuela and Guatemala are competing for one of the two Latin American nonpermanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. The General Assembly will decide the winner in a secret vote set for Oct. 16.
If no country wins two-thirds of the vote - 128 out of 192 - the Assembly votes again, until one country emerges with the necessary majority.
Venezuela, backed by Iran, Syria, China and Cuba, says it already has the votes needed to win. Chavez has been crisscrossing the world campaigning for the U.N. seat, offering subsidized oil shipments to Caribbean nations, buying foreign debt bonds from countries such as Argentina and offering other forms of financial assistance to African and Asian countries.
Addressing the General Assembly on Wednesday, Chavez accused the United States of "domination, exploitation and pillage of peoples of the world." It's a message that, given the Bush administration's dismal approval ratings abroad, resonates in many U.N. member countries.
At the Movement of Nonaligned Nations summit in Havana last week, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told reporters that Venezuela already has the explicit support of South America's Mercosur group (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), the Caribbean's 13-country Caricom group, the 22-nation Arab League and most African countries.
Guatemala, backed by the United States, disputes the Venezuelan claims. In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Guatemala's Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal told me that the race "is pretty even." Guatemala has the backing of Mexico, Colombia, Central American countries and most of Europe, while Asia and Africa are divided, he said.
"If the race is measured on the basis of who has spent the most, Venezuela has already won," Rosenthal said. "What we are offering is a more professional, serious and less confrontational job."
Guatemala supporters say the Central American country would work toward consensus building, whereas Chavez would campaign for radical causes that would further polarize the United Nations.
In recent days, Chavez has suggested that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were secretly plotted by the Bush administration as an excuse to launch its "war on terrorism" and has called Israel's military offensive against Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon "a genocide."
Chavez also has become an enthusiastic backer of Iran's nuclear development program, which Iran says is meant for peaceful purposes. Washington fears Iran could build nuclear weapons, which it could use against Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be wiped from the map and has called for an international conference to discuss the Holocaust, which he claims never existed.
Guatemala backers say that, in addition to being a less confrontational candidate, Guatemala deserves the seat because it has never held it, while Venezuela has occupied it on four different occasions. And while Guatemala has often committed peace troops to the United Nations, Venezuela almost never does.
My opinion: I would not be surprised if neither country gets the needed 128 votes, and that the General Assembly - after several unsuccessful votes - moves to pick a compromise candidate. Among the possible choices: Uruguay, Panama or the Dominican Republic, although the three countries are quick to say they are not running, perhaps fearful of losing Venezuelan aid.
If Venezuela succeeds in getting the U.N. seat, the biggest loser would not be the United States but the already crisis-ridden United Nations. As one Latin American diplomat told me, with a loose cannon like Chavez on the Security Council, "the big countries will be even more tempted to take their marbles and go somewhere else."
In other words, Bush has already done significant harm to the United Nations with his unilateral diplomacy. Chavez would put the last nail in the coffin with his off-the-wall narcism-Leninism.