Will anyone listen to what Venezuela has to say?

Venezuela's Hollow Victory at the UN

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Imagine the relief in Caracas recently when Venezuela won a seat on the United Nations Security Council. True, it was only a two-year assignment, and a diplomatic formality (Latin nations take turns at the head table). Still, the honor came at a critical moment for a government that has slid from Latin American inspiration to global pariah for its intimidation of critics, economic fumbling and crumbling social pact.

Lately, the problem has been scarcity. With dollars as rare as ice on the Orinoco and consumers hoarding store-bought goods, President Nicolas Maduro and his authorities recently introduced biometric fingerprinting to ration food at supermarkets. Apparently, the only thing 21st century about the Bolivarian revolution is its crowd control.

Maduro's approval ratings plunged the same week to 30 percent, a new low, according to a poll by Datanalisis. Nearly 47 percent of those surveyed blamed the "military" and "mafias" for the chronic scarcity, and another 33 percent, smugglers and "economic warfare."As it happened, even as Venezuela was voted into the Security Council, it drew a sharp reprimand from another UN desk, 2,000 miles away. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, head of the Geneva-based Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions called on the Maduro government to immediately release dozens of political prisoners. Topping the list: Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, in jail since February on cooked-up charges of inciting violence during nationwide street protests.

Maduro barely flinched, waving off the Geneva distraction as an intrusion on national sovereignty, then leading his entire cabinet in a nationally televised round of applause to celebrate the country's new assignment.

Chavez-style jeremiads against the gringo world order go well on state-run Venezuelan television but will be little more than ambient noise at UN Plaza. Still, Venezuela's induction to the horseshoe table is a shameful step backward for Latin America and fuels arguments that the UN is at best a chamber of winds, not of governance.

The problem is not the damage a rogue nation may wreak on global diplomacy, but how Venezuela will turn its seat among giants into a domestic bully pulpit. "Being at the UN will help Maduro bury the dissidents," Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan envoy to the UN, told me.

Arria served there from 1990 to 1992, when a Latin American voice in the room meant something. Non-permanent members of the Security Council were instrumental in sending international peacekeepers to oversee elections in Haiti and helped broker peace in the El Salvador civil war.

Mostly, though, Latin America has been a free rider at the UN high table, leaning in but adding little to the agenda. Such diffidence owes mainly to the formalist school of Latin diplomacy, where commercial expediency -- say, Brazilian contractors rebuilding Cuban shipping terminals -- and a clubby reverence for sovereignty speak louder when amigos shut down critics or trample democracy.

And for all the Latin encomiums to global governance, self-reliance has mostly trumped multilateralism. In its half-century struggle with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, Bogota never brought the quarrel to the UN.

This attitude might be changing. Colombia and Mexico recently agreed to return to UN peacekeeping, and Brazil currently leads the blue helmets in Haiti. The rise of the outward-looking Pacific Alliance -- uniting Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru -- suggests that there's more to the Latin American agenda than Chavista tub-thumping and the talking shop of Mercosur, the struggling South American trade pact.

A seat at the UN high table may be the stump that Chavez always dreamed of, but the keepers of the conflicted Bolivarian revolution are likely to find themselves talking to themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net