Chile Acknowledged as Regional Leader

(International Relations and Security Network, 26/07/2006)


Chilean President Michele Bachelet must make a choice between Caracas and Washington, polar opposites that both look to Chile for regional leadership.


Michelle Bachelet must choose whether or not Chile will give support to Venezuela’s attempts to win an available seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Many countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and some Caribbean nations are expected to side with Venezuela. Others, including Mexico, Peru, Colombia and those in Central America, are expected to back Washington's candidate, Guatemala.


Bachelet so far has not weighed in on her support for either candidate, and as the deadline for decision making nears, Chile has come under pressure from both sides to cast its potentially tie-breaking ballot. Yet she does not seem worried.


When Bachelet met with US President George W. Bush on 8 June, he likely brought up the topic, but it was not until Chilean Foreign Secretary Alejandro Foxley met with his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, that real pressure was apparently applied.


According to the L.A. Times daily newspaper and reports from the Chilean daily La Tercera, Rice spent the majority of her meeting with Foxley talking about Chile’s upcoming UNSC vote. She reportedly told Foxley that the US would not “understand” a vote for Venezuela from Chile, adding that Chilean support for Venezuela would group the country with non-cooperative Latino countries, set apart from the US support group in Latin America, including Mexico, Colombia and Central American countries.


US State Department representative Adam Ereli denied any claims that the US was pressuring Chile, saying "the [LA Times] report is false.”


As perceptions of tensions between Washington and Santiago fly, Bachelet is facing a split at home within her ruling coalition in the Chilean Congress.


Bachelet’s Socialist party supports Venezuela’s candidacy. They point out that Venezuela was a key supporter in the recent struggle to gather support for Jose Miguel Insulza, the Chilean who is now the secretary general of the Organization of the American States (OAS). A Venezuelan voting voice on the 15-member Security Council would balance the US-dominated council, and with two months at the head of the council during its two-year rotation, Venezuela could set an agenda that reflects the needs of the region.


Guatemala, they claim, is simply an extension of Washington’s will at the UNSC.


Opposed to Bachelet’s Socialist party members, politicians from the Christian Democrats reject any support for Venezuela. Soledad Alvear, a member of the Christian Democrats, argues that Chavez does not have the capacity to effectively communicate on behalf of all Latin American countries. She points out the division between Chavez and Peruvian president-elect Alan Garcia, which has boiled to the point where both countries have all but removed diplomatic ties.


A Venezuelan seat on the UNSC, however, may become another international platform that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will use to promote his vision for regional consolidation in South America – an idea that is not fully supported by Chile.


Venezuela’s recent entrance into the MercoSur customs union has breathed fresh hope among regional free trade supporters that the MercoSur agreement - which exists mostly on paper and hurts more than it helps the smaller members, Paraguay and Uruguay - will eventually become an economic and monetary union, with a common currency. As an economic union, MercoSur would represent a powerful trade block that could negotiate better terms with the US and the EU.


Chile, despite being an associate member, sees no future in MercoSur, preferring to independently negotiate free trade agreements with other countries. So far, Chile has ratified free trade agreements with the US, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, the EU, New Zealand and Singapore.


On 24, July, Chile’s lower house ratified a recently signed free trade agreement with China; it is expected that Chile’s upper house will also ratify the agreement, bringing the agreement into force. Chile is also in advanced negotiations with India and Japan. By any account, Chile does not need MercoSur or the support of any Latino nation to prove its worthiness on the international stage.


Chile’s mistrust in MercoSur is based on a lack of real institutions and central governing body. Venezuela may push to organize the block more effectively, isolating Chile if Bachelet chooses not to support Venezuela in the upcoming Security Council vote.


Either way, Bachelet is not worried. She knows Washington needs her support in a region that still appears to be more anti-US than not. If Bachelet votes for Venezuela, Washington will complain loudly, but privately will continue to ask for Chilean support in the future.


Any support offered by Santiago is considered sober, pragmatic and well thought out. Chavez could use such grounding to help counterbalance his inclinations to talk too much, throw money around, and deliver a weak follow through. If Bachelet supports Guatemala, Chavez may find that his overzealous finger pointing will have lost Venezuela a powerful ally.


Ultimately, the results of supporting Venezuela or Guatemala make little difference to Chile. The reason Bachelet and her advisers are taking their time has more to do with calming domestic pressures while taking into account what the country has to gain by supporting Venezuela or Guatemala.


It is clear that both Caracas and Washington regard Chile as a regional leader. For years, Chile was a slim sliver of coast, minding its own business. Now, the country has emerged as not only an expert in international trade negotiation, but a country respected for clear judgment and a sober decision making process with confidence in its ability to choose wisely. This point of view was calmly summed up by Foxley, commenting on Chile’s upcoming decision: “[Chile] will decide based on the merits of the candidates.”


No doubt his position is easily taken with the confidence of a leader, not a pressured steward of anyone, and especially not Washington or Caracas.