August 25, 2006
Moscow, Tehran, Kuala Lumpur, Mali, Luanda and this week a five-day visit to Beijing: it is difficult to keep up with the relentless travel schedule of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, as he pursues his quest for international influence. Unfortunately, with the controversial leader campaigning to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, monitoring of his activities is becoming more urgent.
Mr Chávez may be something of a paper tiger whose anti-American rhetoric is invariably more outlandish than the generally cautious policies pursued by his government. For example, worries that the Venezuelan leader can hold the United States to ransom by threatening to cut off its oil sales are overdone. In fact, the US imports only about 12 per cent of its petroleum needs from Caracas. Venezuela, by contrast, relies on US purchases for more than half its oil revenues.
Although Mr Chávez this week announced plans for a six-fold increase in sales to China over the next decade (it currently imports only about 2 per cent of its oil needs from Venezuela), geographical and technical reasons mean diversification will take time. China has not got enough of the necessary refinery capacity to handle more of Venezuela's especially heavy variety of crude. In any event, shortfalls from Venezuela could be made up elsewhere, albeit possibly at high prices.
On the other hand the rising political influence of oil-rich Venezuela in Latin America - and some other developing countries - should be a concern. His multibillion dollar arms purchases from Russia are a particular worry. Venezuela justifies its purchases of jet fighters, military helicopters and assault rifles on the grounds that its armed forces need to re-equip. But the US and some of its neighbours are understandably worried that the equipment may serve more belligerent ends.
Mr Chávez's efforts to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council are also worrisome. Venezuela already counts on the backing of fellow members of the Mercosur trade block, including Brazil and Argentina, which it joined earlier this year. Some members of Chile's pro-US centre-left governing coalition support Caracas's bid. And even though some Latin American countries are likely to back the candidacy of the pro-US government of Guatemala, Venezuela could still win the seat by winning the necessary 128-vote majority at October's UN general assembly meeting.
If it were to become a temporary Security Council member, Venezuela would not be able to veto any action. But Mr Chávez's knee-jerk anti-Americanism would not make the already difficult search for consensus at the UN any easier. At a time of international tension, his "shoot from the hip" diplomatic style could even be destabilising. UN members would be unwise to give him the opportunity for counter-productive grandstanding.