Today’s international affairs quiz: Would you rather see Venezuela denied a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, or would you prefer to see an end to Colombia’s eternal civil war?
Pick one. Can’t have both.
That’s at least what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told me this week during our interview in New York, where he and a host of other heads of state are gathered for the U.N. General Assembly.
Venezuela and its radically socialist, anti-U.S. government are about to win that rotating, two-year Security Council seat – and the rest of Latin America, including Colombia, is backing it. Much to Washington’s chagrin. But rather than stew, says Santos, the United States should be stoic.
Don’t take it personal, he says. It’s strictly realpolitik.
And if there’s one thing Latin America knows a lot about, it’s the unsentimental, shark-eyed power sport of realpolitik.
After all, the U.S. and the Soviet Union spent the 20th century lavishing realpolitik on Latin America like conquistadors spreading smallpox. Between all the coups they engineered, the proxy wars they bankrolled and the dictators they stroked – from Kissinger’s boy, Pinochet, to Khrushchev’s boy, Castro – the superpowers taught Latin America a cold-war Ph.D. course in cold-blooded foreign policy.
Now Santos has to make his own icy calculations, and a lot of them involve neighboring Venezuela. He’s chest-deep in peace talks to end a bloody, half-century-long conflict with Marxist guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC – negotiations that may define his presidency. And Venezuela is a valuable left-wing go-between.
So, in spite of mounting international criticism of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government and human rights record (including the current, kangaroo-court trial of opposition leader Leopoldo López on dubious charges of inciting violence), Santos isn’t objecting to the country’s Security Council stint.
“I really don’t understand people who criticize the fact that Venezuela is helping Colombia achieve peace,” Santos said. “I ask them, ‘What's the alternative? Should I declare war on Venezuela?’ When you go down to the nitty-gritty, for me it’s clear that sometimes realpolitik is necessary.”
Ditto, Santos added, when it comes to complaints that he agreed to let communist Cuba host the Colombian peace talks – and that he supports Cuban dictator Raúl Castro’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.
“The world is not perfect,” Santos said. But “Cuba [is] helping us, precisely because they have credibility with the FARC.”
This is coming from Washington’s staunchest ally in South America – the president of a country that received more than $5 billion in U.S. aid in the 2000s. That money helped Colombia’s once laughable military pummel the FARC and force the rebels to the table in Havana.
And Santos is grateful. But now he’s saying, let Colombia finish the job of becoming, as he put it to me, “a normal country” for once. Even if it means rapprochement with avowed enemies of the very superpower that came to Colombia’s rescue.
Sounds cold? Realpolitik 101.
Other nations in Latin America have their own reasons for taking a similar tack. Some, like energy-starved Caribbean countries, don’t want to jeopardize the subsidized crude they receive from oil-rich Venezuela. Most governments simply don’t want to risk even the appearance of kowtowing to Washington on issues like Cuba. It can cost them votes.
To understand why, see my reference above to the 20th century. In the 21st century, this is simply the region’s realpolitiky way of defying an old American hegemony and asserting a new Latin American confidence, even if it seems to contradict its new democratic principles.
But that sort of double standard is something else the U.S. taught Latin America well. Still teaches. Miami U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, two of Capitol Hill’s fiercest anti-communists, insist it’s evil to engage Cuba. But last month they said it was A-OK for their top aides to take a junket to China, compliments of Beijing, even though that regime is more brutal than Havana.
Latin American leaders like Santos are also well aware that handing Venezuela a non-permanent Security Council spot, one that has no veto power, isn’t exactly the same as handing it weapons-grade plutonium. And the relatively subdued speech Maduro made at the U.N. on Wednesday seemed to hint that Venezuela has learned another lesson.
Back in 2006, Maduro’s firebrand predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, deep-sixed Venezuela’s chances of winning a Security Council seat – something it hasn’t done since 1993 – when he called then U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” at the U.N. Some angry socialists might now ask Maduro if he pulled his own anti-yanqui punches this week in order to secure the seat.
And he can tell them: The world is not perfect.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.