Andres Oppenheimer

A Latin American woman for U.N. secretary general?

Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra has been chosen by Argentine President Mauricio Macri as a candidate for U.N. Secretary General.
Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra has been chosen by Argentine President Mauricio Macri as a candidate for U.N. Secretary General. AP

When Argentine President Mauricio Macri recently blessed his foreign minister Susana Malcorra’s candidacy for secretary general of the United Nations, the joke in Argentina was that the country already has a Pope (Francis) and the world’s best soccer player (Lionel Messi) so it was only natural that it should seek the top U.N. job.

But judging from what Malcorra told me in an interview earlier this week, her candidacy for the top U.S. job is a serious matter.

It means that a highly qualified and well liked Latin American woman will join more than half a dozen other candidates for the U.N. job scheduled to be left vacant by Ban Ki-Moon at the end of the year. But it also raises possible conflict-of-interest questions regarding Malcorra’s stands on the Venezuelan crisis at a time when she needs Venezuela’s support to get the U.N. job.

Granted, right now Malcorra is not a front-runner for the job because, under the U.N. practice of granting the secretary general’s position to every region of the world on a rotating basis, it’s Eastern Europe’s turn to occupy the top U.N. position.

Malcorra’s candidacy would have a chance if Eastern European countries can’t reach a consensus to propose a candidate from their own region, diplomats say. Latin America is one of the few regions that has had only one U.N. secretary general, Peru’s Javier Perez de Cuellar, in the 1980s.

Malcorra has great credentials for the top U.N. job: An electrical engineer by training, she worked for many years as an IBM executive in Argentina, then joined the United Nations 12 years ago and became Ban Ki-Moon’s chief of staff in 2008. She was appointed Argentina’s foreign minister in December.

But critics say Malcorra has a conflict of interest in her current U.N. campaign, because she needs the support of Venezuela — a member of the U.N. Security Council — at a time when Argentina is a key player in the Organization of American States’ discussions to press the Venezuelan regime to comply with regional democratic agreements.

Human Rights Watch director Jose Miguel Vivanco has said that Malcorra’s participation in a recent OAS debate about Venezuela was “very disappointing.” Others say she has softened her stance because she needs Venezuela’s support at the U.N. Security Council.

Asked about that criticism, Malcorra told me: “I continue to have a very firm position” on Venezuela. She added: “We do not think that Venezuela’s crisis can be solved without the two sides [the government and the opposition] sitting at the table and finding a common way out.”

I asked her whether she supports the Venezuelan opposition’s plan to convene a recall referendum to oust President Nicolás Maduro, and whether she will back the opposition’s petition that the OAS apply its democratic charter on Venezuela, a measure that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organization.

“On the recall referendum, it’s part of the democratic instruments that are part of the Venezuelan Constitution,” she said. “So we think that this process must go forward, with all guarantees provided for by the [Venezuelan] institutions.”

As for the OAS applying its democratic charter on the Venezuelan regime, Malcorra said the focus right now should be on the recall referendum. “We believe that the OAS Democratic Charter is an instrument that should be used if there are certain conditions, and from our perspective, these conditions are not there,” she said.

Asked whether she shouldn’t step aside temporarily as foreign minister while she campaigns for the U.N. job, Malcorra said her rivals have not taken a leave from their respective jobs either.

My opinion: Malcorra would make a superb U.N. secretary general, but it’s hard to believe that she can follow Argentine President Marci’s campaign vows to support democracy in Venezuela while she seeks the support of the Venezuelan regime and its allies for her U.N. candidacy.

Malcorra is right in pointing out that other candidates have not taken a leave of absence, and that it would be unfair to ask that only she do that. But perhaps all U.N. candidates should step aside, because there are legitimate questions on whether they can conduct their countries’ foreign affairs or U.N. responsibilities fairly without trying to woo the countries whose votes they need to win.

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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español