United Nations compromise shows limits to US power

With the preferred US plan out, Panama emerges as the choice for a Security Council seat.

A compromise reached between Venezuela and Guatemala over a United Nations Security Council seat they both wanted means that Panama will take the coveted two-year post instead.

But the outcome of what was more broadly billed as a battle pitting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez against the United States means that neither the superpower nor its Latin nemesis got exactly what it wanted.

To be sure, the primary US objective was to keep Mr. Chávez off the Security Council, and in that it succeeded. Chávez had sought the seat to needle the US – which the leftist leader sees as the bane of developing countries.

But neither was the US able to see its preferred candidate, Guatemala, victorious. And a solution came only after weeks of fighting and stalemate in the UN General Assembly that exposed both the many fault lines traversing Latin America and the limits of US power in the region.

"Chávez was not able to turn his world tours and anti-American rhetoric into enough votes to win the Council seat. But neither could the US impose its candidate, and it got bruised fighting Chávez off," says Miguel Tinker Salas, a specialist in Latin American issues at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

"It's like the lightweight boxer who can hold off the heavyweight for rounds and rounds," he adds. "It ends up saying more about the limits of the heavyweight."

Voting for the rotating Security Council seats began Oct. 16, with only the Latin America seat lacking the regional consensus that generally makes such votes swift and uneventful. While it quickly became clear that neither Venezuela nor Guatemala would garner the required two-thirds vote from the 192-member General Assembly, balloting continued until Wednesday.

After 47 ballots, Guatemala was still polling well ahead of Venezuela, but never with enough votes to clinch the seat. As the compromise candidate of the two competing countries, Panama was virtually assured victory in a vote that was scheduled for Thursday.

Latin American leaders were at pains Wednesday to characterize the Panama compromise as a sign of unity. Hailing Panama as "a country that unites South America and Central America," Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal said, "We're concerned about the idea of divisions between the north and the south of Latin America. We would like to put that idea to rest by seeking a country that is well received at both extremes of our continent."

Yet despite the optimistic facade, many Latin American leaders and analysts think the stalemate says more about divisions than unity, and more about the low state of US relations with the region.

"It really reveals the region in disarray," says Michael Shifter, a vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "The fact this went on as long as it did does not reflect harmony and communication."

Experts note that South American countries like Argentina and Brazil sided with Venezuela, while Mexico and most Central American countries were seen siding with Guatemala – and by extension the US. The regional divisions were exacerbated by Chávez, some regional experts say: The oil-rich populist has offered favorable oil deals to neighbors as a means of winning influence. That tactic was seen as particularly successful among poor Caribbean countries, which were thought (despite the General Assembly secret ballot) to side with Venezuela in the vote.

The overt US campaign to keep Venezuela off the Council also raised the stakes of the outcome – with some countries using the vote to express the anti-American sentiment that blossomed after the US invaded Iraq without a UN blessing.

The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, acknowledged during the long balloting that some countries might be using their vote that way. But he also insisted that the US interest was in seeing that the Council's work not be "disrupted" by members seeking the seat for ideological reasons.

Still, Mr. Rosenthal of Guatemala characterized US support for his country's candidacy as "a double-edged sword." He added, "In some areas, it probably damaged our campaign. In other areas it helped, but it really was not the main theme."

Professor Tinker Salas says the vote reveals Latin America "once again" as a "work in progress" that is still defined – and divided by – colonial legacies.

Perhaps most disheartening, Mr. Shifter adds, were indications of a regression in how the US treats its relations with Latin America – from a "partnership" to old hegemonic practices. "A lot of countries felt a lot of pressure, like they were back to the days of heavy-handed American tactics."

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