In UN political drama, it's all about the US

Countries voting to fill a Security Council seat are torn between US appeasement and Venezuela's fiery polemics.

In the war of Hugo Chávez versus George W. Bush, Venezuela versus the United States, and anti- Americanism versus American leadership, the latest battle is ... a draw.

In marathon voting at the 192-country United Nations General Assembly that continued midday Tuesday, Venezuela had not won a coveted seat on the 15-member Security Council. Mr. Chávez's trash talk about Mr. Bush from the same General Assembly hall a month ago has not won him the support he needs to claim one of the Council's 10 rotating seats –a post from which he had hoped to goad "the imperial power," or "the master of the house," as he is wont to say.

But neither has the US been able to definitively squash Venezuela by assuring the election of Guatemala, its favored candidate, to the open two-year position. The writing on the wall was getting clearer: Neither country seems likely to win the rotating seat reserved for Latin America. Speculation intensified over possible replacement "consensus" candidates.

Yet the stalemate also has deeper roots and explanations, to listen to delegates as they filed out of the hall after each ballot, or to UN officials milling around to see how the vote was going.

For some, it is a result of the fault lines that still divide the world more than three years after debate about invading Iraq. Surveys show the US remains deeply unpopular in much of the world, and the General Assembly voting reflects that.

But for others, it is more a reflection of widespread ambivalence – and perhaps fatigue – toward both the camp that wants to make a point of standing up to the US, and the one that is seen to be too closely aligned with it.

"There is a whiff of the cold war to this, and people don't want to see the UN go back to that paralysis," said one UN official observing the vote, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "My guess is that a fair number of countries don't want either side to get the upper hand."

Many delegates expressed surprise that Venezuela, a major oil producer that worked hard for months to win votes, never overtook Guatemala in the first day of balloting. The common explanation offered was that Chávez's depiction of Bush as "the devil" in his speech to the General Assembly in September had cost him support – despite applause and titters at the time – because it raised concerns of a Security Council bogged down in polemics.

"When it comes down to it, a polarizer is not a vote-getter," said another UN official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

After 14 secret ballots by midday Tuesday, Guatemala stood at 108 votes – well short of the two-thirds majority (128 votes) needed. Venezuela had 76. Those numbers had fluctuated over the course of ballots, but they were basically the same as the original vote Monday.

In all, the General Assembly actually had to fill five rotating Security Council seats, although the other four slots were decided without controversy on the first ballot. South Africa, Indonesia, Belgium, and Italy are to fill the seats of their respective regions in January.

But the Latin American seat was a different story, with stakeholders from both sides indicating early on they were ready for a long fight.

"All I can say is that back in 2000, I spent 31 days in Florida," said John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, at one point on Monday, referring to his role in the legal wrangling that ultimately won the presidency for Bush. "This has just begun."

Mr. Bolton's words suggest the importance the US is putting in the outcome.

By the seventh vote on Monday, talk had shifted to the goodies the candidates were passing out to secure any wavering votes: chocolates with "Venezuela" wrappers from one side, woven friendship bracelets from the other.

But others alluded to much more heavy-handed tactics than those quaint campaign tools. Venezuela's ambassador, Francisco Javier Arias Cárdenas, said the people of the world were "resisting with dignity the pressures of the imperial power." He claimed the US was seeking to sway the vote by issuing both promises of aid for supporting Guatemala and threats of financial retaliation against any developing country siding with Venezuela.

Yet other diplomats referred to Chávez's nearly two-year-long campaign to win a Council seat and noted that Chávez, as leader of a major oil- producing nation, had signed numerous bilateral trade pacts while pursuing his campaign. As one diplomat noted in a tongue-in-cheek explanation for the sudden spurt in support for Venezuela in one ballot: "They upped the ante – now it's a full tanker in every port!"

Yet kidding aside, some diplomats noted there is precedent to suggest that the balloting might not be nearing a quick denouement. UN officials did some digging and found that in 1979, another vote on a Security Council seat – again involving Latin America's slot – had taken 155 ballots stretching from October to January.

In that case, a battle pitting Cuba against Colombia was resolved when Mexico finally emerged as a compromise candidate.

While Venezuela's ambassador didn't want to hear any talk of a consensus candidate to break a deadlock, the names of nations like Uruguay, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic floated around the hall.

And Mexico's ambassador, Enrique Berruga, said that Mexico was pressing for a meeting of Latin American countries Tuesday, to find a solution to the deadlock.

At the same time, Guatemalan officials insisted they were in the fight to stay. But their delegation's leader suggested Monday afternoon that he understood a continuing stalemate could not be allowed to go on forever.

"We are not obstinate," said Guatemala's foreign minister, Gert Rosenthal, at the end of voting Monday. "If after two, three, four days, neither country has arrived at the two-thirds needed, logically we have to consider a third candidate."

And then he continued with words that, either by design or not, contrasted with the politicking that has dominated the voting. "This has never been a national crusade [for us] to be on the Security Council." Noting that the UN spearheaded the peace process that ended Guatemala's civil war in 1996, he added, "We are giving back to the UN what the UN gave to Guatemala."

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