Venezuela wins long coveted – and long denied – UN Security Council seat

The victory by Venezuela has some Obama administration critics complaining that the president and his diplomatic team didn’t do enough to thwart a hemispheric adversary’s successful bid for a UN Security Council seat.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
President Obama votes with other members while chairing a meeting of the UN Security Council at the 69th United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 24, 2014.

Venezuela, the South American country whose socialist-populist government loves to play thorn in the side of the big bad “imperialist” empire to its north, has won a coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council.

That’s the bad news for Washington coming out of Thursday’s election of five new nonpermanent members to the 15-member Security Council.

Yet despite the win by a government that is closely aligned with Cuba and that the United States considers a worrisome violator of human rights, the election had a silver lining for the US.

With the election of New Zealand and Spain to two of the other seats up for grabs Thursday, the Security Council – the UN’s only body with any real power – will now include five NATO members and a South Pacific country that works closely with the US on shared international goals.

That could be significant for the Obama administration in coming months as it seeks to boost international support for its multipronged effort to defeat the Islamic State militant group and other forms of the radical Islamist movement.

Nonpermanent members of the Council are elected from geographical groups, and the only drama in this year’s vote was a battle between Spain and Turkey, both NATO members, for a “Western” group seat. Spain emerged victorious on the third ballot Thursday afternoon. Turkey has been in the international spotlight recently over its reluctance to enlist in the US-led fight against Islamic State militants in neighboring Syria.

Also elected to two-year terms Thursday were Malaysia and Angola. The US, Russia, China, France, and Britain hold permanent Security Council seats.

Jordan and Nigeria, two other countries working closely with the US to confront extremist Islamist threats, will remain on the Council for another year. Lithuania, Chad, and Chile round out the Council members.

But it’s Venezuela’s victory that has some administration critics in Washington complaining that President Obama and his diplomatic team didn’t do enough to thwart a hemispheric adversary’s successful bid for a Council seat.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to “lead a diplomatic effort at the United Nations to deny Venezuela” a Council seat. They noted that Venezuela supported Russia over its annexation of Crimea and joined other authoritarian regimes seeking to shield Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from UN reprobation for his attacks on his own civilian population. Allowing Venezuela a Council seat, the senators said, would be a step backward “at a time when we must collaborate to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”

Republican critics also note that the Bush administration was successful in keeping Venezuela off the Council the last time it tried for a seat, in 2006. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, vigorously lobbied members of the UN General Assembly (where voting takes place) and denied Venezuela the minimum votes it needed.

In Thursday’s voting, Venezuela – which ran unopposed to replace Argentina for the Latin America seat – won support from 181 of the General Assembly’s 193 voting members.

This year the State Department did indicate its opposition to Venezuela joining the Council, saying that US concerns about human rights violations and weakened democratic governance in Venezuela “are well known.” But no diplomatic press to stop Venezuela materialized.

Some diplomatic analysts say it was easier to oppose Venezuela’s bid for a seat when the country was led by Hugo Chávez, a polarizing firebrand remembered for announcing that he smelled the lingering sulfur of the devil when he took the UN podium following President Bush. Venezuela is now led by Nicolás Maduro, a Chávez protégé who continues to blame the US for his country’s deepening woes but who has nothing like the international stature Chávez achieved.

With Venezuela’s election to the Council, Chávez’s daughter, María Gabriela Chávez, who is Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN, will be sitting on the Council.

Conservative critics say Venezuela’s lower profile does not mean it is any less an impediment to US international goals. Under Mr. Maduro, they note, Venezuela has drawn even closer to Havana and has provided Iran with entree into the Western Hemisphere.

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