UNITED NATIONS, Oct 16 2006 (IPS) — On the surface, it was a straightforward contest between Venezuela and Guatemala for the Latin America and Caribbean non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
But on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly Hall Monday, it turned into a kind of grudge match between U.S. President George W. Bush and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, or at least it seemed that way during the 10 inconclusive rounds of secret voting.
In the beginning, when Guatemala received 126 votes against Venezuela’s 74, almost everyone in attendance believed that Guatemala was going to be the winner, but soon the vote pattern changed and Venezuela saw the gap closing.
“This is unbelievable. This is rebellion,” shouted a journalist from Argentina as she heard a U.N. official announcing the score for the sixth round: Venezuela 93. Guatemala: 93.
“What the hell is going on?” wondered another reporter from Mexico as he took notes on the election results.
Before the dramatic race began, most observers held the view that Guatemala would win because it was strongly supported by Washington, which feared Venezuela would use its position on the Security Council to challenge U.S. interests.
Many diplomats told IPS that Chavez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric might have a negative impact on Venezuela’s candidacy.
“The moderate member states are a little concerned about the strong anti-Bush speech that Hugo Chavez made before the General Assembly,” an Asian diplomat told IPS before the vote.
Last month in a hard-hitting speech, Chavez called Bush “a devil” while criticising Washington’s foreign policy and the continued military occupation of Iraq.
Venezuelan diplomats said they were assured of support by many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest single bloc of nations in the 192-member General Assembly, and all the nations in the Caribbean region.
Shortly before the 10th inconclusive round, Venezuela’s ambassador, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, came out of the General Assembly Hall and lashed out at the U.S. delegates, accusing them of trying to “put pressure” on others “on the floor of the House”.
“This has been the case the whole day,” he told reporters, adding that Venezuela “will stay in the race until the last moment.”
At one stage, he also said, “We are not competing with our brother country. We are competing with the most powerful country on the planet.”
Some observers saw the mounting number of votes for Venezuela in later rounds as a reaction to intense lobbying by the U.S., but others suggested the U.S. pressure might prove effective in the end.
“We can see the power of Washington in this vote,” said James Paul, director of the Global Policy Forum, a New York-based independent think tank that closely monitors U.N.-related policy matters.
Paul thinks that the U.S. efforts are aimed at blocking Venezuela’s way, and not necessarily seeking to get any particular country elected. “In doing so, they seem to be succeeding in getting what they wanted,” he said of the U.S. delegates.
Interestingly, Gert Rosenthal, the Guatemalan foreign minister, agreed with Paul.
“I think the U.S. interest is merely to prevent Venezuela,” he told reporters, “rather than see us elected.”
For his part, U.S. ambassador John Bolton strongly defended Guatemala’s candidacy and dismissed the conclusion that his efforts had apparently failed to defeat Venezuela.
“I am prepared to go the long haul,” he told reporters after the 10th round Monday evening, adding that the U.S. opposition to Venezuela was meant to see that the “work at the Security Council is not disrupted”.
Bolton justified the U.S. decision to support Guatemala’s candidacy by saying that that country was in good standing as a U.N. member state and contributed its troops for peacekeeping operations.
However, in the days leading up to the polls, many human rights groups in the region made several appeals to the General Assembly members urging them not to elect Guatemala because of its questionable human rights record.
“Having failed to solve its own peace and security problems, our country has very little to contribute to solving problems related to international peace and security,” said a recent letter signed by 30 groups and over 200 notable individuals from 25 countries to the General Assembly.
When asked to comment on the Venezuelan ambassador’s accusations against the U.S. delegates, Wang Guangya, the Chinese envoy to the U.N., told IPS: “This is politics. I have no more comments on this subject.”
To some, the race between Venezuela and Guatemala has been the most dramatic since Cuba ran against Colombia during the peak of the Cold War in October 1979. The deadlock continued for three months until the two contenders decided to withdraw in support of a third candidate – Mexico.
The Chinese ambassador said he does not think the vote will come to a conclusion very soon. “It may take a couple of days, or may be even more,” he said. Reflecting on the deadlock, Guangya added: “It is up to the Latin Americans to think what to do about it.”
During the 10th and final round of balloting, Guatemala had received 110 votes against Venezuela’s 77. The voting will continue Tuesday.