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Venezuela, Guatemala Vie at U.N.

Chavez's nation mostly trails its U.S.-backed rival in 10 rounds of ballots to fill a Security Council seat. The voting is to resume today.

October 17, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Guatemala and Venezuela began battling for a seat on the Security Council on Monday in what has become a referendum on the United States and its role in the world body.

After U.S.-backed Guatemala led or tied in 10 rounds of voting without gaining the necessary two-thirds majority to win, the General Assembly suspended further balloting until today. Diplomats said that if the stalemate continued, they would seek a compromise candidate for the seat for Latin America and the Caribbean -- perhaps Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica or Mexico.

Regardless, Venezuela's U.N. envoy, Francisco Javier Arias Cardenas, said his country would not drop out.

"The U.S. is against us as if we were building a nuclear bomb to destroy them," he said. "We will not withdraw. We are fighting to the end."

The Security Council consists of five permanent members -- the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia -- and 10 nations elected for two-year terms, with five replaced each year. The permanent members have veto power over council resolutions.

Cardenas said the U.S. had tried to turn the vote into a contest between his government and Washington and that ballots cast for Venezuela were "votes of conscience" for the developing world.

The U.S., fearful Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would use the council as an anti-American platform and oppose Washington's interests, has backed Guatemala. With the help of Mexico and Canada, it has lobbied hard in the hemisphere to counter support for Chavez, who has won favor in the region by selling subsidized oil. The result has been division in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In September, Chavez won attention and applause from some at the U.N. for his fiery speech here, in which he called President Bush "the devil" and said the U.S. leader acted like "the owner of the world."

The General Assembly speech may have tapped an undercurrent of resentment felt by many countries here toward U.S. preeminence in the Security Council. But on Monday, there seemed to be a backlash at the ballot box, with Guatemala leading in nine rounds of voting and tying in one.

"Many people felt it was bad taste," said Tanzanian Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, referring to Chavez's invective. Yet he added that Guatemala might have won the seat immediately if the United States had not lobbied so hard on its behalf.

Chavez's defiant speech may also have lost Venezuela votes from countries fearing confrontation with the U.S. in the Security Council.

"The Security Council used to be paralyzed. Now it works," said Chile's ambassador, Heraldo Munoz, who abstained in the voting. "One of the examples of success was Saturday, when the entire council was able to agree on sanctions for North Korea."

Venezuela is a strong supporter of Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear programs will be at the top of the Security Council's agenda in the coming year.

But China, which backs Venezuela, says it is important to have different voices on the council, and that if the five permanent members can agree on issues such as North Korea, a maverick like Venezuela can too.

"The United States cannot expect the composition of the Security Council to be 15 members which all have the same position as the United States, " Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said. "Multilateralism means countries have different opinions. I think that is not really a bad thing. Accommodating diversity is part of democracy."

In other regions, South Africa, Indonesia, Italy and Belgium got the necessary votes Monday to win two-year seats on the council beginning Jan. 1. They replace Tanzania, Japan, Denmark and Greece.

Before the balloting, Venezuela had claimed that it had enough pledges to win the votes of two-thirds of the General Assembly. But Guatemala won 109 votes in the first round -- a 33-vote lead -- and prevailed in each successive round until the two countries drew neck and neck in the sixth round with 93 votes each. By the 10th round, Guatemala had moved ahead again, with 110 votes.

Both countries passed out campaign favors before the balloting. Venezuela gave chocolate in a silky blue bag to sweeten the vote; Guatemala handed out tiny "worry dolls" to be placed underneath one's pillow so all worries would disappear by sunrise.

The record length for a Security Council seat election was the 154 rounds in the 1979 contest between Cuba and Colombia. The voting lasted two months, until both countries withdrew and Mexico won the seat in the 155th.

Venezuela insisted that it was in the race for the long haul. "If it took Cuba 154 rounds, we will stay in for 155," Cardenas said.

The U.S. won't give up so easily either, U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said.

"All I can say is, in the year 2000, I spent 31 days in Florida," Bolton said, referring to the contested recount that concluded with Bush winning his first term in office. "This has just begun."

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maggie.farley@latimes.com

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