UNITED NATIONS – Venezuela and the U.S. — and, by proxy, leftist President Hugo Chavez and President Bush — went toe-to-toe Monday at the U.N. General Assembly, each trying to wrest from the other the last vacant seat on the powerful Security Council.
By the end of the day, neither had scored a knockout, though Guatemala, the U.S. backed contender, clearly was ahead on points, having successfully beaten back 10 rounds of Venezuelan arm twisting in the General Assembly as it attempted to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to win a two-year term on the decision-making body.
In the tenth and final round of voting for the day, it was Guatemala 110, Venezuala 77.
The fight opened with Guatemala surprisingly ahead, 109-76, a somewhat humiliating outcome for Chavez, who had spent millions of Venezuelan petro-dollars and visited several countries in an attempt to score an impressive first-round knockout.
Venezuela's U.N. Ambassador Francisco Arias Cardenas was defiant after the opening round setback, vowing not to succumb to early losses.
"We are going to continue and we are going to call on countries of dignity, strength, independence and autonomy, which is what the United Nations needs right now," Cardenas told state television in an interview from the U.N.
"We're not competing with our brother country," Cardenas insisted, referring to Guatemala. "We are competing with the most powerful country on the planet in its own house," a not-so-subtle reference to the United States.
Venezuela battled back in subsequent votes, tying Guatemala at 93 votes apiece in the sixth round. Venezuela's push, however lost some of its punch in later rounds, falling to 85 votes in the eighth round, and finally 77 in the tenth.
Guatemala won 109 votes in the first round, 114 in the second, 116 in the third, 110 in the fourth, and 103 in the fifth.
Under the rules, voting is to continue until a candidate emerges with a two-thirds majority. A protracted stalemate therefore is possible — there are precedents where voting lasts for weeks, and there is the possibility that the General Assembly could end its fall term without filling the seat.
Another breakthough could come if either candidate decided to drop out of the race, and agree to back a concensus candidate — though both Venezuela and Guatemala have vowed not to give up the fight.
The lack of a majority winner after the fourth round of voting Monday opened the door for other Latin American countries to join the race — Mexico received one vote in the fifth round of voting.
The U.S. and its allies argued that Venezuela's constant anti-American rhetoric could stymie the council and undermine its credibility.
Chavez, who had waged a highly public campaign — including spending millions of petro-dollars to win support — accused the U.S. of waging a "dirty war" to defeat Venezuela's candidacy.
"Go forth with the bayonet! Venezuela is going to the Security Council," Chavez said Sunday, encouraging Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations,
Diplomats said Chavez may have hurt his nation's chances with a bombastic speech at the General Assembly debate in September, when he railed against the United States and called U.S. President George W. Bush the devil.
The 192-nation General Assembly elected South Africa, Indonesia, Italy and Belgium to the four other open seats in the council. They will start their terms on the council on Jan. 1, replacing Tanzania, Japan, Denmark and Greece.
All of those nations won seats easily. Attention throughout the run-up to the vote had focused on the race between Guatemala and Venezuela.
"Certainly that was one of the most dramatic outcomes in these elections, between Guatemala and Venezuela because of the intense campaign that went behind it by Venezuela and of course by Guatemala and other regional powers that sought to participate in this campaign," said Tanzania's U.N. Ambassador Augustine Mahiga.
United States Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton reportedly lobbied hard Monday to beat back Venezuela's bid. Bolton had been scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House Monday, but that meeting was cancelled so Bolton could personally monitor U.S. efforts at the U.N.
A Security Council seat could give Venezuela concrete opportunities to challenge U.S. foreign policy goals. Chavez had promised to stand by Iran in its efforts to avoid U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program, defending the Islamic country against allegations that it wants to build an atomic bomb.
Before the vote, Venezuela and Guatemala both said they had a majority of votes in the 192-member General Assembly.
Guatemala had the support of Colombia, apparently most of Central America, Europe and other countries. Guatemalan officials had expressed concern that U.S. campaigning on its behalf would hurt its bid, turning the contest into an America vs. Chavez battle that has sidelined Guatemala.
Venezuela has served four times on the Security Council. Guatemala, emerging from years of brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship, has never had a seat but is a leading contributor of troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions.
In recent months, Chavez has collected pledges of support as he visited about a dozen countries from eastern Europe to Africa. Venezuela's opposition leaders have accused Chavez of squandering millions of dollars on his Security Council campaign while neglecting domestic problems like rampant crime and acute poverty.
The 10 non-permanent seats on the council are filled by the regional groups for two-year stretches. The other five are occupied by the veto-wielding permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.