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Venezuela mounted a final lobbying offensive at the weekend to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council on Monday, in the face of fierce opposition from the US.
In the most hotly-contested Council race since the cold war, all 192 members of the UN’s General Assembly are due to vote on Monday to fill the slot reserved for Latin America, which is soon to be vacated by Argentina.
Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, a sharp critic of the Bush administration, has travelled to dozens of countries in recent months to rally support for his bid for the rotating two-year seat, which does not carry the power of veto wielded by the five permanent members of the Council.
The US, which has backed Guatemala’s claim, argues that Venezuela’s presence on the Council would be “disruptive”.
Roy Chaderton Matos, a veteran Venezuelan ambassador who is co-ordinating the lobbying effort in New York, told the Financial Times: “Thanks to our dear American friends, we’ve been upgraded to the rank of superpower.”
Still, experts say Venezuela has a better chance than Guatemala of winning the necessary two-thirds of the secret ballot – 128 votes.
Venezuela is counting on support from several South American nations and many in the Caribbean, as well as most Arab countries, several in Africa, Russia and China.
Guatemala, is backed by Central American nations, most European countries, a few from Africa and Asia, and the US. Only a few weeks ago, a Venezuelan victory seemed assured.
However, analysts say that Mr Chávez’s speech before the General Assembly, in which he branded US president George W. Bush “the devil” and said his presence on the podium had left “a stench of sulphur”, has harmed Caracas’s cause.
“The Americans think that Chávez’s ‘sulphur and devil’ speech gave them a boost,” said Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. “Venezuela should still have the edge but if it can’t beat Guatemala that would be quite a blow to Chávez’s international credibility.”
Analysts say Washington has been searching for a third candidate from the region, such as Uruguay or the Dominican Republic, that would be acceptable to countries that would otherwise vote for Venezuela.
Mr Chaderton Matos said Venezuela had been working not only to win in the first round of voting but also to continue in the battle “until the end” if needed.
That raises the spectre of a diplomatic war of attrition not seen at the UN since 1979, when Cuba and Colombia endured 154 rounds of voting over three months before Mexico was chosen as a consensus candidate.
US officials say that Venezuela’s “confrontational” style on the Council would undermine its efforts, for example, to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. Mr Chávez sees Tehran as a close ally.
But analysts such as Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said that, in practice, it is the power of veto in the hands of the Council’s five permanent members that is far more disruptive than anything Venezuela could dream of doing.
“If we want to talk about disruption of the Council we really do have to talk about the disruptive effect of the veto,” said Ms Bennis.
“The US believes that it can use that veto with impunity. That’s the real disruption of the Council, not worries about bellicose speeches from Chávez.”