At midday Tuesday, the sixteenth ballot in the proxy sumo wrestling match between Venezuela and Guatemala for the Latin American seat on the UN Security Council made the 2000 Florida recount seem like a consensual vote of acclamation.

Although the seat represents the Latin American and Caribbean region in the UN, and Venezuela had a clear majority there, the whole General Assembly votes for contested seats. It takes a two-thirds majority to win the election; although Guatemala, the United States’ favored candidate, was a clear leader in the first four ballots, the repeated attritional voting only shifted a handful of votes to and fro.

But as the delegates got exhausted and frustrated, the swings became wider; at one point Venezuela and Guatemala reached neck and neck at ninety-three votes each. After three inconclusive ballots, Mexico and, mysteriously, Cuba put their respective hats in the ring, each getting one vote. By Tuesday morning the swings had reduced again. The rules allow alternating triplets of ballots in which any country can declare candidacy in an attempt to break the deadlock.

But this is a grudge vote of attrition between the United States and its opponents. The repeated voting has been unmatched since the three-month marathon in 1979 between Cuba and Colombia. But to maintain that took the discipline of the cold war. The whisper has it that the Dominican Republic is waiting to climb over the bodies of the contending parties when the delegates get too tired to carry on. The United States will support that; in fact, it will support almost anyone but Hugo Chávez but will do so discreetly to avoid the reaction that overt Washington sponsorship brings.

The vote, whether delegates like it or not, and many do not, has developed elements of a popularity contest between the United States and Chávez. Many delegates would like to look at larger issues, and certainly among the nonaligned nations are some who may not totally appreciate Chávez but who think that Guatemala suffers from being Washington’s standard-bearer.

There is indeed a tradition in the UN for delegates to use the secret ballot to show what they think of overweening American diplomacy. Many observers at the UN–including myself, frankly–thought that Venezuela would be a shoo-in for a two-year term on the UN Security Council. But delegates clearly are refusing to have parameters dictated to them.

If, as seems likely when the delegates get tired and a consensus candidate emerges, Hugo Chávez loses, he will doubtless interpret it as vindication of his denunciations of the United Nations as an American-dominated anachronism. He will miss the point. A body of 192 countries, a majority of whom have have often publicly voted to deny and rebut idiosyncratic American interpretations of international law, chose not to vote for Venezuela in a secret ballot.

That goes beyond Chávez’s diabolical roast of George W. Bush during the September 20 general session. Chávez supporters could indeed point to almost equally ludicrous statements from the Bush Administration, but one hopes for higher standards. The first impulse at the UN is to try for consensus, which is difficult enough with John Bolton representing the United States but would not be helped with a perpetual dogfight between him and Chávez.

Additionally, even if Chávez’s domestic human rights record is by no means as bad as Washington depicts it, his diplomatic record on human rights at the UN is associated with the world’s worst. Venezuela abstained along with Iran and Belarus on the formation of the new Human Rights Council–but then, to put it in perspective, Israel and the United States voted against it!

Ironically similar to the Bush doctrine, recent Venezuelan diplomacy has argued that absolute state sovereignty protects Chávez and any of his friends from international scrutiny but assumes the right to interfere anywhere else. While the US media played up Chávez’s buffoonish shtick against Bush, they overlooked his equally intemperate attacks on the “Responsibility to Protect” adopted unanimously at the previous year’s UN summit, which under current circumstances is tantamount to providing diplomatic cover for the Sudanese mass murders in Darfur.

Delegates may indeed question the US doctrine of presidential infallibility, particularly in relation to Bush, but watching murderous impunity in Sudan, and seeing a nuclear North Korea rising, will not attract them to Chávez’s reflexive opposition to everything Washington stands for.

UN members do not want to expel the United States from the United Nations, nor to mount a crusade (let alone a jihad) against the world’s only superpower. They want to engage the United States in a constructive way, even if this often appears as unrequited love. They assume, probably correctly, that comfortably elected South Africa, Italy, Belgium and Indonesia will be more constructive and selective in their opposition.

So while the United States may have its way in excluding Venezuela from the Security Council, it is unlikely to have the entirely pliable Council it would like. Domestically, however, the Administration would certainly declare a Venezuelan defeat to be another notch on John Bolton’s belt, and use it to reopen the issue of his confirmation, or to justify an end run around an overly strict interpretation of the law on recess appointments. For most people, the millenarian visions of both Chávez and Bolton would be a distraction from the pressing issues that face the UN and the world.