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.