Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. wrong on Venezuela’s Security Council seat

When Democrats and Republicans in the ultra-polarized U.S. Congress put out a joint foreign policy statement, as they did when they urged the Obama Administration to oppose Venezuela's admission to the United Nations Security Council, it’s sometimes worth reading. And in this case, it is.

In a Sept. 24 letter to U.S. Secretary John F. Kerry, 14 members of the House of Representatives from both parties called on the administration “to take a decisive stand” on Venezuela's candidacy for a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. officials had earlier said they would not actively oppose it.

Venezuela was nominated for a non-permanent Security Council seat at a closed-door meeting of the GRULAC group of Latin American ambassadors to the United Nations in July. Under U.N. rules, Venezuela's nomination will be submitted to a secret vote by the 193-country General Assembly, which usually supports each region’s candidate for non-permanent seats.

In their letter, the U.S. legislators said that “a Venezuelan seat at the Security Council will embolden the Venezuelan regime and will serve as a platform from which the rogue regimes it collaborates with can use to advance their own political agendas.”

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, they said, is an enthusiastic supporter of some of the world’s worst dictatorships.

Among other things, Venezuela is helping Iran circumvent U.N. sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, and Maduro has strongly supported Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that has already left more than 200,000 dead. Furthermore, when Russia invaded Crimea earlier this year, Venezuela was one of only 11 U.N. member countries that supported the Russian invasion, signatories of the letter argue.

The letter, signed by influentials such as House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Matt Salmon (R-Arizona), House Middle Eastern and Africa Subcommittee Chairwoman and Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen and Chair of the Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), also calls for “harsher sanctions against human rights violators of the Maduro regime.”

Earlier this year, at least 43 people died, more than 800 were wounded and about 2,500 arrested during student protests in Venezuela. According to Human Rights Watch, there was an “alarming pattern” of human rights violations by government forces, which included at least 10 documented cases of torture of students and several shootings at point-blank range.

Maduro also took office after a dubious election process last year, and has arrested key opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López under trumped-up charges, signers of the bipartisan letter say.

“The United States must take a decisive stand in this issue, provide a voice and a vote for those being oppressed, and promote our ideals of democracy, freedom and the respect for human rights,” the congressional letter concludes.

Asked about the letter, State Department spokeswoman Angela Cervetti told me that the Obama administration constantly states its concern about Venezuela's human rights and democracy record, and that it recently revoked U.S. visas of about two dozen Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses.

As for Venezuela's likely election to the U.N. Security Council, she said that all aspiring Security Council members “should support the principles of the U.N. Charter,” but added that “who the GRULAC elects to a rotating chair is a GRULAC, not a U.S. decision.”

Many interpret such statements as an admission that there is not much the United States can do about this.

My opinion: The fact that Latin American governments have turned their back on the defense of democracy and human rights to elect Venezuela to a Security Council seat should not be an excuse for inaction by the Obama administration.

Venezuela's election to the seat must still be approved by two thirds of the General Assembly in a secret ballot. That means that it could be blocked with 65 votes.

Granted, the United Nations is a weird — not to say insane — place, in which small dictatorships like Cuba can often get more votes than the United States or Europe. And, granted, the Obama administration has to pick its battles at the U.N., and this one may well be a lost cause.

But at a time of escalating world conflicts and given that Venezuela would almost surely use its seat at the world’s most important diplomatic body to support some of the world’s worst dictatorships and terrorist groups, Obama should spend some political capital in pursuing those 65 votes.

The stakes are too high to watch this happen without putting up a good diplomatic fight.