A year after skipping the UN,Venezuela seeks coveted prize

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During the opening of last year’s U.N. General Assembly, Venezuela provided a dose of chaos and drama when President Nicolás Maduro canceled his inaugural address at the last minute and flew home, citing shadowy threats against his safety on the streets of New York.

On Tuesday, those fears seem to have vanished as the South American leader glad-handed global leaders and faced the press on the sidewalks of Manhattan.

Maduro may have reason to feel confident as he prepares to address the organization Wednesday night: Venezuela seems poised to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council for the first time since 1993.

The last time it vied for a spot, in 2006, under late President Hugo Chávez, the U.S. and others blocked the move. This time around, few seem prepared to get in Venezuela’s way. Despite questions about its human rights record and continuing crackdown on protesters, the country has emerged as the uncontested nominee from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Venezuela still needs two-thirds of the general assembly vote in October to clench the seat, but without serious opposition or competition, analysts say the country is a shoe-in.

In the past, democratic strongholds like Colombia or Chile might have been counted on to push back. But the region is more accommodating this time around.

“Venezuela is collecting its IOUs,” said Diego Arria, an opposition politician and Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.N. in the 1990s. “Why can they collect? Because petro-dollar diplomacy has bought a lot of favors in the region.”

Others may stand down because they need Venezuela as a market, he said. In Colombia’s case, Venezuela is an observer of the peace process between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas taking place in Havana.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos demurred this week when asked if his country would provide any opposition to his neighbors’ Security Council aspirations.

He said that Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia have been trying to facilitate dialogue between the Venezuelan government and its opposition and that, whatever leverage they might have, required prudence.

“That’s why I cannot address the questions you are putting to me,” he said at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Forgive my diplomacy but this is the way the cookie crumbles.”

While editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times have urged the Obama administration to play spoiler and deny Venezuela the 128 votes it needs for the seat, there’s no overt signs of opposition.

The U.S. State Department suggested that because Venezuela has unanimous regional backing, the decision is out of its hands.

“We have made clear that regional groups have a responsibility to put forward candidate countries that support the principles of the U.N. Charter, contribute to the Security Council’s role in maintaining international peace and security, and uphold and advance human rights,” a the official said. “No matter who is on the council, the United States will continue our engagement on the council in pursuit of U.S. interests and for the prevention of conflict.”

Washington’s “concerns with regard to Venezuela’s record on human rights and democratic governance are well known,” the official added.

Latin America’s heavy hitters have an agreement to rotate the Security Council seat and it’s Venezuela’s turn. Argentina’s two-year term expires this year and Chile’s will expire in 2015.

That the U.S. may stand aside this time has multiple interpretations. For some, it’s a sign of the country’s waning influence in the region. For others, it’s a sign that the U.S. is trying to play nice.

“You could see it as recognition that [the U.S.] is willing to accept what Latin American nations have agreed to unanimously,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American History at Pomona College and the author of two books on Venezuela.

If the U.S. does back a third party, “it would look like open meddling,” he added.

Chávez provided colorful moments at the General Assembly. In 2006, while he was vigorously lobbying for the Security Council seat, he famously called President George W. Bush “the devil” and said he left the smell of “sulfur” in his wake.

While Maduro lacks Chávez’s charisma and oratory prowess, he’s still likely to give a memorable speech, railing against American “imperialism” and expounding on what he sees as the international plot to topple his administration.

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said Russia, China and Venezuela were stepping up efforts to silence dissent.

“This growing crackdown on civil society is a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy. And what's needed is an even stronger campaign to defend democracy,” he said.

Emerging from the U.N. Climate Summit, Maduro accused the media and human rights groups of having double standards. While they hammer Venezuela for jailing protesters, including opposition leader Leopoldo López, they ignore the plight of U.S. prisoners like Puerto Rican Nationalist Oscar López Rivera. López Rivera has served 33 years of a 75-year sentence for “seditious conspiracy,” which hinged on his role in a string of bloodless bombings in Chicago.

“In Venezuela, nobody ever talked about human rights until the arrival of the Bolivarian Revolution,” Maduro said, referring to Chávez’s first victory in 1999. “We’re a revolution that has rescued our independence.”

Venezuela will undoubtedly be an independent voice on the council also. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the Maduro administration is a reliable dissenter: Venezuela supports Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the end of the Cuban trade embargo and Syria even as it makes scathing denunciations against the Israeli “extermination” of Palestine.

Even as Maduro makes his General Assembly debut, there’s another member of the delegation who’s likely to steal some of the spotlight: Gabriela Chávez, the 34-year-old daughter of the late leader who was recently named deputy ambassador to the U.N.

Although she doesn’t have a diplomatic background, she did often play the role of first lady to Chávez, who was a divorcee. And for many in Venezuela, her connection to her father is qualification enough.

“Good luck,” a fan wished her on Twitter on Tuesday. “Your country is wishing you the best of luck and giving you all our support just like we did with the giant of giants.”

Follow me on Twitter: @jimwyss

The Americas and the U.N. Security Council

Times on Council / Latest tenure

10 Brazil 2010 – 2011

9 Argentina 2013-2014

7 Colombia 2011 – 2012

5 Chile 2014 – 2015

5 Panama 2007-2008

4 Mexico 2009 – 2010

4 Peru 2006 – 2007

4 Venezuela 1992 – 1993

3 Costa Rica 2008 – 2009

3 Cuba 1990 – 1991

3 Ecuador 1991-1992

2 Bolivia 1978 – 1979

2 Guyana 1982 – 1983

1 Guatemala 2012 – 2013

1 Honduras 1995 – 1996

1 Paraguay 1968 – 1969

1 Uruguay 1965 – 1966

Source: United Nations