The Cable

Venezuela’s Revenge

Venezuela was elected Thursday to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council, overcoming long-standing U.S. opposition to its membership on the world body’s premier security panel and setting the stage for a potential clash over issues ranging from Syria to Ukraine. In a victory lap of sorts, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Rafael Ramírez told reporters ...

Getty Images/ Spence Platt
Getty Images/ Spence Platt

Venezuela was elected Thursday to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council, overcoming long-standing U.S. opposition to its membership on the world body’s premier security panel and setting the stage for a potential clash over issues ranging from Syria to Ukraine.

In a victory lap of sorts, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Rafael Ramírez told reporters outside the U.N. General Assembly chamber that the fact that his country received votes in favor of its candidacy from 181 of the U.N.’s 193 members "shows clearly the wide support our revolution has from the international community.

"This triumph is dedicated to commander Hugo Chávez," Ramírez added, recalling the former Venezuelan leader’s 2007 quest to resume a campaign for a Security Council seat following Venezuela’s 2006 defeat as a result of American diplomatic maneuvers. The tribute was a sign of Chávez’s enduring role in Venezuelan politics. His daughter, María Gabriela Chávez, who was recently appointed Caracas’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, sat with the Venezuelan delegation as it celebrated the election. Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, meanwhile, hailed this "victory of Hugo Chávez Frías," in a nationally televised address. "Chávez keeps winning battles in the world."

Venezuela is set to take its seat on the 15-nation Security Council in January 2015, along with Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Spain. Turkey, which was long favored to win a seat, lost out in a three-way race with New Zealand, which prevailed in the first round of voting with 145 votes, and Spain. In a final runoff, Spain defeated Turkey by a vote of 132 to 60, a humbling defeat for a country that aspires to a role as a global leader. In an earlier bid for a Security Council seat, in 2008, Turkey garnered 151 votes, winning easily in the first round.

Security Council diplomats said Turkey’s failure is likely attributable to its alienation of key power brokers, including Egypt, which has resented Turkey’s close ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was the influential Gulf States, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that may have dealt the decisive blow, according to U.N. diplomats. Those governments are still fuming over Turkey’s unwillingness to fully back the military coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The Saudis and Emiratis, according to one Arab source, are said to have lobbied behind the scenes to thwart Turkey. "I thought they would lose votes, but the scale of their loss is surprising to me, very much so," said one senior European diplomat. "It seems that Turkey was killed by the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]," which includes all the Persian Gulf monarchies. Another Security Council diplomat said that Turkey’s defeat reflected its waning international standing.

It is unclear whether the United States — which has voiced frustration over Turkey’s refusal to intervene militarily in Syria on behalf of the Kurdish fighters defending the border town of Kobani against the better-armed Islamic State — backed Turkey’s campaign. Despite their differences, Washington needs Turkey’s support in confronting the Islamic State, whether through the provision of overflight rights or access to Turkish bases.

The Venezuelan victory was all the more striking because the United States, which has vigorously sought to derail previous bids by the Venezuelans, didn’t stand in its way. U.N.-based diplomats said that the Americans didn’t put up a fight, knowing it was probably unwinnable. "I think they found it pointless, as they would not have succeeded," explained one senior European diplomat. A Security Council diplomat said the United States engaged in a "half-hearted campaign" to thwart the Venezuelan bid even though "they knew it wouldn’t work." The diplomat said the United States sent many governments, including his own, an official diplomatic note, or démarche, noting that Venezuela was "not a country you can work with."

Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been rocky ever since Chávez, a populist former military officer, was elected president in 1999, a job he held till his death in 2013. The Venezuelan leader resented what he saw as heavy-handed pressure by the George W. Bush administration to topple his government. In 2006, Chávez delivered a deeply embittered speech before the U.N. General Assembly in which he denounced Bush as a racist, imperial devil, who had left the smell of sulfur at the U.N. podium during a speech he delivered days earlier. Later that year, the United States exacted its revenge, derailing Venezuela’s Security Council bid.

Venezuela had been poised to run unopposed for the seat because Latin America, like most regional groups at the United Nations, selects its Security Council candidates on a rotating basis in advance of the General Assembly vote. Venezuela, which had not held the seat since the early 1990s, was the Latin Americans’ main choice. But the United States convinced Guatemala to break with the group and challenge Venezuela. The 2006 vote ended in a deadlock, providing an opportunity for a compromise candidate, Panama, to take the job. But in an effort to patch up the interregional squabble, the Latin Americans struck a deal that allowed Guatemala to take the seat in 2012, and Venezuela to get it this time around.

Following Thursday’s vote, a U.S. official said Washington had "limited means to affect" the Latin Americans’ decision, as it is not a member of the Latin American voting bloc. "Yes, the United States has obvious concerns about Venezuela’s selection to the Security Council," the official added. "Our concerns with regard to Venezuela’s record on human rights and democratic governance are well known and have been communicated to the region. Given Venezuela’s long history of bad behavior … the U.S. has real concerns with the country’s willingness to be a productive member of the Security Council at the U.N."

But the official said the United States has a long history of working with countries with which it has differences, citing Syria in 2001 and Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya in 2007. "We will do so again in this case," the official said.

In a statement, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the "U.N. charter makes clear that candidates for membership on the Security Council should be contributors to the maintenance of international peace and security and support the other purposes of the U.N., including promoting universal respect for human rights…. Venezuela’s conduct at the U.N. has run counter to the spirit of the U.N. charter and its violations of human rights at home are at odds with the [U.N.] charter’s letter."

If anything, Thursday’s election marked the end of an intense season of diplomatic lobbying at Turtle Bay. In a final push for votes, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted a gala reception at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Room to make a final pitch to U.N. delegates. Guests, who included the Saudi ambassador and Spain’s foreign minister and U.N. ambassador, were feted with a spread that included grape leaf hors d’oeuvres, honeyed baklava, and miniature chocolate eclairs. As the evening came to a close, delegates were sent off into the evening with a brown paper goody bag containing a coffee thermos painted with watercolor impressions of Istanbul.

Clearly, it was not enough.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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