Argentina vacates a temporary UN Security Council seat on Jan. 1. General Assembly voting for a Latin American and Caribbean replacement candidate stalled on Oct. 23 after Venezuela and Guatemala each failed to gain a required two-thirds majority after 35 votes. The bizarre battle at the United Nations highlights dramatically changed power relations affecting Latin America.

On Oct. 15, Italy, India, Belgium and South Africa each gained two-year Security Council seats without opposition. The only real precedent for a contested Security Council seat comes from 1979 elections to the Security Council involving Cuba and Colombia. Mexico ended up as a compromise choice after three months and 154 votes.

So far this year, except for a sixth-round tie, Guatemala has won all voting sessions, with most Latin American nations favoring Venezuela. On Oct. 20, the Assembly postponed further polling until Oct. 25, when a twice-daily limit on voting took effect. Latin American countries, not yet ready to consider a third country to represent the region, met to assess the candidates.

As the World went to press, news agencies were reporting that Venezuela and Guatemala were considering withdrawing their candidacies in favor of a compromise third nation.

Lacking veto power, short-term Security Council members play second fiddle to five permanent members. Nevertheless, the stakes are high, and Venezuela and the United States — acting on behalf of Guatemala, its Central American protégé — have campaigned vigorously.

According to Venezuela’s UN Ambassador Francisco Arias Cardenas, the issue is “reform of the United Nations … democratization, which is quite necessary.” President Hugo Chavez has bemoaned the longstanding lock on Security Council power held by France, United States, Russia, Great Britain and China.

Venezuela is concerned too about Washington’s role in lobbying for Guatemala, regarded by many as a leading human rights violator. Arias Cardenas told the press, “If we withdrew, it would be the same as accepting Washington’s veto outside the Security Council to control us, to humiliate us.” Holding up a Spanish newspaper picturing U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton together with his Guatemalan counterpart, he asked, “Why doesn’t Bolton come to this microphone and declare that the United States will remove the pressure, will withdraw the money [and] blackmail?”

Bolton complained about Venezuela “making us put up with this process [with] behavior that we are worried it would have in the council and that would only lead to interruptions.” Venezuela in the Security Council “would not be useful or constructive,” he said.

For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Venezuela’s election to the council “would be the end of consensus” there. “That’s serious business,” she said.

Political analyst Tariq Ali knows that U.S. concerns extend beyond protocol niceties. “The Venezuelans will use the Security Council as a platform to put an alternative view forward, and we live in a world where alternative views aren’t permitted,” he told Democracy Now. “Latin American leaders have a social vision.”

President Chavez himself promised that once on the Security Council, Venezuela would become the “voice of the South.”

That voice will come with teeth, according to one observer, who notes that Venezuela’s use of petroleum profits for social missions has garnered wide regional and international support. Venezuela’s cross-border hydrocarbon pipelines, its founding of a continent-wide television network, and its establishment of the Bank of the South has increased its stature as a progenitor of Latin American unity.

Recent agreements with China on oil, banking and transportation worth $11 billion are seen as bolstering Venezuela’s international influence.

For Venezuela to join the Security Council would be intolerable for Washington, writes another commentator, especially in view of Chavez’s blistering criticisms of the Bush administration’s policies at the recent UN summit.

The U.S. bid to isolate Venezuela has recently taken the form of an attempt to link the country’s leadership with terrorism. Fox News reported Oct. 16 that the House Internal Security Committee heard testimony that “the Venezuelan president is collaborating with potential terrorists and is helping them sneak into the United States.” In this far-fetched scenario, Chavez is purportedly smuggling Middle Eastern terrorists into Venezuela for Spanish lessons, equipping them to infiltrate Mexico and ultimately the United States.

Venezuela scoffs at such wild claims.

Caracas-based lawyer Eva Golinger writes, “The United States will keep on doing everything possible to destroy the Bolivarian Revolution, impede the presidential elections in December and look for a way to intervene ‘legally.’”

But, she adds, “What the elections for the Security Council confirms for us is that Venezuela is not alone.”