UNITED NATIONS -- Guatemala and Venezuela began battling for a seat on the U.N. Security Council yesterday in what has become a referendum on the U.S. and its role in the world body.
After U.S.-backed Guatemala led or tied in 10 rounds of votes without gaining the necessary two-thirds majority to win, the General Assembly suspended balloting until today. If the stalemate continues, diplomats said, they will seek a compromise candidate for the Latin American seat - perhaps Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica or Mexico.
Venezuela's U.N. envoy, Francisco Javier Arias Cardenas, said, "The U.S. is against us as if we were building a nuclear bomb to destroy them. We will not withdraw. We are fighting to the end."
The Security Council consists of five permanent members - the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia - and 10 governments elected for two-year terms, with five replaced each year. Only the permanent members have the power to veto council resolutions. Guatemala and Venezuela are vying for the seat representing Latin America.
Cardenas said the United States had tried to turn the vote into a contest between his government and Washington, and he said the ballots cast for Venezuela represented "votes of conscience" for the developing world.
The United States, fearful that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez would use the council as an anti-American platform, has backed Guatemala. With the help of Mexico and Canada, it has lobbied hard in the region to counter support for Chavez, who has won favor in the region by selling subsidized oil. The result has been division in Latin America.
In September, Chavez won attention and applause from some at the U.N. for a fiery speech in which he called President Bush "the devil" and said Bush acted like "the owner of the world."
The General Assembly speech might have tapped an undercurrent of resentment by many countries here against U.S. preeminence in the Security Council. But yesterday, there seemed to be a backlash at the ballot box, with Guatemala leading in nine rounds of voting and tying one.
"Many people felt it was bad taste," said Tanzanian Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, of Chavez's insults. Yet he added that Guatemala might have won the seat immediately if the U.S. had not lobbied so hard on its behalf.
Chavez's defiant speech might also have lost Venezuela votes from countries fearing confrontation with the U.S. at the Security Council.
"The Security Council used to be paralyzed. Now it works," said Chile's ambassador, Heraldo Munoz, who abstained in the vote. "One of the examples of success was Saturday, when the entire council was able to agree on sanctions for North Korea."
Venezuela is a strong supporter of Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear programs will be at the top of the Security Council's agenda in the coming year.
But China, which supports Venezuela, says it is important to have different voices on the Security Council and that if the five permanent members can agree on issues as difficult as North Korea, then even a maverick like Venezuela can too.
"The United States can not expect the composition of the Security Council to be 15 members which all have the same position as the United States," China's Ambassador Wang Guangya said.
In other regions, South Africa, Indonesia, Italy and Belgium received the necessary votes yesterday to win two-year seats beginning Jan. 1. They replace Tanzania, Japan, Denmark and Greece.
Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.