BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuela's socialist government has quietly secured the backing of Latin America and the Caribbean to obtain a diplomatic trophy that long eluded the late Hugo Chavez: a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The unanimous endorsement of Venezuela's candidacy to represent the region on the Security Council came at a closed-door meeting July 23 in New York, said Amin Cruz, a diplomat at the U.N. from the Dominican Republic, which presided at the meeting.
When Chavez last tried for a seat in 2006, the United States succeeded in torpedoing his campaign. This year, Washington has been mum.
While Venezuela must still muster a two-thirds majority in a secret ballot of 193 member nations at the U.N. General Assembly next month, the lack so far of a rival candidate from the region means the chances of its candidacy being derailed are slim, analysts say.
If it does win a seat, world leaders will almost certainly hear some fiery rhetoric from El Comandante's favorite daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, who last month was named Venezuela's deputy ambassador to the U.N. And since countries sit alphabetically in the council chamber, Venezuela would almost certainly end up next to the United States, perhaps provoking some dramatic moments when the two governments butt heads on big issues, from the crisis in Ukraine to Syria's civil war.
The region's willingness to rally behind Venezuela troubles critics of President Nicolas Maduro and his crackdown on anti-government street protests. While the U.S. and human rights groups have accused regional leaders of being too timid in responding to the unrest, which left 42 people dead, an affinity with Maduro's anti-U.S. stance in many parts of Latin America and his use of Venezuela's extensive oil wealth to win allies among poorer Caribbean nations mean few governments are eager to publicly take Caracas to task.
"Venezuela's tendency to side with abusive governments makes it a less than ideal candidate to help manage the many human rights tragedies the Security Council is currently facing," said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.
Venezuela's foreign ministry declined to comment about the Security Council bid, or even acknowledge it was seeking a seat.
One reason for the low-key approach is to avoid a repeat of the very public dogfight that ensued the last time Venezuela sought one of the 10 non-permanent seats in the U.N.'s most-powerful body.
In 2006, Chavez toured the world collecting promises of votes only to see support erode at the last minute after he bashed the United States at the General Assembly, calling President George W. Bush the "devil." The U.S. then gathered support behind Guatemala. After 47 rounds of deadlocked balloting — the third longest vote for a Security Council seat — both withdrew, clearing the way for a compromise candidate, Panama, which easily won.
Following that display of disunity, regional governments agreed in private to alternate representation in a certain order. Under those procedures, it's now Venezuela's turn.
"But this isn't a straitjacket. The only voting rules that count are the ones outlined in the U.N.'s charter," said Milos Alcalay, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the U.N. who resigned in 2004 to protest what he said was the Chavez government's violation of democratic principles.
No other country has mounted a challenge, however, and the caucus representing the 33 nations last month sent to the General Assembly's president its nomination of Venezuela as the sole candidate to occupy the region's rotating seat for a two-year term beginning in January.
The action reflects a decade-long shift in the region away from the United States. Conservative leaders from Peru to El Salvador that in 2006 had no fear of picking a fight with Chavez have since been voted out of office. Even nations that differ with Venezuela's policies, such as Chile and Colombia, want to avoid a confrontation that harkens back to the polarized politics of the Cold War, when meddling by Washington was frequent.
If any last-minute opposition were to emerge, it likely would come from the United States, which in July imposed a travel ban on 24 high-ranking Venezuelan officials it accuses of using excessive force and arbitrarily jailing anti-government protesters.
But Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Washington's ability to shape the voting is minimal compared to 2006. While Venezuela's preference for heated rhetoric may stand out, Maduro's concern for national sovereignty is in step with other regional leaders, he said, so having Venezuela on the Security Council could serve as a counterweight to the U.S. when debating the use of force.
"Venezuela isn't subject to pressure from the U.S. and its allies and today, when the U.S. is the most war-making country in the world, that's very important," he said.
Venezuela wouldn't have veto power, so it could not affect the outcome of the 15-member council's resolutions.
Still, Maduro's close ties with many countries under U.N. or U.S. sanctions means the potential for clashes with other members is real. Veto-wielding Russia would gain an ally in its frequent battles with the West.
Venezuela's government is one of the world's top buyers of Russian weaponry and was one of just 10 countries in the General Assembly to vote against a resolution criticizing Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Venezuela is also an ally of Iran — the United States in 2011 imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state-run oil company for trading with the Islamic Republic — and Maduro also has been a steadfast supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Last year, Venezuela was the only country of 47 to vote against extending a U.N. Human Rights Council investigation into abuses committed during that country's civil war.
On Thursday, Maduro criticized U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement that he will authorize attacks on the Islamic State group inside Syria and blamed Washington's support of Assad's foes for the emergence of the Islamic State militants.
"They want to impose the strategy of chaos and fear," Maduro said of the United States.
Diego Arria, who was Venezuela's ambassador the last time the country was on the Security Council, in 1992-93, said he fears grandstanding by the socialist government could still cause problems.
"Venezuela on the Security Council will be a real obstacle to having a serious conversation," said Arria, who lives in New York and is urging governments to block Venezuela's election. "It will waste a lot of people's time and become like a theater for radical groups."
Associated Press writers Edith Lederer and Alexandra Olson at the United Nations, Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominical Republic, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman