- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday that he expects Venezuela to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council and hopes the country will play a “constructive” role on the organization’s most powerful body.

Venezuela’s candidacy won the unanimous endorsement of Latin American and Caribbean countries during a closed-door meeting in New York on July 23. That makes it likely it will muster the two-thirds majority needed to secure the seat representing the region in a secret ballot of 193 member nations at the U.N. General Assembly next month.

The seat would give a high-profile platform for the fiery, anti-U.S. rhetoric of the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro, the political heir of the late Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is almost certain to ally itself with Russia, and against the U.S., on big issues such as Syria and Ukraine.

“I hope they (Venezuela) can maintain a constructive position,” Santos said in an interview with The Associated Press in New York, where he is attending the annual General Assembly meeting. “All members of the Security Council should have a constructive position.”

Santos said Venezuela’s bid for a two-year term on the council has been in the works for years and it was unlikely to be derailed this late in the game.

Venezuela’s last attempt to gain a seat led to a drawn-out battle with U.S.-backed Guatemala. It ended with both countries withdrawing to make way for Panama.

This time, Venezuela’s bid has been much quieter. Santos said no other country challenged Venezuela for the seat, so Latin America unanimously backed the candidacy.

“It’s not something that arose overnight,” Santos said. “It’s a bit late to take an opposing stance on something that, I think, has been cooking for a while.”

With Latin America firmly behind the candidacy, the United States appears resigned to Venezuela taking a seat, though Obama administration officials have made their unease known.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf earlier this month reiterated concerns about Venezuela’s human rights record and respect for democracy. But she declined to say whether the U.S. would vote against Venezuela or push other countries to do so.

Earlier in New York on Tuesday, President Barack Obama demanded the release of prominent Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been jailed on charges of inciting violence in demonstrations that wracked the country earlier this year.

In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, Obama mentioned Lopez among a list of political dissidents jailed around the world.

Santos defended his government’s decision to deport to Venezuelan students activists who were detained Colombia this month for violating the terms of their visas and allegedly representing national security risks. Opponents of Maduro’s government said their deportation would sentence the pair to decades in jail because of a lack of independence in Venezuela’s justice system.

But Santos said the two were trying to enroll in Colombia’s military college “with false documents.” He said they were using Colombian military uniforms and had been previously arrested in Colombia for participating in violent demonstrations.

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Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed to this story.

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