Los Angeles Times
September 21, 2006
UNITED NATIONS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush "the devil" and pronounced the U.N. "worthless" in a fiery speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, giving a preview of clashes to come if Venezuela wins a seat on the Security Council next year.
Standing at the lectern where Bush had delivered his speech the day before, Chavez said, "Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here." He crossed himself. "Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today." Many diplomats in the vaulted chamber laughed and clapped.
Chavez accused the Bush administration of using the U.N. as a tool to dominate other countries, saying that "the government of the United States doesn't want peace; it wants to exploit its system of exploitation, of pillage, of hegemony through war."
The world body needs to be completely renewed if it is to be able to counter Washington's control, he said, declaring that "the U.N. system born after the Second World War collapsed. It's worthless."
To applause from the packed room, he objected that developing nations had "no power to make any impact on the terrible situation in the world. And that is why Venezuela once again proposes, here, today, 20 September, that we reestablish the United Nations."
Many diplomats came just to hear what was the most provocative bit of showmanship in a series of foreign policy speeches that have often been soporific.
The crowd in the hall did not include any senior U.S. diplomats. They boycotted the speech, leaving a young note-taker to occupy one of the otherwise empty U.S. seats.
A White House spokesman said that Chavez's performance did not merit comment. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said the speech was "insulting" and called it a "comic-strip approach to international affairs."
But Washington officials will have to take Venezuela seriously if it wins a vote this fall for the seat on the Security Council that by tradition goes to a Latin American nation. Of the 15 council seats, five are up for rotation every year, and Venezuela is competing with Guatemala to represent its region.
The campaign has divided Latin America. Guatemala has won the backing of the United States, along with that of Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia.
Venezuela has won the support of other nations that oppose U.S. policy and has made oil deals with some countries in hopes of bolstering its total. Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Cuba and more than a dozen other Caribbean nations now back the Venezuelan bid.
Chile and other countries caught between the U.S. and Venezuela are searching for a compromise candidate. But so far, potential candidates, including the Dominican Republic, have been unwilling to risk Chavez's wrath by getting into the race.
If the Latin American nations fail to reach a consensus, the General Assembly will hold a secret ballot next month to break the deadlock. The winner in that case would need to garner two-thirds of the 192 votes.
Chavez said the United States had launched "an immoral attack" to prevent his country from joining the Security Council. He accused the CIA of trying to kill him and described how his personal doctor and security chief had to stay in his airplane when it landed this week because U.S. immigration authorities would not allow them to enter the country.
Whether Chavez's speech helped or harmed his nation's bid was the subject of considerable discussion Wednesday.
More than half the U.N.'s member states are developing countries, many of whose leaders may find appeal in a message such as Chavez's. And even among wealthier nations, his defiant speech struck a chord with those nursing resentment over Washington's often antagonistic treatment of the world body.
Some simply found his speech entertaining.
"He's quite a character," said Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain, the normally somber president of the General Assembly, who said she couldn't help laughing even though she was seated on the dais.
Chavez has been campaigning in Africa and the Middle East. And this week, he played host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, to seal billions of dollars in oil deals. In his speech Wednesday, he claimed support for his country's Security Council bid from Russia, China, the Arab League and many African countries.
Guatemala also claims commitments from more than half of the General Assembly, but not two-thirds. The country's ambassador to the U.N., Jorge Skinner-Klee, said that despite the laughter and applause, Chavez's speech helped Guatemala more than Venezuela. "You cannot attack what you want to be part of," he said. "We need to address the world in a rational manner, not a confrontational way."
Chavez has promised that if his country wins a seat, he will come often to the U.N. to use the bully pulpit of the Security Council to press for change and to stand up to the United States.
"It will be fun to have Venezuela in the Security Council," said Cesar Fernando Mayoral, the ambassador from Argentina, which strongly supports Venezuela. "But it will mean the end of consensus."
That prospect may make some nations uncomfortable, said an expert from an independent think tank on Latin America.
"I think he's playing a risky game," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue.
"It's true that the U.S. is not very popular, but this kind of vitriolic discourse doesn't win a lot of support," he said. "The applause and warm reaction were understandable in that moment. But when countries have to confront the really polarizing, poisonous politics going on, they may think twice about their support for him."
Reaction at home to Chavez's speech was divided. In Caracas, the official government television network installed a giant screen in Plaza Bolivar downtown to broadcast the address.
Luis Mercedo, an office worker, described the speech as "a dignified position that confronts imperialism." By contrast, Cristina Maldonado, 35, a bank employee, said that calling Bush the "devil" was a "shame because it doesn't represent the majority view of Venezuelans."
Political leaders of all persuasions jumped into the fray, supporting or criticizing the speech.
Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, an ex-legislator and director of COPEI, an opposition party, said the speech was a calculated effort "to make an impact before the world" as part of Chavez's Security Council campaign.
Chavez's principal opponent in the Dec. 3 presidential election, Manuel Rosales, slammed the incumbent for "constantly generating a violent discourse, of aggression and permanent bellicosity."