September 21, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 20 -- President Hugo Chavez, the combative Venezuelan leader, denounced President Bush in a U.N. speech Wednesday as a racist, imperialist "devil" who has devoted six years in office to military aggression and the oppression of the world's poorest people.
Speaking from the lectern where Bush spoke a day earlier, Chavez said he could still smell the sulfur -- a reference to the scent of Satan. Even by U.N. standards, where the United States is frequently criticized as the world's superpower, Chavez's remarks were exceptionally inflammatory. They were also received with a warm round of applause.
Chavez's address followed a series of strident speeches by U.S. adversaries, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Together, they represent an emboldened alliance of oil-rich states that defy U.S. demands to change their policies on a range of issues, including the development of nuclear technology and the role of U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur.
"Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world," Chavez told the chamber of international diplomats. "I think we could call a psychiatrist to analyze yesterday's statement made by the president of the United States. As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums, to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world."
Bush administration officials dismissed Chavez's remarks as the ravings of a reckless political leader. "I'm not going to dignify a comment by the Venezuelan president towards the United States," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "I think it's not becoming for a head of state."
In an effort to bolster his case, Chavez waved a copy of Noam Chomsky's book "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Domination" and recommended that everyone read it. The book, written by the American linguist and longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, argues that the United States' pursuit of political supremacy is having devastating consequences for the majority of the world's people.
"The president of the United States came to talk to the peoples -- to the peoples of the world," Chavez said. "What would those peoples of the world tell him if they were given the floor? . . . I think I have some inkling of what the peoples of the south, the oppressed people, think. They would say, 'Yankee imperialist, go home.' "
"The world is waking up," he added. "I have the feeling, dear world dictator, that you are going to live the rest of your days as a nightmare because the rest of us are standing up, all those who are rising up against American imperialism."
Chavez's U.N. appearance is part of a Venezuelan campaign to gain election to the Latin American seat on the U.N. Security Council, a post that would place it in a position to challenge U.S. policies. The United States, which vigorously opposes Venezuela's candidacy, is supporting a competing bid for the post by Guatemala, a poor Central American republic with little political influence at the United Nations.
In portraying the United States as an imperial power, Chavez sought to evoke memories of the Cold War, when Third World revolutionaries such as Cuban President Fidel Castro (an ally and mentor of Chavez) and Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe delivered scathing attacks against the United States.
U.N. experts said that though Chavez's speech may resonate with delegations who oppose a new world order built around American power, it was so undiplomatic that it may undermine his chances of getting into the Security Council. It "confirms the worst stereotypes about the U.N. General Assembly being a circus sideshow filled with venom and rabid anti-Americanism," said Edward Luck, an expert on the United Nations at Columbia University. "I never thought anyone could make Ahmadinejad look like a moderate, but Chavez has done it."
Although Chavez is renowned for his caustic views on the Bush administration, some senior U.N. diplomats were startled by his statement. Asked if Chavez had gone too far, China's Foreign Minister Li Zhao Xing said: "He really said that? Are you sure? He would go that far?"
Britain's Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested that the Chavez comments went beyond the pale of diplomatic protocol at the United Nations. "Even the Democrats wouldn't say that," she said.
Some of the world's poorest countries, such as Bolivia, sought to prove they could stand up to the United States. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close ally of Chavez, chastised the Bush administration for adding his nation to a list of major drug-producing countries because it permits the cultivation of coca, which is consumed by many Bolivians as tea but is also used to make cocaine.
Holding a coca leaf in his hand, Morales told the General Assembly he would never yield to U.S. pressure to criminalize coca production. "With all respect to the government of the United States, we are not going to change anything. We do not need blackmail or threats," Morales said.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.