The Devil and Hugo Chavez

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President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez addresses the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 20, 2006.

When a Mexican reporter asked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a question during a press conference at the United Nations this afternoon, Chavez beamed and told the room that he was a great fan of the Mexican Revolution hero Pancho Villa. "Especially the part," Chavez said, "when Villa invaded the United States." True to his boisterous style, Chavez was in the midst of his own invasion of New York City, where he brought his unabashedly radical, left-wing and anti-U.S. politics to the U.N.'s annual General Assembly. In a speech Wednesday morning to the Assembly, Chavez, as he has done several times before, called President Bush "the devil." Referring to Bush's own U.N. speech yesterday, Chavez said, "The devil came right here... And it still smells of sulfur today."

If that kind of acrimony sounds out of place at a diplomatic haven like the U.N., that's the way Chavez likes it. He believes it his mission, and that of his Bolivarian Revolution, to shake up what he calls the U.S.-dominated "imperialist order" — in which he includes the U.N. In the past few years he has been jetting around the world — bankrolled by the epic oil revenues earned today by Venezuela, which has the hemisphere's largest crude reserves — to forge a more coordinated alliance of developing nations, Iran among them, whose antipathy for Washington is as ardent as his. But autumn in New York has become perhaps Chavez's favorite yanqui-bashing moment each year, the time when he can freely make his Villa-spirited raid on U.S. soil. "It's when he can have the most impact as a voice for the disenfranchised countries," says a Venezuelan diplomat, who admits that Chavez's oil wealth "allows him to use some rhetoric that other developing nations might fear to use."

Chavez is hoping to make that voice even louder next month when the U.N. votes on which Latin American nation will take over that region's rotating seat in the Security Council. Chavez has lined up substantial support in the hemisphere and around the world, including such nations as Brazil, Russia and China. But the U.S., which charges that Chavez is a would-be dictator in the mold of Fidel Castro — and also fears that Venezuela might thwart the Bush Administration's efforts to rein in Iran's uranium enrichment program — is battling hard to get Guatemala elected to the Latin seat instead. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton — pointing to just the kind of raw rhetoric Chavez used today — has repeatedly warned that Venezuela would be a "disruptive" presence on the Council. Nevertheless, Chavez looks likely to best the U.S. in this contest.

Chavez, echoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also took on the U.N. itself in his speech — calling for nothing less than a complete "refounding" of the body to wrest it from what he called the Americans' inordinate domination. "We [the U.N. members] have become a merely deliberative organ," he complained. "We have no power to make any impact on the terrible situation in the world today." On Thursday, Chavez will continue his New York invasion, visiting Harlem to highlight his program of providing poor Americans with Venezuela-subsidized heating oil — something he started during his U.N. visit last year, and yet another way he sees of tweaking the American devil.