Chavez’s Histrionics Shock Even America’s Critics
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
UNITED NATIONS — Playing to the anti-American crowd at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, President Chávez of Venezuela put on a nightclub act, rolling his eyes, crossing himself, looking up to the heavens, and calling President Bush “el diablo.”
His histrionics were by no means the only bizarre behavior in a room where any insult hurled at Mr. Bush had a good chance of winning easy applause. But even diplomats from countries that rarely see eye to eye with America were taken aback by Mr. Chávez’s remark.
“Did he really say that? Did he go that far?” Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing of China, who attended bilateral meetings all day and was not present for Mr. Chávez’s speech, asked. Mr. Li said he wondered whether the Venezuelan leader’s comments were mistranslated from the Spanish.
“It’s hard to see it as helpful,” the British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, told The New York Sun.
“The devil is right at home, the devil, the devil himself is right in the house,” Mr. Chávez said to giggles, then applause in the hall of the General Assembly. “And the devil came here yesterday,” he added, crossing himself and looking theatrically upward.
“Yesterday, the devil came here, right here, right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of,” he said. “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, truly, as the owner of the world.”
Mr. Chávez, a firebrand populist who has used his country’s vast petroleum reserves to travel the world — including to China — to build coalitions opposing what he calls American “hegemony,” said Mr. Bush is “the spokesman for imperialism,” and characterized Washington’s policies as “domination, exploitation, and pillage of the peoples of the world.”
Like any showman, he began the speech brandishing a prop — a weighty Noam Chomsky book, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” that is filled with musings on themes similar to those Mr. Chavez struck. “The first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States,” he said, waving the book in the air.
The history of the General Assembly is replete with strange behavior, usually carried out by characters who try to gain attention with their anti-American views. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev famously took off his shoe and banged it on the U.N. Security Council table. In 1974, Yasser Arafat brought a pistol. Fidel Castro often wielded an even more dangerous weapon: deadly speeches lasting hours.
On Tuesday, a close ally of Mr. Chavez’s, President Morales of Bolivia, brought along another prop. Raising a coca leaf in the air to advocate his country’s major agricultural crop, he asked the assembly, “Does this look like a drug to you?”
Mr. Chavez has spent much of his country’s money recently to marshal worldwide support for his campaign for Venezuela to become one of the 10 elected members of the Security Council. Diplomats predict the country will soon be elected, and that when it does, Mr. Chavez will go to routine council meetings normally attended only by ambassadors.
But Mr. Chavez did not have the last word yesterday. Noting that the Venezuelan president had the right to “exercise freedom of speech in Central Park too and say pretty much whatever he wanted,” the American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said, “Too bad President Chavez doesn’t extend the same freedom of speech to the people of Venezuela.”