UNITED NATIONS – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush “the devil” in a speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, making the sign of the cross in a dramatic gesture and accusing him of “talking as if he owned the world.”
The fiery speech by the leftist leader, one of the Bush’s staunchest critics abroad, was harsher in tone than that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sparred with Bush the previous day over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program but avoided any personal insults.
“Yesterday, the devil came here,” Chavez said, referring to Bush’s address before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. “Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.”
He then made the sign of the cross, brought his hands together as if praying and looked up at the ceiling.
“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,” Chavez said.
Chavez’s words drew tentative giggles at times from the audience, but also applause at the end of the speech and when he called Bush the devil, a word he used no fewer than eight times.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Chavez’s remarks were “not becoming for a head of state.”
“I am not going to dignify a comment by the Venezuelan president to the president of the United States,” Rice told reporters in New York. The main U.S. seat in the assembly hall was empty as Chavez spoke, though the U.S. Ambassador John Bolton told The Associated Press that a “junior note-taker” was present, as is customary “when governments like that speak.”
The address appeared to be one of Chavez’ boldest moves yet to lead an alliance of countries firmly opposed to the Bush administration. The speech came after the leftist leader crisscrossed the globe this summer visiting like-minded nations from Iran to Belarus.
The Venezuelan has become Latin America’s leading voice against the U.S. government, and his speech was reminiscent of crusading addresses by his mentor Fidel Castro of Cuba and the late Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
In his 23-minute address, Chavez also called Bush a “spokesman of imperialism” who was trying “to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.”
“An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: `The Devil’s Recipe,'” Chavez said.
He accused the U.S. of planning and financing a failed 2002 coup against him, a charge the U.S. denies. And he said the U.S. tries to impose its vision of democracy militarily in countries like Iran and Iraq.
“We appeal to the people of the United States and the world to halt this threat, which is like a sword hanging over our head,” he said. “The imperialists see extremists everywhere. It’s not that we are extremists. It’s that the world is waking up.”
At the start of his talk, Chavez held up a book by American writer Noam Chomsky, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” and recommended it to everyone in the General Assembly, as well as to the American people.
“The people of the United States should read this … instead of the watching Superman movies,” Chavez later told reporters.
He called U.S. consumerism “madness,” saying Americans have wasteful habits in using oil and energy. He held up a satellite photo showing the world at night, with bright light emanating from the U.S. and other wealthy countries.
Consuming less should be an environmental priority, he said, “instead of looking for oil” through the war in Iraq.
The United States continues to be the top buyer of Venezuelan oil, bringing the South American country billions of dollars in earnings that help fund Chavez’s popular social programs.
Accusing Bush of neglecting the poor, Chavez started a program last winter for Venezuela’s U.S.-based oil company Citgo to sell discounted heating oil to poor American families. It distributed more than 40 million gallons of oil last winter to low-income Americans, and Chavez announced a doubling of that this winter.
Chavez also lambasted the U.S. government for trying to block Venezuela’s campaign for a seat in the U.N. Security Council. He said if chosen over U.S.-favorite Guatemala in a secret-ballot U.N. vote next month, Venezuela would be “the voice of the Third World.”
The council currently consists of five permanent members with veto power, the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France, and 10 non-permanent members who serve two-year terms and have no power to veto resolutions.
The U.S. argues that Venezuela, closely allied with Iran, Syria and Cuba, would be a disruptive force. The campaign for a U.N. seat is shaping up to be a formidable diplomatic test for Chavez, gauging his ability to lobby head-to-head against the United States.
Chavez said the U.N. in its current system “doesn’t work” and is “antidemocratic.” He called for the world body to be overhauled, saying the U.S. government’s “immoral veto” had allowed recent Israeli bombings of Lebanon to continue unabated for more than a month.
The Mideast was in the spotlight, with ministers from the Quartet that drafted the stalled so-called “road map” peace plan, the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia, planning to meet. The Security Council also was scheduled to hold a ministerial meeting Thursday that Arab leaders hope will help revive the peace process.
On Wednesday, Bush met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and described him as “a man of peace” who can help move forward the stalled peace process.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also addressed the General Assembly, warning that terrorism is rebounding in his country. He said efforts to build democracy there had suffered setbacks over the past year as violence increased, especially in the volatile south where NATO forces have been battling Taliban militants in some of the fiercest battles since the hard-line government was toppled in 2001.
“We have seen terrorism rebounding as terrorists have infiltrated our borders to step up their murderous campaign against our people,” he told the General Assembly.
He also expressed concern about “the increased incidents of Islamophobia in the West,” saying it does not “bode well for the cause of building understanding and cooperation across civilizations.”