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Chávez denounces Bush as `devil'

Insult at UN draws rebuke from Delahunt

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela pointed to applauding delegates in the hall after addressing the 61st United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela pointed to applauding delegates in the hall after addressing the 61st United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday. (Ray Stubblebine/ Reuters)

UNITED NATIONS -- President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela denounced President Bush yesterday as ``the devil himself" and ``a world dictator" in an impassioned speech to the UN General Assembly, prompting sharp criticism from US officials.

``The devil, the devil himself, is right in the house. And the devil came here yesterday," said Chávez, who made the sign of the cross as he spoke from the same podium that Bush used a day earlier. ``Right here -- and it smells of sulfur still today."

Chávez regularly insults Bush in public, but yesterday's remarks were notable in part because of the forum in which they were delivered. The scathing comments surprised and amused even seasoned diplomats, drawing scattered laughter and applause -- the US seats were empty at the time -- and inviting comparisons to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's infamous pounding of the table with his shoe at the UN in 1960.

The remarks prompted a rebuke from one of Chávez's closest friends in Congress: US Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat. Delahunt, who helped negotiate a deal in which Venezuela has provided discounted heating oil to tens of thousands of Boston-area residents starting last year, called Chávez's comments ``silly" and ``inappropriate," and added that he has personally counseled Chávez against using such harsh rhetoric.

But Delahunt asserted that the Bush administration's foreign policy deserves some blame for fostering a climate where a world leader could offer such strident denunciations of the American president in front of the General Assembly. He said he would continue to work with the Venezuelan leader to bring discounted oil to his constituents.

``For him to be able to say that puts into context in what low esteem the United States is held, not just in the Islamic world, but all over," Delahunt said. ``This is the reflection of the poisonous personal relationship between him and Bush."

Delahunt has called Chávez ``an excellent friend" and has blasted the Bush administration for seeking to ``demonize" him and treat him as an equivalent of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chávez's close ally.

Delahunt's Republican opponent in this fall's House race, Jeff Beatty, pounced on Chávez's remarks as a further example of why Delahunt is wrong to cozy up to Chávez.

``Bill Delahunt is the witting collaborator of a hostile foreign power, and that is a role that is inappropriate for a US representative," Beatty said.

Bush administration officials deemed Chávez's comments unworthy of reaction.

``We're not going to address that kind of comic-strip approach to international affairs," said John Bolton, the American ambassador to the UN. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the comments ``not becoming for a head of state."

Chávez, a left-wing populist who was elected Venezuela's president in 1998, has become one of the most outspoken voices in a growing alliance of countries that oppose the dominance of the United States. On Monday, he cemented an alliance with Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to explore a Venezuelan area that is believed to hold one of the world's largest oil reserves.

Chávez has long fostered a close relationship with Castro, whom he memorably visited during his recent convalescence. Last month, he visited Syria, a country the United States accuses of supporting insurgents in Iraq and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, and made plans to build an oil refinery in Syria. Chávez has even sought a meeting with Kim Jong Il, the reclusive leader of North Korea.

But Chávez's influence stretches beyond the borders of pariah governments. He is vying for a seat for Venezuela on the UN Security Council, which would give him a powerful pulpit from which to criticize the United States.

Chávez's speech was a broad denunciation of US foreign policy, as well as a call to arms for nations to join in ``the birth of the new era, to prevent hegemony and prevent further advances of imperialism."

He started his speech by waving a copy of Noam Chomsky's 2004 book, ``Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance," and recommending it to American citizens and UN delegates.

``The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species," Chávez said.

In the book, Chomsky argues that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a continuation of a half-century of an American ``imperial grand strategy" to establish world dominance. Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did not respond to requests for comments yesterday.

Delahunt said that with such rhetoric, Chávez ``hurts himself" in his relationship with other countries as well as the United States.

``I don't think it's in the best interest of Hugo Chávez, because that level of rhetoric, I think, makes others uneasy," he said. ``I mean, the Iranians don't talk that way. The Cubans don't talk that way."

``I would argue that there has to be somebody in the United States government that holds an elected position that has a communication" with Chávez , he said.

In a press conference after his speech, Chávez appeared playful and confident. Saying that he feels it is his duty to provide oil to the poor in Boston and New York, he pledged to increase his gift of heating oil in the United States.

Material from wire services was used in this report. Klein reported from Washington; Stockman from the United Nations.

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