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Chavez takes a devilish tack for U.N. spot

An undiplomatic utterance is part of a struggle for a diplomatic plum - a Security Council seat.

Published October 2, 2006

MIAMI - When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez described President Bush as "the devil" in a fiery speech at the United Nations some in the audience tittered.

The speech was widely reported in this country, causing offense to both Republicans and Democrats and resulting in attempts to block the sale of gasoline by Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil operation. Mostly it was dismissed as the latest outburst from an unhinged Latin American tin-pot ruler.

But that fails to fully reflect what is at stake behind Chavez's use of satanic imagery. Chavez's speech was part of a carefully crafted strategy for world recognition, experts say.

"He's really on a mission," said Michael Shifter, a Venezuela expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He's positioning himself at the head of the anti-U.S. coalition in the Third World."

In two weeks Chavez hopes to win one of the coveted 10 "nonpermanent" seats on the United Nations Security Council. He makes no secret of the purpose of his quest.

In a recent interview on Venezuelan state TV, Chavez said the intention was to, "radically oppose U.S. attempts to finish off the world, to invade peoples, to bomb cities, to ignore the sovereignty of nations."

He has long contended that Bush wants to invade Venezuela and have him assassinated.

U.S. officials have consistently dismissed such assertions, and have lately tried to tone down the war of words with Chavez. They declined to comment on Chavez's Sept. 20 U.N. speech.

But Washington is paying close attention to Chavez's campaign for the Security Council. Washington is concerned that Venezuela's candidacy would provide a vehicle for other hostile regimes - such as Iran, Cuba and North Korea - to have more say in the 15-member Security Council. Chavez is on good terms with all three, especially Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Days before his U.N. speech, Chavez hosted Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Caracas. Chavez also came out in support of Hezbollah during the recent conflict in Lebanon with Israel, and supports North Korea in its nuclear dispute with the United States.

"Venezuela could make life extremely difficult for the U.S. at the U.N.," said Shifter.

Venezuelan officials say it's time there was a truly independent Third World voice on the Security Council. Speaker after speaker at the recent General Assembly meeting echoed that view.

The nonpermanent members can vote, but do not have the veto power of the five permanent members. By tradition, the seats are held for two-year terms, and represent the interests of the region from which they come - in this case Latin America. But Venezuela's neighbors are deeply divided over its candidacy, not only among themselves but even domestically.

Chile's ruling coalition, for example, is split along party lines, with the Socialists in favor of Venezuela, while the more conservative Christian Democrats are strongly opposed.

Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay have committed themselves to backing Caracas.

Some regard Chavez as an aspiring dictator with a poor domestic record and an unnecessarily belligerent foreign policy. They would prefer to support the rival candidacy of Guatemala. Those backers include Guatemala's neighbors in Central America, as well as Colombia, Washington's strongest ally in the region.

Guatemala has never served on the Security Council, while Venezuela has occupied the seat four times, most recently in 1992-93. Guatemala also has long experience of working with the U.N., which played a key role in ending that country's long and bloody civil war. Guatemala also has contributed troops to U.N. peacekeeping efforts. Venezuela used to participate in these missions, but has not done so since Chavez took office in 1999.

Under Chavez's rule, Venezuela's diplomatic conduct at international meetings had become "peculiar," Thomas Shannon, the senior State Department official for Latin America, told reporters in June.

Venezuela's agenda "always has a confrontational, conflictive edge" at international forums, he said. "They operate in a way that many find confusing and confounding."

According to Gen. Alberto Mueller, Chavez's former ambassador to Chile, the Venezuelan candidacy will "reveal how much support Venezuela has in the world, and how much the United States has."

By most calculations, Venezuelan financial assistance to Latin America far surpasses U.S. aid, calculated at around $1.7-billion this year. Venezuela spends that much on Cuba alone.

Chavez has even won supporters in the United States after he sent 2-million barrels of oil last year to help alleviate shortages after Hurricane Katrina. He followed that up this year by sending 40-million gallons of discounted heating oil to low-income residents in Baltimore, Boston and New York. One day after his U.N. speech, Chavez told a crowd in Harlem that he planned to up the program to 100-million gallons in 17 states.

Some of Chavez's U.S. sympathizers have backed away after the name-calling at the U.N. "You don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district, and you don't condemn my president," said Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat who represents Harlem.

Until recently, the Venezuelan government had made little effort to drum up support for its candidacy, which was first mentioned in 2004, two years after Guatemala began its diplomatic efforts.

But beginning in early 2006, Chavez decisively shifted the emphasis of Venezuelan foreign policy toward the world stage, with visits to China, Russia, Iran, Belarus, Vietnam, Malaysia, Syria and several other countries in Africa and Asia, as well as Latin America.

Some believe he is seeking to follow the example of Castro, who has used conflict with Washington to help him stay in power for half a century.

"He is looking for a fight," says Elie Habalian, a former Venezuelan governor of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and a specialist in strategic and energy issues.

Diplomats still doubt that Chavez has the two-thirds of votes he needs when ballots are cast Oct. 16. Voting is secret, and some countries are appalled by Chavez's undiplomatic style. A stalemate could result in the emergence of a compromise candidate.

Venezuela's delegation to the U.N. says it has received very positive feedback since Chavez's speech, noting that senior U.S. officials have repeatedly labeled Chavez in equally demeaning terms, even likening him to Adolf Hitler.

One blamed the media for seizing on his use of the word "devil" as a way of obscuring his proposals for U.N. reform to limit U.S. "imperialist domination" of the globe.

Others see it differently. "I don't think that speech helped his image," said Shifter. "It certainly didn't win over any converts."

David Adams is the Times Latin America correspondent. Phil Gunson is a Times freelance correspondent based in Caracas.

[Last modified October 2, 2006, 08:36:08]

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