Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has taken on the mantle of the bad boy of U.N. summitry, winning plaudits from Third World envoys for bashing the United States, and rattling U.N. officials by questioning the legitimacy of this week's summit of world leaders.
Chavez's appearance on the world stage this week echoed his mentor Fidel Castro's historic 1960 debut address before the General Assembly, complete with a fiery condemnation of American imperialism and side trips scheduled for Saturday to a Harlem church and community groups in the Bronx.
Chavez generated the loudest burst of applause for a world leader at the summit with his unbridled attack on what he characterized as American militarism and capitalism. He even offered a proposal to move the United Nations to Jerusalem or a city in the developing world.
Last night, Chavez threatened to disrupt plans by the 191-member General Assembly to formally endorse -- by consensus and without a recorded vote -- a 35-page agreement calling on governments to combat poverty and terrorism and promote human rights and democracy. The pact had been agreed upon in principle by 189 nations on Tuesday, with Venezuela and Cuba registering protests on grounds they were excluded from a group of about 30 nations who crafted the final deal.
But after meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Chavez dropped his threat to force a vote on the declaration, a maneuver that would have allowed governments to abstain or oppose the agreement, undermining its political force.
In his Thursday address, Chavez railed against the Bush administration for failing to protect poor residents of New Orleans who were caught in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. He also accused the United States of abetting "international terrorism" by failing to arrest television evangelist Pat Robertson for saying that the United States should consider assassinating Chavez.
"The only place where a person can ask for another head of state to be assassinated is the United States, which is what happened recently with the Reverend Pat Robertson, a very close friend of the White House," Chavez said. "He publicly asked for my assassination and he's still walking the streets."
Chavez, passing the five-minute limit for speakers, grew irritated when a U.N. official slipped him a note requesting that he wrap it up. Turning toward the president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson of Sweden, he said: "I think the president of the United States spoke for twenty minutes here yesterday. I would ask your indulgence to let me finish my statement."
U.N. experts and foreign envoys said Chavez, like Castro, was able to capitalize on a reservoir of resentment of American power in the world body. "Obviously people are pleased with what he said, but they cannot express themselves as frankly as he does," said one Arab ambassador, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to offend the United States.
Chavez's popularity also reflected the penchant of some U.N. members for rallying around political figures who face attack by conservative U.S. lawmakers. Annan got a standing ovation from the General Assembly last year following calls for his resignation by Republican members of Congress. The assembly also gave a standing ovation to President Bill Clinton in September 1998, when he was facing attacks from Republican lawmakers over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
The applause for Chavez was recognition of the "sheer entertainment factor" of his undiplomatic speech, said Nancy Soderberg, a former senior U.S. diplomat at the United Nations. "Those speeches get so boring."
But Chavez would never be able to translate the popular reaction to his rant into political support for his positions because, while the moment "might be emotionally satisfying," the delegates "know this is not the real world," said Jeffrey Laurenti, a seasoned U.N. analyst at the Century Foundation.
Some U.N. diplomats complained that the Bush administration had exacerbated the problem by acting as a poor host, delaying a visa request for the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and preventing the president of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, from attending a meeting of international parliamentarians on the eve of the summit.
Ric Grenell, the spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, denied complaints by Venezuelan diplomats that the United States had delayed visas for members of Chavez's entourage. "We have not denied a single visa for the Venezuelan delegation," he said. Grenell said the United States issued the Venezuelans a total of 135 visas, including 88 for Chavez's security detail. "There were 10 submitted very, very late. We are working very, very hard to meet those requests."
Staff writer Michelle Garcia in New York contributed to this report.