The tabloids are in a tizzy, and Democrats are joining Republicans in condemning Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s speech at the United Nations in which he called President Bush “the devil.”
“I want President Chavez to please understand that even though many people in the United States are critical of our president that we resent the fact that he would come to the United States and criticize President Bush,” said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson met with Chavez on Thursday night, saying he was concerned by the name-calling and believed both sides need to tone down their rhetoric.
“Of course he feels that the U.S. government is part of trying to pull a coup on him. ... But my appeal to him is get beyond the anger,” Jackson said.
“I think that he should not be calling President Bush ’devil.’ President Bush should not be calling him ’evil’ or calling him ’tyrant,”’ Jackson said. “We must cease these hostilities.”
House majority leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, called Chavez a “power-hungry autocrat” and said his U.N. speech on Wednesday was “an embarrassment and an insult to the American people.”
The New York Daily News Page 1 headline on Friday told Chavez to “ZIP IT!”, and the New York Post called him a “JERK!” and the “Caracas Crackpot.”
No backing down
Chavez stood by his comment.
“Sometimes the devil takes the form of people,” Chavez told hundreds of supporters in a church in Harlem on Thursday. He called the war in Iraq criminal and said Bush is a “sick man.”
Chavez accused the United States of keeping his doctors and his security chief from coming to New York by not granting them visas.
“They’re attempts to persuade me not to come, because some people would like for me not to come, but I come. I come to say what I think must be said,” Chavez said.
The Venezuelan has said he did not prepare a script for his U.N. speech, but went in with ideas and spoke spontaneously.
Chavez described himself as a friend of the American people, and announced Venezuela would boost sales of discounted heating oil to poor Americans. But, he insisted, “we’re enemies of imperialism” — his shorthand for the Bush administration.
Praise for Pancho Villa
Taking a question from a Mexican reporter Wednesday, Chavez mused he would have liked to be a fighter with the revolutionary Pancho Villa nearly a century ago when he led his men in a raid into U.S. territory.
“They invaded the United States,” Chavez said. “The only one who has dared to invade the United States was Pancho Villa.”
In his speech Thursday, Chavez repeated his warning that his country would halt oil shipments if the United States tries to oust him. He added that he would like to see a U.S. president “who you could talk with.”
Rangel noted that Chavez was speaking at a church in his district and that he understood that Chavez would announce an increase in the amount of heating oil Venezuela is prepared to give to low-income people in the district. He called the program very effective and said he expects that next year they will be getting an even larger amount of home heating oil.
“But you don’t come into my country, you don’t come into my congressional district and you don’t condemn my president,” Rangel said.
Insults have flown between Caracas and Washington since 2002, when the U.S. swiftly recognized leaders who briefly ousted Chavez, only to have their coup cut short when Chavez returned to power, strengthened by huge street protests.
U.S. officials regularly call the Venezuelan leader a destabilizing force, and Bush has said he sees Chavez as a threat to democracy. Chavez has called Bush a “devil” in other speeches.
The U.S. government has sought to block Venezuela’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, arguing the Chavez administration would be a disruptive force and backing Guatemala instead. Chavez says the Bush government has a twisted view of democracy, and Venezuela would be “the voice of the Third World” if chosen in a secret-ballot U.N. vote next month.
‘Diplomacy for show’
Chavez, in his drive to counter U.S. influence, is practicing a sort of “diplomacy for show” that thrives on confrontation, said Milos Alcalay, who was Chavez’s U.N. ambassador until he resigned in 2004 amid differences with the government.
“A post for non-permanent membership in the Security Council has never been so politicized,” Alcalay said.
Some people who turned out to hear Chavez speak said they share the views behind his message, even if they might choose different words.
“He likes to set fires, to do good or just to get people riled up,” said Natalia Munoz, a 25-year-old public health coordinator who attended a speech. “He gets a lot of people thinking.”