NEW YORK—He suggested it was "plausible" that George W. Bush was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, vowed to ride a horse to the United Nations if Washington tried to deny visas to his entourage and promised solidarity with Iran in the face of an American attack.
All in all, a pretty good week for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the obvious heir to the ailing Fidel Castro as the anti-imperialist leader in the hemisphere.
But Chavez may yet have another, much more substantive, laugh at the expense of the imperialists.
As world leaders arrive for the United Nations General Assembly this week, Chavez wants to firm up something sure to drive Washington up the wall — a seat on the UN Security Council.
The Chavez bid for a two-year term on the Security Council in the face of virulent opposition from Washington, which has offered up Guatemala instead, is sure to be a subject of fierce lobbying in corridors and hotel suites here this week.
Some analysts believe Washington has already shot itself in the foot in dealing with Chavez.
"This is a problem for the U.S., much of it of its own making," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
"If Venezuela wins this seat, it is clearly a defeat for the U.S. and a confirmation of the distaste for U.S. policy worldwide.
"If Venezuela is blocked, Chavez has been given a podium to say whatever he wants about the U.S.
"Washington is in a Catch-22 and can't really win, anyway."
Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs says Guatemala may be on the ballot, but the real race is Venezuela versus Washington.
He says Guatemala's history of human rights violations and its lack of strategic alliances made it a strange choice for Washington to champion.
"This has to be viewed as one of the more egregious diplomatic errors by Washington," he says. "This was a totally unprofessional decision."
A defeat on its Security Council choice will be a further regional embarrassment for Washington, he says, coming on the heels of the U.S. twice backing a losing candidate to lead the Organization of American States.
Canada, too, backs Guatemala, but has not injected itself in this battle.
Chavez arrives in New York after a triumphant visit to Havana last week, where he became the focus of anti-American sentiment at the Non-Aligned Summit, easing his way into the role long occupied by his ally Castro as the hemispheric pebble in the American shoe.
He also worked hard to shore up support for the Security Council seat.
A seat at the UN inner circle would grant Chavez a key podium to launch attacks on the United States' "imperialist" policies and its world trade strategies and would likely slow approval of any American move dealing with Iran or the Bush hobby horse of a democratic Middle East.
"The Arab League says `yes,' the U.S. says `no,'" Chavez said last week. "Almost all of Africa says `yes,' the U.S. says `no.' Russia says `yes,' the U.S. says `no.' China says `yes.'
"Now that's already a big victory. Let's just wait for the results. It won't be easy, I insist, because there is a big manoeuvre going on, but Venezuela has a moral victory."
The U.S. is using all its influence in the region to try to deny Venezuela the two-thirds General Assembly support it needs for an early victory next month, hoping to change votes in subsequent ballots.
They are secret votes, so alliances can shift.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal told Reuters last week his country did not have enough votes to win, but would continue its campaign.
"It is probably no great surprise that we don't think Venezuela would be the best partner on the Security Council," says Kristen Silverberg, a U.S. assistant secretary of state.
"They've opposed our terrorism efforts. They've supported Iran's nuclear ambitions. They demagogue a lot of international meetings and don't behave with seriousness.
"And at the same time, Guatemala, we think, is a good country with a lot to contribute. They participate in peacekeeping missions. They represent the small countries of the UN, which should have their turn on the Security Council."
Ten of the 15 seats on the council are held by non-permanent members elected to two-year terms. But the results are staggered, so five new members are admitted each year.
Guatemala has never been on the Security Council, but Venezuela has served four terms. Canada has served six two-year terms on the Security Council.
Under the complex United Nations rules, there are precedents for a protracted number of ballots before one country wins the necessary two-thirds vote. A last-minute compromise candidate could also emerge to break the stalemate, if it comes to that.
The five new members to be elected this year will replace Argentina, Denmark, Greece, Japan and Tanzania, whose terms end Dec. 31. Italy, Belgium and South Africa are guaranteed seats because they are running unopposed in their regions. The other contested seat is for Asia, where Indonesia and Nepal are candidates.For Chavez, a bid for a seat at the UN table has led to an unprecedented diplomatic effort, spurring trips to Asia and Eastern Europe and offers of petro favours and other support to a rogues' gallery of American enemies in return for support.
Birns said Chavez is responsible for the fact that Cuban interim leader Raul Castro will inherit a strong economy upon his brother's death and remain a major anti-U.S. player.
"Chavez is a pain in the butt," Birns said. "He is a confrontationalist. He selects too many enemies. He is not a good listener and he neglects the administration of many of his revolutionary programs.
"If he gets the seat, there is no doubt he would turn it into a Bolivarian revolution palaver.
"But he is one of the world's most popular leaders and where he goes, things get done."
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