Chavez's 'Devil' Remark and Global Protocol

Melissa Block talks with Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and longtime United Nations expert. He'll talk about what the protocols are for world leaders speaking at the U.N., and just how far away from them the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez reached with his speech Wednesday morning, in which he called President Bush "the devil."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Hugo Chavez's speech before the General Assembly was truly remarkable, one that startled both for its use of props - the Noam Chomsky book that President Chavez held up before the delegates - also for the many, many times he referred to President Bush as the devil.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through Translator) The devil is right at home. The devil. The devil himself is right in the house. And the devil came here yesterday.

BLOCK: That's President Hugo Chavez through an interpreter. Chavez also railed against President Bush, the world tyrant in his words, for trying to consolidate the U.S.'s hegemonistic domination.

President CHAVEZ: An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title - The Devil's Recipe.

BLOCK: Alfred Hitchcock. Noam Chomsky. A landmark day at the United Nations. Jeffrey Laurenti, you've listened to a lot of U.N. speeches, written a lot about the U.N. Have you ever heard this kind of language before?

Mr. JEFFREY LAURENTI (Century Foundation): Well, this is quite extraordinary. It might be better on Saturday Night Live, certainly, than in the General Assembly hall. I have never heard a speech at the General Assembly that has used such a colorful and slandering attack as Chavez did on President Bush today.

BLOCK: How did you hear about President Chavez's remarks today?

Mr. LAURENTI: Well, actually I was in a meeting in my office and somebody burst in to say, you won't believe what Hugo Chavez just said at the General Assembly. And then related the devil's been in this hall, the smell of sulfur lingers in the hall. And that took my breath away. And not just because of the notion of fire, brimstone and sulfur.

BLOCK: You know, there certainly are cases where leaders are roundly critical of other countries within the U.N.

Mr. LAURENTI: Well, and indeed President Bush himself a few years ago when he was beating the war drums on Iraq was not at all shy about describing the brutal and dictatorial Saddam Hussein and adding colorful adjectives of a sort there.

But never this kind of scurrilous attack. I mean, Chavez may well view President Bush as the devil incarnate. He may believe that the Bush administration tried to overthrow him a few years ago. But he really pushed the watermark here. He really pushed the envelope, I should say, because this is not a hall where the practitioners engage in ad hominem attacks and he actually has a price to pay on this one.

BLOCK: What do you mean?

Mr. LAURENTI: Well, Venezuela has been pushing very hard for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. The election for that is in two weeks. Venezuela's been running against little Guatemala, which had been viewed by many in the developing world in particular as the Bush administration's kind of lapdog and Venezuela appeared to have pretty much the votes that it was going to need.

And today President Chavez has altered that dynamic. It's like a candidate running in a U.S. Senate election or whatever who commits a huge faux paux a week or two before the election. He didn't need to say this to hold onto the votes of the radical element in the U.N. or in the world community. He needed to reassure people that Venezuela would be a responsible member of the Security Council and not just be pursuing its president's obsessions. And he did quite the opposite today. So there are a number of votes that are suddenly cast into doubt.

BLOCK: Although if you listen to his speech with the audio from the floor itself, he is getting applause. He clearly has some support there.

Mr. LAURENTI: Well, clearly the nature of some of the attacks on American domination, Western domination, of the U.N., much as that sounds strange to believe from the Washington debate, but for the rest of the world, Washington appears to be more in charge of the U.N. than any other country. That has a good deal of resonance in the developing world, and you can say that, as yesterday President Ahmadinejad had said it in a low-key, almost rational-sounding way, and a feud is - well, a critique that's a legitimate part of debate.

But adding the devil incarnate, in effect - the devil's sulfur smell in the hall - is of an entirely different order of magnitude, and that breaches every element of diplomatic protocol. People may find it entertaining, but they are also realists, they are also diplomats, and they know when somebody has crossed the line and when somebody is likely to put the U.N. in discredit for two years with a security council seat bent just, day in and day out, on attacking the Americans. That doesn't provide much help to peace and security, which is that body's function.

BLOCK: Well, Jeffrey Laurenti, it's good to talk with you. Thanks very much.

Mr. LAURENTI: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Laurenti studies and writes about the U.N. and is senior fellow at the Century Foundation. By the way, I spoke today with one of Noam Chomsky's publishers, Metropolitan Books. Sara Bershtel there says she agrees with Hugo Chavez: she says everyone SHOULD read Chomsky's book, Hegemony or Survival, and judging by the surge in that book's Amazon.com sales ranking today, a number of readers are taking the Venezuelan president up on his recommendation.

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