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The clown of Caracas

September 22, 2006

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT Hugo Chavez took his stand-up act to New York on Wednesday and just killed 'em, waking up a sleepy General Assembly crowd with zinging one-liners likening President Bush to the devil. It was the crowning stop in a comedy world tour that has been busting up audiences from Iran to China, fitting for a man running against a comedian in Venezuela's upcoming presidential election.

Chavez's anti-American tirades may be a hit in much of the developing world, but few sane people will be laughing if he achieves his appallingly realistic goal of winning a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Venezuela is seeking a two-year slot on the 15-member council. Such seats are awarded on a regional basis; the other Latin American candidate, Guatemala, is heavily backed by the United States. Chavez over the last several months has made beating Guatemala his major foreign policy goal, traveling the world (mostly to drum up support from staunch U.S. foes such as Iran and Syria) and signing oil deals to buy votes. It seems to have paid off; Venezuela is believed to have the majority of the General Assembly on its side, though it will need a two-thirds vote to prevail.

Having Venezuela on the Security Council wouldn't recast the U.N. in Chavez's image, nor would it seriously impede the democratic world. Rotating members don't have the veto power of permanent Security Council fixtures Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. But it would provide an international forum for Chavez's diatribes, one that he plans to take advantage of personally, and he could delay important initiatives like curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions or deploying U.N. troops in Darfur.

Chavez has been generous in spreading his oil wealth to his neighbors, and tweaking Uncle Sam is a cheap way to win political support in Latin America. But Wednesday's performance should make more moderate heads of state, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, wonder if they really want to be represented in a critical international body by the clown prince of Caracas. And a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea is not in the interest of anybody.

If Latin America doesn't have a consensus choice for the U.N. seat by Oct. 16, it will come down to a secret ballot by the General Assembly. In case of deadlock, which seems probable, a third country may well emerge as the winner. Uruguay and the Dominican Republic are considered the two most likely candidates, and either would be better than Venezuela. Chavez might seem like a laugh riot today, but after two years of gridlock and shenanigans on the Security Council, the joke would wear pretty thin.

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