UNITED NATIONS — "It doesn't smell of sulfur here anymore . . . It's gone. No, it smells of something else. It smells of hope."
With that phrase, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez paid President Barack Obama a backhanded — but major — compliment at the United Nations Thursday, while simultaneously questioning how much change Obama really represents.
It was Chavez who in 2006 famously compared then-President George W. Bush to the Devil, taking his place at the podium a day after Bush spoke and declaring: "The Devil was here yesterday. . . . And it still smells of sulfur today."
Chavez returned to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday and, with a new U.S. president in office, devoted much of his speech to Obama's pros and cons. He was just one of many world leaders who are trying to assess the U.S. president and maneuver for advantage.
The Venezuelan leader, employing his trademark quips, bombast and literary references, suggested that Obama wasn't as much of an agent of change as he claims to be, and said he was in the thrall of a Pentagon-dominated American government.
"We wonder, are there two Obamas? The one who spoke here yesterday . . . does he have a double?" Chavez said, referring to Obama's speech Wednesday calling for greater international cooperation and an invigorated United Nations.
Chavez called on the U.S. president to end what he called "the savage, murderous blockade on Cuba" and challenged him over what he called U.S. plans to build seven new military bases in Colombia. The U.S. government has said it wants to expand military access in Colombia but denies that is laying plans to build permanent bases.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Chavez flatly ruled out any improvement in Venezuela's bitter relations with Colombia and its conservative government led by Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally.
"As long as (Uribe's) government is there, it will be difficult. . . . There will not be a restoration of relations," he told a Colombian journalist.
He also repeated accusations that the U.S. had a hand in the June coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, who made a surprise and covert return this week to Honduras, showing up at Brazil's embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Chavez clearly seems intensely interested in Obama, whom he met at a hemispheric summit earlier this year in Trinidad and Tobago — even worried about him. "I hope God will protect Obama from the bullets that killed (President John F.) Kennedy," he told the U.N. General Assembly.
"I don't think he's two-faced, no. I don't want to accuse him," Chavez said at the news conference, adding that he thought forces in Washington — specifically the Pentagon — were blocking Obama's hopes of a more Third World-friendly foreign policy. "There is Obama in his labyrinth . . . and God help him."
Chavez spoke to the United Nations for nearly an hour, not nearly outdoing Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who rambled on for 96 minutes on Wednesday. "I'm not going to speak any more than Gadhafi. Gadhafi said everything there is to say," he jibed.
At another point, he invited Obama to join what he described as a global socialist revolution. "Come join the 'axis of evil' here," he quipped.
In an earlier speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu somberly denounced announced anti-Semitic comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's denied the Holocaust, and challenged other U.N. members to do likewise.
Netanyahu held up copies of construction plans for the Auschwitz death camp, and the minutes of a meeting of senior Nazi officials in Berlin, where the destruction of Europe's Jews was planned. "Is this a lie?" he said.
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