Latin leftists used U.N. meeting to polish image

NEW YORK — President Evo Morales played a soccer match with his fellow Bolivians, appeared on the Jon Stewart comedy show, and addressed scores of admirers at a historic venue here.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a U.S. educated economist, talked to investment bankers wearing a dark suit with a shirt with indigenous markings and no collar or tie.

Morales and Correa were among half a dozen leftwing Latin American presidents in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly.

But their activities within the United Nations and outside showed how Latin American leaders use the New York stage to polish their international images, set a tone

for their relations with Washington, and send messages to audiences at home and abroad.

During visits last year, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez lambasted

President Bush in his speeches, and visited the Bronx and Harlem to highlight Venezuela's discounted heating oil program for the U.S. poor.

Chavez didn't come this year, but the convening of the General Assembly this year attracted an unusually large contingent of left-of-center Latin American leaders, many of them elected within the past two years.

They all came with a common thread: a pledge to make the fight against inequality a central issue of their governments.

The most forceful was Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, the head of the Marxist-leaning Sandinista party that ruled the country in the 1980s. The old U.S. foe, who won an election earlier this year, acted as if the Cold War had never ended. He told his U.N.

audience that the United States was the "most gigantic and impressive dictatorship that

has existed in the history of humanity.''

He met with Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad for more than an hour, and the two parted with a warm embrace as cameras flashed. Afterward, Ortega told journalists his nation and Iran would form an unspecified "front for the fight of peace.''

Others were less confrontational, however.

In his election campaign, Ecuador's Correa, an ally of Chavez, called Bush a fool and blasted the "neo-liberal'' economic model — which in Latin America is usually associated with free trade and a hands-off government.

Correa reiterated those criticisms in New York but nevertheless agreed to address a skeptical audience at the pro-business Council of the Americas on New York's Park Avenue, donning his indigenous shirt. He criticized Ecuador's use of the U.S. dollar as its currency but promised not to do anything rash to end it.

He told reporters that relations with the United States were very good and that "we respect this great nation.''

Still, Correa refused to utter a word in English in his public appearances, even though he has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, an Argentine senator who according to most polls is set to win the presidential election there Oct. 28, opted to accompany her president-husband, Nestor Kirchner, to the General Assembly instead of campaigning at home.

She gave interviews to U.S. reporters, basked in praise as she received a human rights award from New York University School of Law, and met with Argentine scientists, promising them that, if elected, she would promote more research work.

She also addressed a Wall Street audience at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel's Starlight Roof, a chandeliered hall suited for the fanciest of social events.

Her husband sometimes has had a contentious relationship with the Bush administration and foreign investors, but Fernandez delivered a mostly soothing 38-minute speech in which she touted Argentina's recent economic accomplishments.

At the main table, she chatted with the State Department's top Latin American

diplomat, Thomas Shannon.

Meanwhile, Morales played a soccer match against a team of Bolivian expatriates on Sunday. He botched a penalty kick but his squad still won, 3-2.

On Monday he recounted his political career before an audience of nearly 1,000

persons who filled the Great Hall of The Cooper Union in Manhattan, which claims to be a birthplace of sorts for movements like the National Association for the Advancement of

Colored People and The American Red Cross.

Wearing his trademark indigenous suit, Morales was cheered when he praised Fidel Castro and dubbed capitalism as "the worst enemy of humanity.''

He said U.S. aid programs were undermining his government and drew chuckles from his audience as he narrated how he recently summoned the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, to a 5 a.m. meeting at the presidential palace to discuss visa, immigration and other difficulties.

He peppered his comments with clever maxims, such as his teasing of a cabinet

minister for wearing a tie.

"I believe the tie separates the head from the heart,'' he said.

Last year, Morales made a splash when he brandished a coca leaf as he addressed the General Assembly as part of a campaign to decriminalize the plant that indigenous communities consider part of their tradition. This year he toned down his mentions of the coca leaf and addressed his bad-boy image.

"Please don't consider me the axis of evil,'' he joked with Jon Stewart.