Addressing the United Nations General Assembly for the first time since taking office 17 months ago, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said it was time to make good on the dreams of his late boss Hugo Chávez and shake up the staid body.
Echoing other regional leaders, Maduro, 51, said the United Nations had been co-opted by imperialist powers and needed a dose of democracy.
“The U.N. charter is one of the most beautiful poems you can read,” he said. “But it’s turned into a document that has been thrown aside and is trampled permanently.”
“The countries of the world are clamoring for their voice to be heard,” he said, noting that the 15-member Security Council needs to be more representative.
Maduro also used his speech to denounce the U.S. blockade of Cuba, one of Venezuela’s staunchest allies, and its continued attacks on Syria and Iraq. While Maduro denounced Islamic State terrorists, he also accused the West of being shortsighted in the Middle East — toppling regimes only to be alarmed when terrorists move in.
If the West had succeeded in its campaign of ousting Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, the Islamic State would control a much larger portion of the Middle East, Maduro predicted.
Maduro was the final Latin American leader to speak on the opening day of the 69th General Assembly.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing a tight election next month, inaugurated the day’s speeches touting her achievements in fighting poverty and bolstering the middle class.
But she also touched on the recurring theme of a U.N. overhaul.
She said the global community had been unable to stop massacres and violence in Syria, Iraq or clashes in Ukraine.
“Each military intervention leads not to peace, but to the deterioration of these conflicts,” she said. “We witness a tragic proliferation in the numbers of civilian victims and humanitarian catastrophes.”
She called for expanding the Security Council “to overcome the current paralysis.”
While the annual meeting is often a straight-laced affair of high diplomacy, many leaders used it as a chance to vent.
Bolivian President Evo Morales — who is poised to easily win reelection at the end of October — used the stage to question U.S. foreign policy and global “capitalism,” which he said was responsible for crushing poverty and the persistence of global hunger.
“It’s unthinkable that we might eradicate hunger and poverty without changing the architecture of international finance,” he said.
He also railed against Israel’s “genocide” against Palestine and asked that the Palestinian state be recognized as a full-fledged member of the United Nations.
Even as President Barack Obama has been calling for global unity in the fight against the Islamic State, Morales said the approach was doomed to fail.
“We have to promote a culture of peace to not only eradicate fanatic extremists but the imperial wars promoted by the United States, which answers war with more war,” he said.
Closer to home, he joined a chorus of regional leaders who denounced the Cuban embargo.
“The blockade is an act of genocide,” he said. “We must put an end to this colonial blockade.”
Maduro’s appearance had been much anticipated after he backed out of last year’s meeting at the last minute citing threats to his life.
The international spotlight was likely a welcome break for Maduro, who has been struggling to contain a series of crises at home. Saddled with a tanking economy, the region’s highest inflation rate and sporadic protests, Maduro has seen his approval ratings plummet. He’s also under pressure for jailing dissidents, including opposition leader Leopoldo López.
On Wednesday, Maduro tried turning the tables on his hosts and drew attention to the plight of Oscar López Ramirez, a Puerto Rican nationalist who has been in U.S. custody for more than three decades. López Ramirez is being held for “seditious conspiracy,” for his role in a string of victimless bombings in Chicago.
“He’s the longest held political prisoner in the world,” Maduro said. “We demand his immediate release. His only sin was fighting for the liberation of Puerto Rico.”
In general, Maduro’s speech was more tame than some expected. Chávez often used the stage to taunt the U.S., calling George W. Bush “the devil” and “Mr. Danger.”
Maduro started his speech by invoking Chávez‘s legacy and recounting how “forces of the empire” had plotted against him and his socialist revolution. He said those attacks have only increased since Chávez succumbed to cancer in 2013.
“They couldn’t finish Chávez,” he said to applause. “And they won’t finish us.”