BOGOTÁ -- The itinerary reads like a speaking tour with leaders from countries the Bush administration might dub the axis of evil or the pretty-darn evil: Iran, Belarus, Cuba, and Vietnam. North Korea got scratched at the last minute.
In a pointed slap at Washington, Venezuela's feisty leftist president, Hugo Chávez, is on a twoweek world tour, campaigning for the chance to challenge what he calls ``the American Empire" from a bully pulpit: a two-year seat on the powerful UN Security Council. Further worrying the White House, Chávez last week finalized $3 billion in Russian arms purchases during a visit to Moscow, sealed an ``anti-imperialistic" alliance with the Belarusian leader widely reviled as the last dictator in Europe, and underscored his solidarity with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.
Since he took office in 1999, the charismatic Venezuelan populist has spent more than 365 days overseas, extending sweetheart oil deals and buying up debt in poor and left-leaning nations, and expressing solidarity with Washington's enemies.
In August 2000, Chávez visited Saddam Hussein in violation of United Nations sanctions on Iraq, and Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, calling the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli an attack on ``a model of participatory democracy."
Now flush with more oil money than ever and capitalizing on growing anti-US sentiment, Chávez could win enough support on this ambitious trip, which also includes stops in the Persian Gulf and Africa, to boost himself from a mere thorn in Bush's side to an international player with the power to subvert US foreign policy.
``This century is . . . the end of Washington's empire," Chávez declared confidently during his stop in Moscow.
Highlights of Chávez's trip so far include receiving ``the High Medallion of the Islamic Republic of Iran"; praising Belarus's Soviet-style economy as ``a model social state"; meeting the 85-year-old inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle, the iconic weapon of insurgencies worldwide; and visiting the Argentine boyhood home of Latin revolutionary Ernesto ``Che" Guevara in the company of Fidel Castro.
``This is a president who defines himself and his government in opposition to the US, who calls himself a revolutionary, and that revolution is apparently against the US," said Charles Shapiro, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and a former ambassador to Venezuela.
The United States has said repeatedly ``that we'd like to build a constructive relationship based on tangible areas where we can cooperate," Shapiro said, adding that Chávez prefers to act the part of United States nemesis instead.
But bear-hugging such Soviet-era strongmen as Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko, and signing oil exploration deals with Iran ``is taunting and needling the United States, which seems to be how he derives the most pleasure," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. ``And he has an oil bonanza to spread his influence and be a power player on the world stage."
His itinerary ``is a way to send a message that outcasts and outsiders will band together to succeed," Shifter said.
Chávez has tried that particular approach before. In a vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency in January , Venezuela was one of the few countries to oppose the call to refer Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council.
Chávez also applauded North Korea's recent missile tests, which were roundly deplored, even by Russia and longtime Pyongyang-ally China.
Venezuela needs 128 votes in a secret UN ballot in October to win the rotating Latin American seat on the Security Council. With the Bush administration backing Guatemala, the contest is seen by many nations as a showdown between giant-killer Chávez and a tiny US puppet, and there are more than a few nations who would like to see Washington get a comeuppance, analysts say.
``He's a wasp looking to sting any US initiative," said Larry Birns, president of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank.
Chávez kicked off his tour in Argentina, with an endorsement for Venezuela's UN bid from the influential Mercosur bloc of South America trading nations.
The same week, Venezuela was welcomed as an observer in the Arab League, from which, along with the Organization of African Unity, Chávez hopes to win more votes from the United Nations.
Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez , said it would be unfair and simplistic to see Chávez's trip as a whistle-stop tour of US enemies, noting that the president stopped for 10 hours in Portugal and will visit Qatar.
``We can't define our foreign policy by who are US friends and who aren't," he said. The trip is an effort ``to promote a multipolar world."
US officials say it is Chávez who is destabilizing, with his support for North Korean missile tests and Iran's nuclear program and his $3-billion purchase from Russia of 100,000 Kalashnikovs, 24 state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets, and 53 advanced helicopters.
Chávez signed a deal to build a factory to assemble Kalashnikovs in the Venezuelan city of Maracay .
The State Department says the assault rifles exceed the number needed for security forces in Venezuela, and suggests that some could find their way into the hands of leftist Latin insurgents.
Venezuelan authorities dismiss such fears, saying their military is in dire need of modernization, from 50-year-old Belgian rifles to aging US fighter jets that Washington refused to upgrade. ``Nobody on the continent is worried, only the US," Alvarez said.
Washington recently declared that Venezuela was not doing enough to battle terrorism, and imposed a ban on US arms sales to Caracas, effective in October.
Venezuela defends its record and calls the United States hypocritical for refusing to extradite anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted in Caracas for allegedly plotting a 1976 airline bombing that killed 73.
Analysts say that beyond the UN lobbying, the arms purchases, and the energy deals, Chávez's tour is about casting himself as the ideological leader of an antisuperpower bloc of nations -- a bid some observers say could backfire.
But Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research , said Chávez is not the first leader to court questionable regimes.
``The US has always had close relationships with dictatorships and all sorts of countries with terrible human rights violations, because those relations were seen as being in their interest."
With the Bush administration intractably opposed to the Venezuelan leader anyway, Weisbrot said, ``Chávez has nothing to lose."