President George Bush has criticised a series of countries at the United Nations for denying their citizens basic political freedoms, prompting the delegation of Cuba to walk out of the General Assembly calling him a " criminal" and his address an "infamous tirade".
Urging member nations of the UN to join what he called a "mission of liberation", Mr Bush pointed a finger at countries that included not just Cuba, but also Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Iran. "When whole societies are cut off from the prosperity of the global economy, we are all worse off," he said.
He had barely finished speaking of Cuba when its delegation rose from its seats in protest. Referring to the long illness of Fidel Castro, who in past years has attended the assembly, Mr Bush said , "the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. The Cuban people are ready for their freedom".
Expressions of disdain for Mr Bush by other leaders have become an annual side show of the assembly. Last year, it was Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who achieved the greatest theatrics, saying he could smell sulphur at the podium where Mr Bush had spoken hours before, thus likening him to Satan.
Mr Chavez belatedly decided to skip the assembly this year, so there will be no Bush-Chavez spectacular. The starring role this time may be seized by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was scheduled to address the hall last night.
In a statement last night, the Cuban government said its boycott was a "sign of profound rejection of the arrogant and mediocre statement" delivered by the American president. "Bush is responsible for the murder of over 600,000 civilians in Iraq ... He is a criminal and has no moral authority or credibility to judge any other country." It concluded: "Cuba condemns and rejects every letter of his infamous tirade."
Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, will have his chance to respond tomorrow when he is scheduled at the podium. Mr Bush said Mr Mugabe's government "has cracked down on peaceful calls for reform and forced millions to flee their homeland". He went on: "The behaviour of the Mugabe regime is an assault on its people."
Japan, however, will have been pleased by Mr Bush's remarks, which included a promise to remain "open" to the prospect of an expansion of the membership of the UN Security Council and singled the country out as a prime candidate.