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Chavez promotes closer Africa-South America ties

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[September 25, 2009]  CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez says Libya's Moammar Gadhafi is more than welcome to pitch his tent in Venezuela as the two of them make a diplomatic push for closer ties between Africa and South America at a weekend summit.

InsuranceThe Libyan leader caused an uproar in the New York City suburbs over his insistence on putting up a tent this week while attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting. But in Venezuela, Chavez says it's perfectly fine and that Gadhafi "travels with the tent."

The two-day summit starting Saturday on Venezuela's Margarita Island gives Chavez an opportunity to strengthen a growing web of "South-South" alliances and attempt a greater leadership role while critiquing U.S. influence internationally.

Nine South American presidents and more than 20 African leaders are expected to attend, ranging from Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Chavez is particularly close to Gadhafi, whom he calls a "brilliant" revolutionary, and attended anniversary celebrations in Libya marking Gadhafi's 40-year rule earlier this month. Chavez has praised Gadhafi as a "tireless gladiator" in pressing for African unity -- and said the two continents should now take that a step further.

Gadhafi made waves at the U.N. General Assembly this week when he chastised the world body, calling the Security Council the "Terror Council" for failing to prevent dozens of wars.

Strong criticisms of the U.N., the U.S. and other world powers will likely be voiced at the summit in Venezuela. Chavez will also probably use the meeting to argue that Africa's poverty shows the failures of the capitalist system, and to promote a host of efforts to open up political and economic channels between the regions.

"We want to link up with Africa," the president told a news conference at the United Nations on Thursday. He said the summit will focus on efforts to "unite both continents."

Adam Isacson, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, says even controversial African leaders such as Gadhafi and Mugabe represent an opportunity for Chavez.

"Chavez, who is quite popular in many African countries, is continuing to round up countries that have poor relations with the United States, regardless of their leaders' reputation, in an attempt to outweigh U.S. influence," Isacson said. "He clearly believes there's strength in numbers, and sees Africa as a way to add to his numbers."

Chavez told leaders at an African Union summit in Libya last month that "the empire doesn't want us to unite," referring to the United States.

Chavez has had cool, critical words for President Barack Obama lately, and questioned his policies on Thursday at the United Nations saying: "Who are you?"

Yet his critiques may have a limited echo in many African countries that maintain friendly relations with Washington, and Obama's African heritage has made him a point of pride not only in Kenya, his father's birthplace, but across the continent.

Leaders at the Venezuelan meeting will discuss plans to increase cooperation in energy, trade, finance, regional security, agriculture, mining and development projects. Chavez called it "a summit of great importance for the struggles of the South."

A first, smaller gathering of African and Latin American leaders was held in Nigeria in 2006. The timing this year -- immediately after the U.N. General Assembly in New York and G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh -- suggests it may turn out to be a forum for many non-G-20 nations to respond and to focus on poorer countries' concerns.

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Chavez has in recent years drawn close to many nations at odds with Washington, including Iran, Syria and Russia. He also has friendly ties with Mugabe, who has been condemned by the U.S. and European countries for his autocratic rule in Zimbabwe, and with Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Al-Bashir, who still enjoys the support of other African leaders, was not among the confirmed attendees.

But Mugabe will take any opportunity to attend a summit because he gets invited to few nowadays and "wants to maintain some amount of presence internationally" to mobilize more support for his shaky government, said Siphamandla Zondi, head of the Africa program at the Institute for Global Dialogue in South Africa.

Chavez has been working to strengthen ties with African nations for years and in November established diplomatic relations with the latest, Madagascar. Venezuela said last year it had opened 11 embassies in Africa in less than four years, bringing its total to 18.

Earlier this month, Chavez announced that Venezuela may help build an oil refinery in Mauritania that could process 30,000 to 40,000 barrels per day and supply fuel to Mali, Niger and Gambia. It is unclear whether the plan will actually get off the ground and how much Venezuela is prepared to invest since it is coping with a sharp drop in its key oil income.

Still, Chavez would like to see Venezuela play more of a direct role in Africa the way Cuba has in the past. Cuba, for instance, sent troops to Angola between 1975 and 1988 to help defeat U.S.-supported rebels and South African troops, and has also sent teachers and doctors.


Chavez, for his part, took up the cause of Western Sahara this week during his Sunday TV and radio program, telling a group of visiting African students that the disputed region should be free and not under Morocco's rule.

Among the other leaders expected to attend the summit are Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Joseph Kabila of Congo.

[Associated Press; By IAN JAMES]

Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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