Chavez makes diplomatic inroads in Africa

ASA summitHugo Chavez made diplomatic inroads in Africa on Sunday at a summit of South American and African leaders where he offered Venezuela’s help in oil projects, mining and financial assistance.

Chavez and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi led about 30 leaders in agreeing to strengthen “South-South” ties at the two-day meeting, where Gadhafi proposed the two continents form a NATO-like defense alliance.

“With this summit, a new era begins in the unity of South America and Africa,” the Venezuelan president said.

Venezuela signed agreements to work together on oil projects with South Africa, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan and Cape Verde. Chavez’s government agreed to partner with South Africa’s state oil company PetroSA in developing oil fields in Venezuela, and offered to help with oil projects in the other countries.

Venezuela also intends to form joint mining companies with nations including Namibia, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, Chavez said, adding that “we’re going to get results.” He said the two regions together have enormous economic potential.

It is unclear how much investment and aid Chavez is prepared to offer in Africa since his oil-producing country is coping with a sharp drop in its revenues due to lower world crude prices.

The summit on Venezuela’s Margarita Island addressed a wide range of concerns, from hunger in Africa to the economic crisis and a common response to climate change. It also gave Chavez an opportunity to increase his influence in Africa while criticizing U.S. and European influence in poorer nations.

“There will no longer be a unipolar world,” Chavez said, referring to U.S. dominance. “In the 21st century, the African Union and South America will be truly great powers.”

Gadhafi, who is making his first visit to Latin America, said the two regions should unite to wield more influence and form a defense bloc, a “NATO for the South,” calling it “SATO.”

He criticized the “imperialism” of some wealthy countries, saying through an interpreter, “They think the planet is divided into two parts: masters and slaves. The masters are in the North and in the South are the slaves.”

Gadhafi denounced the U.N. Security Council as an elite club where nations such as Libya have no voice, and called for the two continents to unite to demand change ? something all the leaders agreed to do in a summit declaration, saying the council should be more “democratic” and “representative.”

The Libyan leader said of leading world powers, without mentioning which countries: “They say they face terrorism. They’re terrified. … But they themselves have created the phenomenon.”

“In the North, they live in a state of terror as a result of the hatred they’ve generated,” said Gadhafi, who said a larger role for African and South American countries can help restore “equilibrium at the international level.”

Presidents from Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe agreed on a need for U.N. reform, and called for unity to speak with a stronger voice.

“We’re 65 countries with more than 1 billion inhabitants who want to be heard,” Silva said.

The Brazilian president urged countries in the Africa-South America bloc ? dubbed ASA ? to “stop guiding ourselves by the compass of the developed countries.” He said closer integration will help the two regions confront the economic crisis.

Chavez said the crisis reveals the failures of “speculative, plundering” capitalism in wealthy countries.

“We have to create a new international system, and we’re doing it,” the socialist president said. “The solution is in our hands. It’s not in handouts from the North.”

South American leaders signed an agreement to create a regional development bank with $20 billion in startup capital, and Chavez offered to help create a “South-South bank” with African countries in the future.

Chavez said Venezuela signed an agreement with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization offering agricultural assistance in Africa, from seeds to help with irrigation systems.

“South-South” cooperation was a buzzword at the summit, which brought together both the African Union and the South American bloc Unasur.

Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya since he seized power in a 1969 coup, has sought a higher profile internationally in recent years and is currently chairman of the African Union. He met Chavez in one of his trademark Bedouin tents, set up next to the hotel pool, and plans to stay in Venezuela on Monday for more one-on-one events with Chavez.

African leaders including South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika met eight South American presidents at the summit.

Zimbabwe’s Mugabe criticized economic sanctions imposed against his government by the U.S. and the European Union, but said “we are going ahead” nevertheless. The EU and other Western nations say that even though Mugabe now presides over a coalition government, not enough has been done to begin democratic reforms after years of authoritarian rule.

Chavez defended Mugabe saying “they demonize him” in the news media because he’s an “anti-colonialist.”

“We have to line up in his defense,” Chavez said.

Chavez has also built close ties with other countries at odds with Washington such as Iran and Syria, and has defended Iran’s nuclear program while saying that Venezuela also plans to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes ? and that it shouldn’t concern nations such as the U.S.

Asked by reporters about Venezuela’s efforts to detect uranium deposits, Chavez said with a smile that “we have a lot of uranium ? lots and lots.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.