PORLAMAR, Venezuela – Venezuela has pitched a tent for Moammar Gaddafi as the Libyan leader and President Hugo Chavez headline a weekend Africa-South America summit aimed at creating a stronger voice for the two regions in world affairs.
Gaddafi's insistence on raising an elaborate tent in suburban Bedford, New York, caused an uproar during this week's U.N. General Assembly meeting. But in Venezuela, a tent was erected for his delegation without hitches near the pool of the hotel where leaders from both continents flowed into the resort region on Friday.
Chavez has been saying for weeks that Gaddafi's is more than welcome to put it up and that "he travels with the tent."
The two-day summit starting Saturday on Venezuela's Margarita Island allows Chavez 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.
They will discuss increasing cooperation in energy, trade, finance, regional security, agriculture, mining and development projects in what Chavez calls "a summit of great importance for the struggles of the South."
"We want to link up with Africa," Chavez said at the United Nations on Thursday.
Chavez is particularly close to Gaddafi, whom he calls a "brilliant" revolutionary, and attended anniversary celebrations in Libya marking Gaddafi's 40-year rule earlier this month. He has praised Gaddafi as a "tireless gladiator" in pressing for African unity — and said the two continents should now take that a step further.
Gaddafi 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. He also caused a stir by pitching a white-topped tent — lined with a tapestry of camels and palm trees and outfitted with leather couches and coffee tables — on Donald Trump's suburban estate.
The tent was dismantled after Bedford, New York, town officials declared it an illegal use of a residence — then erected again to more protests.
Strong criticisms of the U.N., the U.S. and other world powers will likely reign at the Venezuela summit. Chavez also is likely to argue that Africa's poverty shows the failures of the capitalist system.
Adam Isacson, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, says even controversial African leaders such as Gaddafi 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Among the other leaders expected to attend the summit are Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Joseph Kabila of Congo.