Hugo 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.
The Venezuelan president and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi led about 30 leaders in agreeing to strengthen "South-South" ties at the two-day summit, which was the Libyan ruler's first visit to Latin America.
"With this summit, a new era begins in the unity of South America and Africa," Chavez said.
Venezuela signed energy cooperation accords with Mauritania, and Niger, and Chavez said his government would like to help build a refinery in or near Mauritania. He said he hopes to sign another energy accord soon with Sudan.
Venezuela also plans joint mining companies with nations including Mali, Niger and Mauritania, Chavez said, adding that "we're going to see results." He said the two regions together have enormous economic potential.
Seven 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.
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.
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.
‘NATO for the south’
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 called for a NATO-like defense alliance for Africa and South America as leaders agreed to link up to gain more clout as economic and political blocs.
"We have to form a NATO for the south," Gadhafi said Saturday. "And that's not a terrorist action. We have a right."
He 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.
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. As for the economic crisis, the Brazilian president said, "There is no better response to the crisis than integration."
‘The solution is in our hands’
Chavez blamed the economic downturn on "the countries of the North" and said the crisis reveals the failures of "speculative, plundering" capitalism.
"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-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.
Gadhafi echoed Chavez's concerns about the world's economic powers, saying through an interpreter, without naming countries, "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."
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 European Union 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 defense of him, his government," Chavez said.
Chavez has 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 tap atomic energy — and that it shouldn't concern world powers like 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."
African leaders including South Africa's Jacob Zuma and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika attended the summit alongside eight South American presidents from Argentina's Cristina Fernandez to Bolivia's Evo Morales.