PORLAMAR, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Libyan ally Moammar Qaddafi on Saturday urged their counterparts from throughout Africa and South America to join them in forming a strong biregional union to counteract what they call a legacy of poverty left by the "empires of the North."
Qaddafi, on his first visit to the Americas, set up camp in a trademark Bedouin tent and called for unity at the opening session saying "we can transform the world."
The two-day meeting on Venezuela's Margarita Island is aimed at addressing a wide range of common concerns, from poverty solutions to calls for reform at the United Nations. Chavez has called it "a summit of great importance for the struggles of the South."
Presidents were discussing plans for cooperation in energy, trade, finance, agriculture, mining, education and other areas.
"Only united will we be free," Chavez told the leaders as he opened the summit.
He said earlier that by uniting, the two regions can confront a legacy of poverty left "by the empires of the North — by the empires of Europe, by the U.S. empire."
The meeting gives Chavez an opportunity to attempt a greater leadership role outside Latin America while critiquing U.S. influence and promoting socialist-inspired policies.
Qaddafi echoed some of Chavez's concerns about the world's economic powers in a wide-ranging speech, saying through an interpreter that "colonialism has stolen our riches." Qaddafialso said it was "humiliating" that his delegation had to travel 20 hours to reach New York for the U.N. General Assembly, and he called for more air routes between Southern Hemisphere countries.
The Libyan leader, in his U.N. speech on Wednesday, called the Security Council the "Terror Council" and blamed it for failing to prevent dozens of wars. He said on Saturday that "the situation we have in the Security Council is unsustainable."
"South-South" cooperation has been a buzzword at the summit, which brings together two regional blocs: the African Union and South America's fledgling Unasur group.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez expressed hope that Africa will expand its potential to produce and export food and said her government is willing to provide technology and expertise to help.
African leaders including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika greeted Chavez warmly as the summit began, some with handshakes and some with kisses on the cheeks. South American presidents from Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Bolivia's Evo Morales were also attending.
Chavez called Qaddafi and Bouteflika the historic "liberators" of their countries and said socialism — both in Africa and in Latin America — will be "the path to the world's salvation." Chavez saluted the Algerian leader saying "when I was born, Bouteflika already had a rifle in his hands."
Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya since he seized power in a coup in 1969, is currently chairman of the African Union and agreed to hold the next summit in two years in Libya.
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 focus on their concerns about the way the global financial crisis is being handled.
Deals to work together in tapping energy and mineral resources are also expected.
Chavez has already 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 how much the South American oil exporter is prepared to invest in energy projects in Africa since it is coping with a sharp drop in its revenues due to lower crude prices.