PORLAMAR, Venezuela Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez urged colleagues from Africa and South America to help form a "multipolar" world on Saturday at a summit intended to counter Western economic dominance.
"This is the beginning of the salvation of our people," Chavez said in an opening speech to the two-day meeting.
His summit guests included Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who is celebrating four decades in office and had a white limousine flown to Venezuela to meet him at the airport, and Robert Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years.
Chavez has governed for just over 10 years and makes no bones about his aim to stay in office for decades more while he works to turn oil-rich Venezuela into a socialist state.
He said the summit, attended by 28 African and South American leaders, would help the mainly poor nations improve ties and rely less on Europe and the United States.
"The 21st century won't be a bipolar world, it won't be unipolar. It will be multipolar. Africa will be an important geographic, economic and social pole. And South America will be too," Chavez said.
Also attending were the presidents of Brazil and South Africa. Their model of business-friendly economics mixed with a focus on helping the poor is more popular among many African countries than Chavez's radical message.
The leaders are expected to ink a document on Sunday backing stronger links between the two continents and urging global bodies like the United Nations and World Bank to give poor countries more clout.
TENT FOR GADDAFI
Gaddafi, whose entourage arrived in two matching Airbus passenger jets and pitched a Bedouin tent beside the summit hotel's pool, called for a deepening of political and economic ties between the two continents.
"The world isn't the five countries on the U.N. Security Council," he said. "The world's powers want to continue to hold on to their power. When they had the chance to help us, they treated us like animals, destroyed our land. Now we have to fight to build our own power."
His friend and host, Chavez, seems to be going all out to provoke, particularly Washington. On the eve of the summit, Venezuela said it was working with Iran to find uranium in the South American nation.
That raised eyebrows amid a fresh uproar in the West over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
But a close Chavez aide, Jesse Chacon, who is minister of light industry, tried to play down the issue on Saturday, telling reporters on Margarita Island that Venezuela was investigating its mineral deposits with a variety of nations.
Chavez says he opposes nuclear weapons but adds that the developed world does not have the right to stop other countries from developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
A major oil exporter, Venezuela is seeking to widen Chavez's ALBA alliance of mainly Latin American leftist governments to include African states.
Chavez promised this month to build a refinery in Mauritania and sell crude to Mali and Niger in West Africa, a region that is emerging as a major new oil frontier.
Venezuela's opposition is furious at Chavez's alliances.
"Venezuela's dangerous friendship with autocratic and totalitarian governments like Belarus, Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe, show Chavez's irresponsibility in seeking ties and alliances at any cost, without regard to the pariah state of these regimes," opposition group Mesa Unitaria said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Porlamar, Enrique Andres Pretel in Caracas; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kevin Gray and Paul Simao)