Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez hopes to widen anti-US alliances when he hosts African leaders on a Caribbean island this weekend, but his radicalism and Brazil’s greater economic clout put limits on his appeal.
The anti-empire message of the socialist former soldier is shared by leaders like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, while his nationalist oil policies have drawn interest from fellow OPEC members such as Nigeria and Angola.
But big economic players in the region, especially South Africa, are more inclined to work with Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, analysts say. Popular with the poor and business, he also has the weight of an emerging world power.
Dozens of leaders from the two continents are expected on the Venezuelan island of Margarita for the two-day Second Africa-South America summit starting tomorrow.
The summit will also look to create a united front in future talks to increase developing countries’ weight in the International Monetary Fund and other global institutions.
Chavez, who is of African and American Indian descent, would like Venezuela to be as important to Africa as Cuba was for years under his mentor Fidel Castro.
“We want Caracas to be a centre of arrival, activities and connections for Africa with other countries of South America, Central America and the Caribbean,” Chavez said on TV.
A major crude exporter, Venezuela has exercised some oil diplomacy in Africa, though aid has so far been modest and lower oil prices this year have limited Chavez’s ambitions.
Chavez helped convince Angola to join OPEC in 2007 and his nationalization of oil has been watched with interest by Nigeria, which is seeking more control over its own industry.
Earlier this month Chavez, who aims to expand his mainly Latin American left-wing group ALBA to Africa, promised a refinery to Mauritania and oil to countries like Mali and Niger.
But Chavez’s strident anti-Americanism and habit of making friends with criticized leaders such as Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, invited to the summit, mean he is viewed with suspicion by many in the mainstream of African politics.
“Al Bashir is regarded in most of Africa as a total pariah and responsible for mass murder in Darfur,” said Africa Confidential editor Patrick Smith. He said many Africans feel US influence is not all bad, especially under President Barack Obama.
In Niger, there is scepticism both about Chavez and about why President Mamadou Tandja chose the summit as his first foreign outing since an internationally criticized referendum that allowed him to extend his mandate.
In the Cold War era, Cuba channelled money from the Soviet Union to Angola and Congo, while South America’s hard-right dictatorships were friendly with South Africa under apartheid, but even then ties between the two regions were limited.
Now, Latin American nations like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela seek more business and diplomacy in Africa.
Brazil has been working for years to build ties with South Africa. Along with China and Russia, it is keen to sell to African states industrial products including arms, as well as win support for initiatives like UN reform.
“Brazil and South Africa have had a growing trade relationship for years and the two are powerbrokers par excellence. Any attempt to strengthen ties between Africa and South America will happen via the initiatives of these two countries,” said Eurasia Group analyst Patrick Esteruelas.