Doha - Arab and Latin American leaders gathered in Doha, Qatar on Tuesday to boost economic ties, but it was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, long the darling of the Arab world for his defiance of the United States and his stances during Israel's wars in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, who grabbed the headlines.
Speaking to the reporters who swarmed around him after he landed at Doha's airport on Tuesday, Chavez backed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in his confrontation with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which on March 4 issued a warrant for the Sudanese president's arrest on charges of crimes against humanity.
The ICC "has no power to take such an action against a sitting president," Chavez said in remarks broadcast by the Doha-based al- Jazeera satellite news channel. "It does so because it is an African country, a Third World country."
"Why would the ICC not order (former US president George W) Bush's arrest or the arrest of the president of Israel (Shimon Peres)?" Chavez asked.
It was a fitting entrance for a man the regional Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat called "Chavez the Arab" in a February 27 editorial, not long after the Venezuelan president ejected Israel's ambassador to the country in response to the Israel's
22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip in late December and January.
"Chavez is praised by poets, lauded by sheikhs in their Friday sermons, and his picture is held aloft in demonstrations," the editorial said, recalling the story of an Arab woman who named her son Chavez "to bless him as the man who expelled the Israelis in solidarity when the Arabs failed to do so."
"We appreciate the important stances that Latin American countries took toward the latest Israeli assault on Gaza," Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa told the assembled leaders on Tuesday.
Indeed, Chavez was not the only South American leader denouncing Israel's offensive in Gaza on Tuesday.
"We condemn the recent assault on Gaza and hope for negotiations to resume," Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who currently heads the Union of South American Nations Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday. "We hope to see a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state."
"The aim of an independent, viable Palestinian state has not yet been achieved because of Israel," said Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who first proposed the idea of a Latin-American summit during a 2003 visit to the Middle East and who hosted the first such summit in 2005.
The main order of the day, however, was improving economic ties, or bolstering "south-south" cooperation, as Chavez put it in remarks broadcast on al-Jazeera Tuesday.
Many of the assembled leaders noted with satisfaction that trade between the two regions had more than doubled since the last summit three years ago.
"We must cooperate in the face of the world financial crisis," Lula said in his opening remarks, adding that he hoped countries from the two regions could arrive at a coordinated position ahead of Thursday's Group of 20 (G20) summit.
"We want to transfer our experience and what we achieved in our region to the Arab countries," Bachelet said. "We want a unified stance." (dpa)