Jairo Cajina) ** NO SALES **, AP Photo/Presidential House of Nicaragua
CARACAS, Venezuela — As Moammar Gadhafi finds himself increasingly isolated internationally, he still has at least a few friends far away.
Latin America's most prominent leftists rallied early to his defense and have stayed there even as former friends, neighbors and countrymen have abandoned the embattled Libyan leader and urged his ouster.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega have been foremost in opposing U.S. and NATO military involvement, and in suggesting that reports of atrocities by Gadhafi's troops are overblown or unproven.
"The United States is proposing a war over Libya because they want Libyan oil," Chavez said Sunday. He praised the African Union for appointing a commission of leaders to travel to Libya for talks — an effort in line with his own peace proposals.
Chavez's calls for mediation reflect both his affinity for Gadhafi and his ambition to be a global player, rallying nations against the United States.
But his critics say Chavez has no credibility to promote mediation because he has ignored abuses by Gadhafi's regime. And his stance is also uncomfortable for some of his allies and political supporters, who side with the uprising and say it's time for Gadhafi to go.
Latin America's staunchest leftists long ago embraced Gadhafi as a fellow fighter against global U.S. influence, and they instinctively reject any U.S. intervention almost anywhere.
Both Castro and Chavez have repeatedly suggested the U.S. is stirring up trouble in Libya to grab its oil and say Libyans should settle their own internal conflict.
That stance has put them at odds with some of their friends. The left-leaning governments of Argentina and Brazil have condemned Gadhafi's crackdown on opposition. And even some followers of Castro and Chavez have been recoiling from their positions.
Comments posted on Cuban government websites and some articles on the pro-Chavez website aporrea.org have objected to backing for Libya's eccentric strongman. One article on aporrea.org titled "Neither Gadafi nor imperialism!" argued that Chavez's government should "support the revolutionary masses of Libya" that have risen up to topple the "capitalist dictator."
A group of Venezuelan Marxists led by writer Domingo Alberto Rangel and lawyer Jose Ramon Velasquez issued a statement last week condemning Gadhafi's "brutal repression" of the civilian population.
The government, meanwhile, released a statement backed by more than 260 artists and intellectuals in Venezuela and elsewhere opposing foreign military intervention and supporting Chavez's mediation proposal.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Chavez's approach and "his evident lack of concern about Gadhafi's abuses owe to a combination of misplaced south-south solidarity and a desire to take a position contrary to the United States' almost for its own sake."
"Chavez's stance certainly gives a lot of new fodder to his many international critics," Isacson said. "Especially among more moderate Latin American leaders, Chavez's Libya stance increases the political cost of maintaining warm relations with him."
The Chavez-Castro stance also is at odds with that of many Arab states. The Arab League is promoting a no-fly zone to prevent more air strikes by Gadhafi's forces.
The African Union, however, said it had formed a committee of heads of state who will travel to Libya to try to resolve the crisis.
"We condemn the disproportionate use of force," said Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for African Union chairman Jean Ping. "We are taking this issue of Libya very seriously."
Chavez also praised the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been wary of a military intervention, and said he expects Russia and China to weigh in against foreign military involvement.
While Chavez has reaffirmed his friendship with Gadhafi, he has not endorsed the Libyan crackdown on the opposition, merely suggesting it is being misreported and that he hopes the civil war ends soon.
More enthusiastic was Nicaragua's Ortega, who expressed solidarity with Gadhafi and called the fighting a battle to keep Libya intact. Ortega's ties to the Libyan leader go back to the 1980s, when Gadhafi was a supporter of the leftist Sandinista government.
Before fighting erupted in Libya, Chavez and Gadhafi had been trying to boost integration between South America and Africa.
When Gadhafi visited Latin America for the first time in 2009, he joined Chavez at a summit in Venezuela. The Libyan leader stood out with his dark sunglasses, African robes and entourage of women bodyguards, but he stressed the same themes as Chavez: socialist ideals and a need to stand up to world powers.
Through an interpreter, Gadhafi told his friend: "We're on the same front, in the same trench against the same enemy."
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