Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will seek to use oil wealth to consolidate regional support for his anti-U.S. politics as he hosts an energy summit of South American leaders on Monday.
But the meeting on the Caribbean tourist island of Margarita comes as rifts have emerged across the continent over ethanol, with Brazil working with Washington to promote the fuel in an effort Chavez says will increase world hunger.
Chavez, who governs atop the hemisphere’s largest oil reserves and wins political influence with subsidized exports to neighbors, wants the 12-nation conference to focus on regional integration as a counterweight to the United States.
“Gradually the U.S. empire will end up a paper tiger and we the peoples of Latin America will become true tigers of steel,” Chavez said on the eve of the summit.
Security is tight for almost a dozens heads of state.
In the last few days, gray military vessels have churned through crystalline waters and helicopters have clattered above sunbathers on the resort island that is popular with Venezuelan vacationers for its white-sand beaches and VAT-free stores.
Local authorities have also been sprucing up the island, repainting street markings and replacing roadside lampposts.
At the two-day summit, Chavez will promote a much-heralded project to build a 5,000-mile (8,000-kilometre) natural gas pipeline linking the OPEC nation’s gas reserves to nations such as Brazil and Argentina.
While Chavez will seek to show unity with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, taking him on a tour early on Monday of a petrochemical plant, the conference is unlikely to avoid the controversy of ethanol.
Aides to Lula say it is his “obsession” despite being labeled “genocidal” by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chavez’s political mentor.
Venezuela, the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the United States, has urged Latin America to pass over ethanol and instead rely on its oil reserves and cooperate in developing ways to reduce energy consumption.
Power outages have traditionally blighted Margarita island, and particularly its main city Porlamar.
But with Cuban help, the government has installed millions of power-saving light bulbs in recent months that Chavez — who often speaks in apocalyptic terms about the environment — said can serve as an inspiration at the summit.
“This planet is in danger, the human race is danger,” he said after railing about high U.S. energy demand. “Let’s do what we have to do to save mankind.”