CARACAS, Venezuela, (AP) – Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — fiery anti-American leaders whose moves to extend their influence have alarmed Washington — said Saturday they would help finance investment projects in other countries seeking to thwart U.S. domination.
The two countries had previously revealed plans for a joint $2 billion fund to finance investments in Venezuela and Iran, but the leaders said Saturday the money would also be used for projects in friendly countries throughout the developing world.
“It will permit us to underpin investments … above all in those countries whose governments are making efforts to liberate themselves from the (U.S.) imperialist yoke,” Chavez said.
“This fund, my brother,” the Venezuelan president said, referring affectionately to Ahmadinejad, “will become a mechanism for liberation.”
“Death to U.S. imperialism!” Chavez said.
Ahmadinejad, who is starting a tour of left-leaning countries in the region, called it a “very important” decision that would help promote “joint cooperation in third countries,” especially in Latin America and Africa.
It was not clear if the leaders were referring to investment in infrastructure, social and energy projects — areas that the two countries have focused on until now — or other types of financing.
Iran and Venezuela are members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and Chavez said Saturday that they had agreed to back a further oil production cut in the cartel to stem a recent fall in crude prices.
“We know today there is too much crude in the market,” Chavez said. “We have agreed to join our forces within OPEC … to support a production cut and save the price of oil.”
OPEC reduced output by 1.2 million barrels a day in November, then announced an additional cut of 500,000 barrels a day, due to begin on Feb. 1. Dow Jones Newswires reported Friday that OPEC is discussing holding an emergency meeting later this month to reduce output by another 500,000 barrels a day. Venezuela and Iran have been leading price hawks within OPEC.
Ahmadinejad’s visit Saturday — his second to Venezuela in less than four months — comes as he seeks to break international isolation over his country’s nuclear program and possibly line up new allies in Latin America. He is also expected to visit Nicaragua and Ecuador, which both recently elected leftist governments.
Chavez and Ahmadinejad have been increasingly united by their deep-seated antagonism toward the Bush administration. Chavez has become a leading defender of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, accusing the Washington of using the issue as a pretext to attack Tehran.
Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has called Chavez “the champion of the struggle against imperialism.”
U.S. officials have accused Chavez — a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — of authoritarian tendencies, and National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said recently in an annual review of global threats that Venezuela’s democracy was at risk.
The U.S. also believes Iran is seeking to use its nuclear program to develop an atomic bomb. Tehran says its program is peaceful and geared toward the production of energy.
The increasingly close relationship between Chavez and Ahmadinejad has alarmed some Chavez critics, who accuse him of pursuing an alliance that does not serve Venezuela’s interests and jeopardizes its ties with the United States, the country’s top oil buyer. Venezuela is among the top five suppliers of crude to the U.S. market.
In a speech earlier Saturday, Chavez called for the U.S. government to accept “the new realities of Latin America,” as he brushed aside restrictions that limit presidents to two consecutive terms. He vowed to stay in office beyond 2013, when his term expires, saying he would revise the constitution to get rid of presidential term limits.
But Chavez also said in his state of the nation address to government officials and legislators that he had personally expressed hope to a high-ranking U.S. official for better relations between their two countries.
Chavez said he spoke with Thomas Shannon, head of the U.S. State Department’s Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, on the sidelines of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration earlier this week.
“We shook hands and I told him: ‘I hope that everything improves,'” Chavez said. “I’m not anyone’s enemy.”
Chavez prompted a crash in Venezuelan share prices this past week when he announced he would seek special powers from the legislature to push through “revolutionary” reforms, including a string of nationalizations and unspecified changes to business laws and the commerce code.
He also announced plans for the state to take control of the country’s largest telecommunications company, its electricity and natural gas sectors and four heavy crude upgrading projects now controlled by some of the world’s top oil companies.
He said Saturday, however, that private companies would be allowed to own minority stakes in the lucrative Orinoco River basin oil projects.
The government has already taken majority ownership of all other oil-producing operations in the country through joint ventures controlled by the state oil company. Most companies have shown a willingness to continue investing despite the tightening terms, which have also included tax and royalty increases.