The bloody upheaval in Libya is creating an uncomfortable challenge for Moammar Gadhafi's leftist Latin American allies, with some keeping their distance and others rushing to the defense of a leader they have long embraced as a fellow fighter against U.S. influence in the world.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said Tuesday that the unrest may be a pretext for a NATO invasion of Libya, while Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega offered support for Gadhafi, saying he had telephoned to express solidarity.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, on the other hand, has stayed mute. Bolivia came closest to criticizing the government in Tripoli, issuing a statement expressing concern over "the regrettable loss of many lives" and urging both sides to find a peaceful solution.
Latin America's leftist leaders have found common cause with Gadhafi over his opposition to U.S. foreign policy and sympathized with his revolutionary rhetoric. Gadhafi has responded over the years by awarding the Moammar Gadhafi International Human Rights Prize to Castro, Ortega, Chavez and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
Now those ties are being tested as Libya's security forces repress protesters emboldened by the fall of pro-Western strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia. Human rights groups say more than 200 people have died.
Gadhafi vowed Tuesday to fight to his "last drop of blood" and roared at his supporters to strike back at opponents.
While the United States, Europe and the U.N. Security Council have forcefully denounced the crackdown, Ortega has been Gadhafi's staunchest ally. He said in remarks excerpted by state radio Tuesday that he had kept in communication with the Libyan leader, expressing his solidarity over the "moments of tension."
"There is looting of businesses now, there is destruction. That is terrible," Ortega said. He added that he told Gadhafi "difficult moments put loyalty to the test."
Castro, meanwhile, said in a column published Tuesday by Cuban state media that it is too early to criticize Gadhafi.
"You can agree or not with Gadhafi," Castro said. "The world has been invaded by all sorts of news ... We have to wait the necessary time to know with rigor how much is fact or lie."
But he did urge protests of something that he says is planned: A U.S.-led invasion of the North African nation aimed at controlling its oil.
"The government of the United States is not concerned at all about peace in Libya and it will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country, perhaps in a question of hours or very short days," Castro wrote.
"An honest person will always be against any injustice committed against any people in the world," Castro said. "And the worst of those at this instant would be to keep silent before the crime that NATO is preparing to commit against the Libyan people."
While Chavez has not commented publicly on the unrest in Libya, Venezuela's foreign minister issued a statement Monday saying he had phoned his Libyan counterpart to express hopes that Libya can find "a peaceful solution to its difficulties ... without the intervention of imperialism, whose interests in the region have been affected in recent times."
In Nicaragua and Venezuela, critics said their governments had revealed their own autocratic leanings through their sympathy for Gadhafi and failure to condemn the crackdown.
"While the whole world is moved and disgusted by the killings in Libya, our Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro is reveling in announcing that Moammar Gadhafi is alive and kicking in Tripoli," the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional said in an editorial Tuesday.
Opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina said his colleagues would introduce a resolution condemning "all acts of violence, of repression, of human rights violations in Libya on the part of Mr. Gadhafi."
Others said Chavez's silence suggests he might be trying to distance himself from his North African friend. The two leaders have had such warm ties that on Monday, rumors swept the world that Gadhafi was fleeing to Venezuela. Gadhafi took to television to deny them.
"Our garrulous president is keeping a thunderous silence," the director of the newspaper Tal Cual, Teodoro Petkoff, wrote in an editorial. "Now that the democratic rebellion has reached Libya, Chavez is looking the other way and even abandoning his disgraced 'brother.'"
There is no indication the upheaval in the Middle East is inspiring unrest in Latin America, though the possibility seemed to be on some leaders' minds.
In Venezuela, the government agreed to review the cases of some prisoners who Chavez's opponents say are being persecuted by the government. The concession was a key demand of dozens of protesters who had been on hunger strike since Jan. 31; they ended their protest Tuesday.
In Cuba, the government-run website Cubadebate published Castro's column alongside photos of calm streets in Havana _ which it said were taken at a place where opponents abroad had urged protesters to gather.
Ortega accused opposition forces in Nicaragua of trying to generate chaos and made a point of saying he has ordered his security forces not to repress any demonstrations.
"Here we have a democracy and anybody can protest," Ortega said.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez reported this story in Havana and Alexandra Olson from Mexico City. AP writers Carolina Herrera in Managua, Nicaragua, and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.