When Moammar Gadhafi made his first and only visit to South America in 2009, President Hugo Chavez praised his longtime friend as "the liberator of Libya," talked politics inside his Bedouin tent and presented him with Venezuela's highest award.
Now that Gadhafi has been ousted and is in hiding, Chavez is one of the few heads of state still openly supporting him, and probably his most strident and vocal defender among them.
Chavez denounces Libya's rebels-turned-rulers as "terrorists" and has spearheaded a group of Latin American allies in condemning NATO's airstrikes. In Gadhafi's fate, Chavez appears to see a cautionary tale and a dangerous precedent for potential U.S. and European military interventions in other oil-producing countries, such as Venezuela.
"Gadhafi has said he's not going to leave Libya, that he's leading the resistance. And it's what any leader would have to do," Chavez said Friday night as he hosted a group of foreign ministers from allied countries. "I'm sure he's very far from thinking in the least of leaving Libya."
Chavez has long admired Gadhafi and the political ideals in his Green Book, the manifesto that promotes "direct democracy" rather than traditional representative government and argues that public participation through "popular congresses" is key. Chavez has similarly set up neighborhood "communal councils" that aim to boost involvement in local decision-making, and both former military men have cast themselves as leaders with unshakable links to their public.
The two have expressed beliefs that they're destined to lead their nations for decades. Chavez in 2009 attended celebrations in Libya marking Gadhafi's 40th anniversary in power, and the Venezuelan president now predicts that such a long-standing political movement won't fade overnight. "This war will be long," Chavez said recently, repeating the words of Gadhafi.
"Chavez doesn't hide anything. He defends Gadhafi because he feels like Gadhafi," said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a Venezuelan writer who co-authored a biography of the president.
Barrera noted that Chavez recently said that while it's unclear how much strength Gadhafi has to keep fighting back, the Libyan has longevity going for him after governing for four decades.
"He considers that a virtue, a model to follow," Barrera said. "It's his ideal, what he wants. If Gadhafi falls, a successful version of the model of government that Chavez promotes also falls."
Chavez, a former army paratroop commander, has progressively amassed power during more than 12 years in office and vows to keep winning re-election for many years to come. Chavez has also been a strong promoter of the newly formed Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, just as Gadhafi was active as a leader within the African Union before Libya's conflict erupted.
When Gadhafi pitched his tent outside a hotel on Margarita Island during a 2009 summit in Venezuela, Chavez presented him with the nation's highest award and a replica of a sword that belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"I'm not exaggerating at all: Moammar al-Gadhafi is for the Libyan people what Simon Bolivar is for Venezuelans," Chavez said as he presented the medal. "He's the liberator of Libya, the creator of the socialist people's Arab republic."
During his visit, Gadhafi flaunted a rock-star-like image, shadowed by women bodyguards and surrounded by onlookers as he passed through the hotel in his flowing African robes.
Chavez at the time praised Gadhafi's proposal to create a "NATO for the south," a defense alliance that would include African and South American nations. Both men talked of standing up to world powers and "imperialism." Accepting his award, Gadhafi told Chavez: "We are in the same trenches."
Before the fighting in Libya, Chavez says he had warned Gadhafi about Libya's billions of dollars in assets in the U.S. and Europe, which have since been frozen. Chavez accuses the U.S. and European countries of using Libya's internal conflict as a pretext to seize control of its oil wealth as well as its freshwater supply in aquifers deep beneath the Sahara Desert.
It's a perspective that fits with Chavez's accusations, long denied by U.S. officials, that Washington is plotting against him to seize Venezuela's oil. He said on television last week: "We're on that list, only in the background."
Throughout the conflict in Libya, Chavez has been demanding peace negotiations and praising the African Union's calls for talks. Gadhafi at one point sent him a letter thanking him for his support.
But last week, Chavez suggested they haven't been in contact lately. "Nobody knows where Gadhafi is," Chavez said. He said he's sure Gadhafi will stay in Libya and "resist with the strength he has left."
From hiding, Gadhafi has vowed in audio messages never to "leave the land of his ancestors." But news emerged Sunday that one of his sons, al-Saadi, had become the highest-profile former regime figure to flee to neighboring Niger. Since last week, several convoys carrying senior officials of the former government, including high-ranking military officers, have made their way to Niger, but Gadhafi's whereabouts remain unknown.
Criticizing NATO's involvement in Libya seems to play well among many hard-line Chavez supporters who oppose the war.
"He dares to tell the truth," said Corina Rondon, a 57-year-old pro-Chavez activist. "All the other countries don't dare to speak out because they're afraid. ... Not Chavez."
Top diplomats of countries ranging from Bolivia to Dominica agreed at Friday's talks in Caracas to demand an immediate halt to the foreign military involvement in Libya. In a joint statement, the nations of the left-leaning ALBA bloc called for an investigation into NATO's "crimes" and vowed to denounce before the U.N. General Assembly the "dangerous precedents" set in Libya.
The president's opponents, meanwhile, condemn what they view as support for an international pariah and note that Chavez has an affinity for other long-ruling leaders ranging from Cuba's Fidel Castro to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
Chavez, who is up for re-election next year, has repeatedly warned of potential plots against him since he survived a 2002 coup. He now says some of his enemies are falsely trying to paint him as identical to Gadhafi in the hopes of laying the groundwork for a similar conflict in Venezuela one day.
He told supporters in a Sept. 2 speech that any such attempts would fail and that "we have to be alert to guarantee that madness doesn't take shape."
"They're going around looking for a way for an invasion to occur here, and for that reason they're insisting Chavez is the same as Gadhafi, well, 'the tyrant,'" Chavez said. "They're thinking about what they call the 'Libya model.' What a horrible thing!"
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap