Chávez touts new gas cartel, walks red carpet with Oliver Stone

One day after being feted in Venice, the Venezuelan leader visits Belarus today to discuss trade deals, including a new gas cartel similar to OPEC.

By , Latin America editor

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – who meets today with "Europe's last dictator" to discuss the formation of a gas cartel akin to OPEC – was all smiles yesterday during his surprise VIP appearance at the star-studded Venice Film Festival.

He threw a flower to the crowd, touched his heart, and even grabbed a photographer's camera to take a photo of himself as he strolled the red carpet with American filmmaker Oliver Stone. Mr. Chávez was on hand to be feted for the premier of Mr. Stone's new documentary "South of the Border," which aims to portray Chávez and other Latin American leftist leaders in a positive light. (Next up for Stone? A documentary about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.)

"South of the Border" slams US media for demonizing Chávez. "You can't get a fair hearing for Chávez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press," Stone told Variety.

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'Democratizing' Venezuela's airwaves

Apparently, Chávez also can't get a fair shake in his own country either.

"Venezuelan officials moved forward on Tuesday with efforts to 'democratize' the country's airwaves by closing nearly 30 more radio stations, a month after 34 media outlets were shuttered for 'abusing' free speech," reports Agence France-Presse. "We are democratizing the communication media and ensuring true freedom of expression," said Chávez last month.

A new gas cartel?

Meanwhile, Chávez continued what he has jokingly called his 11-day "evil axis" tour by paying a visit to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. The two were expected to discuss trade deals including the inclusion of Belarus in a forum of natural gas exporters similar to OPEC.

The visit to Belarus comes one day after Chávez invited Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to join the fledgling cartel, which Chavez hopes will counterbalance Western political and economic clout. And it comes two days after Chávez struck a deal with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to import fuel to the country at a time when the West is considering sanctions against Iran.

"Venezuela has agreed to export 20,000 barrels of petrol daily to Iran from October in a deal worth $800 millon," Chávez was quoted as saying by Iranian media. The arrangement could be key for Iran, which imports some 40 percent of its fuel. It could offset sanctions the US and Europe have threatened to impose on Iran if more progress is not made in efforts to resolve questions over Iran's nuclear program.

An olive branch to Obama?

Despite the deals struck on his trip to some of the least US-friendly countries on the planet, Chávez – who famously called former US President George W. Bush "the devil" – says he hopes he can work with President Obama.

"I have no reason to call him [Obama] the devil, and I hope that I am right," Chavez told reporters in Venice. "With Obama we can talk, we are almost from the same generation, one can't deny that Obama is different [from Bush]. He's intelligent, he has good intentions and we have to help him."

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