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Gadhafi's friend to the death, Chavez calls Libyan leader 'a martyr'

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
October 22, 2011 -- Updated 0002 GMT (0802 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A friendship between the two leaders grew over the years
  • Chavez gave Gadhafi a replica of Simon Bolivar's sword
  • He says he will remember the fallen leader as a "great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr"

(CNN) -- It was the year 2000. Standing at attention, a relatively unknown Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, only 18 months after taking office, was positioned right next to one of the world's most-controversial dictators.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, then seeking alternative alliances with leaders in other parts of the world, was receiving Chavez with military honors on August 13 of that year. Chavez appeared proud, standing next to his new and powerful friend in North Africa.

The friendship between Chavez and Gadhafi solidified in 2004, when the Libyan leader awarded Chavez the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, an honor he had already given to another Latin American leader, Cuba's Fidel Castro in 1998.

By 2009, the friendship had become very close. On September 1 of that year, Gadhafi welcomed Chavez to Libya with a warm embrace. Chavez was one of various world leaders attending festivities there, held to commemorate Gadhafi's 40 years in power.

Chavez would return the compliment later that month when Gadhafi visited Venezuela, presenting the Libyan leader with a replica of the sword that belonged to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, one of the greatest honors in Venezuela.

It was Gadhafi's first visit to Latin America in his 40-year rule. Both leaders were photographed greeting supporters on Venezuela's Margarita Island beach resort, a favorite tourist destination.

And just in case there was any doubt about their closeness, Gadhafi named a stadium just outside Benghazi the "Hugo Chavez Stadium." The stadium was renamed earlier this year "Martyrs of February" by Libyan rebels, who would eventually form the National Transitional Council and put an end to Gadhafi's regime.

Chavez learned of Gadhafi's death as he returned Thursday from Cuba, where he's getting cancer treatment.

"I was talking with (Cuban leader) Raul Castro. He was telling me 'Gadhafi is going to get killed for sure,'" Chavez said.

"Regrettably, Gadhafi's death has been confirmed. He was murdered. Well, this is another attempt against life. What else can I say? ... I will remember him all of my life as a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr," he added.

In March, after the conflict in Libya had started, Chavez proposed an international goodwill commission to mediate the crisis while accusing the United States and other Western powers of blowing the situation out of proportion to justify an invasion.

Chavez wasn't the only Latin American leader who supported Gadhafi. In a statement dated February 21, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro wrote that he "couldn't imagine that the Libyan leader would ever abandon his country" when fighting broke out. "He would never avoid his responsibilities," Castro wrote.

The new Libyan government faces some challenges in Latin America. Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Cuba's Raul Castro all have refused to recognize Libya's National Transitional Council. As an oil producing country, Libya was Venezuela's partner under OPEC -- a relationship that has to be rebuilt as well.

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