Last updated: 23 June, 2012

Chavez hosts close ally Ahmadinejad

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged Friday to stand together to battle “imperialism,” with Chavez criticizing tough sanctions on Tehran.

Upon his arrival in Caracas from Brazil, where he attended the UN-sponsored Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, Ahmadinejad said: “We will build our countries, and we will get away from all the pressures of imperialism.”

Chavez responded: “We know the effort you must put in to overcome the obstacles imposed on you by imperialism — blockades, threats, unilateral sanctions.” The pair then headed into talks with their key ministers.

Chavez, who has been battling cancer for more than a year and faces a tough re-election contest in October, has expressed “solidarity” with key ally Iran as it faces growing pressure from the West over its suspect nuclear program.

Tehran has sought closer political and economic relations with countries far and wide, including many in Latin America, as its standoff with the West drags on. Ahmadinejad hailed Chavez as a “great revolutionary” and “dear brother.”

Iran and Venezuela engage in military cooperation. Chavez raised hackles last week when he announced that, with Iranian help, he had made his first drone and planned to soon begin exporting the unmanned aircraft.

A Venezuelan general said the drone, which “does not carry arms,” has a 100-kilometer (60-mile) sweep, can fly solo for some 90 minutes and reach an altitude of 3,000 meters (9,000 feet).

The United States — which has controversially waged drone strikes remotely against suspected militants in Pakistan and Yemen — expressed caution about Chavez’s announcement.

“The Venezuelans make lots of extravagant claims. So do the Iranians,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

During Friday’s talks, the firebrand leaders — who share a common hostility towards the United States — reviewed their cooperation on a number of issues, and Chavez thanked Ahmadinejad for Iran’s help in building 14,000 houses.

Iran and Venezuela have mutual investment of about $5 billion in factories to make cement, satellites, food, tractors and bicycles.

En route to Rio, the Iranian leader stopped in Bolivia to court support from another leftist Latin American nation that has tense ties with the United States.

Chavez has visited Tehran 13 times since taking power in 1999.

He is hoping for a third term in October 7 elections, but faces a strong challenge from an often fractious opposition that has now united behind center-left rival Henrique Capriles.

In May, the 57-year-old Chavez sought treatment in Cuba, his closest regional ally, after a recurrence of the cancer which he first disclosed last year.

The Venezuelan government has disclosed few details about Chavez’s health, leading to intense speculation over the political future of Latin America’s most prominent leftist leader.