Castro trip a signal of Cuba's direction
By Christopher Toothaker | The Associated Press
December 14, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela – Raul Castro began his first international trip as
Cuba's president in Venezuela on Saturday, a symbolic choice of
destination aimed at strengthening ties with the island's socialist ally
and main benefactor.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long been a close ally of Raul
Castro's iconic older brother, Fidel Castro, who in February ceded power
to the 77-year-old Raul because of illness. Chavez's support for Cuba's
communist government and his fierce criticism of U.S. policy have
irritated officials in Washington.
"Welcome to your home," Chavez said as he hugged Castro at the airport
outside Caracas, where marines dressed in white uniforms stood in
formation under a bright Caribbean sun. "Your visit is an honor for us."
Castro, who wore dark sunglasses and a gray suit, delivered greetings
from his older brother.
"I bring a salute, a hug for all Venezuelans from the Cuban people and
from the leader of the revolution, comrade Fidel Castro," he said. Fidel
Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal
surgery in July 2006.
The choice of Venezuela as Raul Castro's first foreign trip reflects
Cuba's reliance on the oil-rich South American nation's backing.
Venezuela sells Cuba about 90,000 barrels of crude oil per day on
preferential terms, and hopes to increase shipments to 150,000 barrels
per day by 2013.
Venezuela's state-run oil company has also invested some $83 million
since 2006 to rehabilitate Cuba's Soviet-era Cienfuegos refinery, Oil
Minister Rafael Ramirez said in July.
Meanwhile, the Cuban government has sent Venezuela 30,000 Cuban doctors
and nurses, as well as thousands of sports trainers and agricultural
Chavez — a former lieutenant colonel-turned-socialist — and Castro laid
flowers at a statue of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar in
the capital's center on Saturday.
The two leaders then visited Bolivar's tomb, where Castro was presented
with keys to the city by the mayor of Caracas' Libertador district,
They also planned to wrap up negotiations on 311 cooperation projects
for next year at the presidential palace, Ramirez said.
Cuba and Venezuela have already agreed to invest nearly $1.4 billion in
joint projects this year, in addition to some $2.3 billion approved in
2006 and 2007, Ramirez said. Projects cover areas such as oil, health,
education and agriculture.
"We have been advancing in a very important and sustained manner," he said.
It was not clear exactly how long Castro planned to stay in Venezuela.
Castro was expected to head next to an integration summit of Latin
American and Caribbean countries in Brazil starting Tuesday.