Raul Castro in Venezuela on 1st presidential trip

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long been a close ally of Raul Castro's iconic older brother, Fidel Castro.

Raul Castro 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Raul Castro 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
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 US 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 technicians. Plunging oil prices may be generating worries in Havana about Venezuela's ability to finance all its foreign aid projects and to continue sending subsidized oil. Chavez - a former lieutenant colonel-turned-socialist - and Raul 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 Raul was presented with keys to the city by the mayor of Caracas' Libertador district, Jorge Rodriguez. Later, they were to wrap up negotiations on 311 cooperation projects for next year at the presidential palace, Ramirez told a delegation of Venezuelan and Cuban officials on Friday. 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. The vice president of Cuba's Cabinet, Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, said cooperation between the two nations is even more important considering the world financial meltdown. "The crisis generated by the capitalist system ... obliges our countries to make a sustained effort to advance," 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 to be held in Brazil starting Tuesday. Brazil, governed by center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has expanded ties with Cuba. In late October, state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA signed an agreement to explore for oil in deep Caribbean waters north of Cuba that officials in Havana say could contain 20 billion barrels of crude. At the time, Silva had said that Castro would travel to Brazil in December for the Cuban leader's first foreign trip abroad. Brazil is Cuba's second-largest Latin American trading partner, behind Venezuela. Brazil-Cuba trade generated $483 million through September, already surpassing $450 million for all of 2007, according to official figures. The trip to meet with his leftist allies in the region comes shortly after Raul Castro said he would be willing to meet with US President-elect Barack Obama.