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Raul Castro makes first diplomatic stop-off in Venezuela

Latest update : 2008-12-12

Raul Castro's first presidential visit outside Cuba will be to Hugo Chavez, the fiery-tempered Venezuelan president, a close friend and ally to older brother Fidel. Both heads of state will travel together to a Brazilian regional summit next week.

AFP - Raul Castro's first foreign trip as Cuban president will be a symbolic stop on Saturday in Venezuela, the communist island's main political and economic ally, before heading to a regional summit in Brazil.

The meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will be the first visit by Raul Castro, 77, outside Cuba since he formally took over the presidency in February, replacing his ailing older brother Fidel, 82.

Three days later, both presidents are due to attend a broader summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in eastern Brazil focused on integration and development.

"Raul Castro will visit us on Saturday. Welcome president!" Chavez said during a public event late Wednesday, underlining that the visit would have "the same meaning as Fidel's visit in 1959".

Fidel Castro travelled to Caracas on January 23, 1959, in his first foreign trip as Cuban leader, barely 22 days after toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista and proclaiming victory for his revolution.

"Raul will repeat history," Chavez said, adding that the Cuban leader would pay homage to South American independence icon Simon Bolivar at Venezuela's National Pantheon.

Fidel Castro, Chavez's "ideological father," visited Caracas for four days in 1959 to thank Venezuela for help it gave to Cuban rebels in the island's Sierra Maestra.

"If only the destiny of our peoples could be one single destiny!" Castro said in a speech at the time.

Chavez's oil-rich country supported Cuba after its 1990s crisis sparked by the break-up of the Soviet Union and more recently following Fidel's deteriorating health.

"When do I have to go to Venezuela? I don't know, but if the nephew (Chavez) says so, I have to go," Raul Castro said three weeks ago, demonstrating the closeness of their relationship.

During Chavez's visits to Cuba, the two leaders agreed on costly projects in key economic sectors such as oil, nickel, communications and tourism, and set up joint companies in construction, gas, transport and food production.

Both countries, accused by the United States of destabilizing Latin America, together set up the ALBA leftist trade alliance in 2004 as an alternative to US-backed free trade policies.

Since then, Cuba receives some 100,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan oil under easy to pay conditions, and Venezuelan experts are working with Cubans on a petrochemical project in the southern city of Cienfuegos.

More than 30,000 Cubans, including doctors, teachers and sports trainers work in Venezuela.

Chavez closely follows the state of Fidel Castro's health and has visited the former president at least 13 times at the undisclosed location where he is convalescing.

Photographs and posters of Chavez with Fidel, and now also with Raul, hang on walls of Cuban factories, schools, food shops and military facilities.

Relations are so close that Cuban Vice President Carlos Lago once said the two countries were the most democratic in the world for having "two presidents."

"And only one government," Chavez said later.

Date created : 2008-12-12