Cuba's President Raul Castro was welcomed by close ally Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Castro is to meet diplomats and military officials on Sunday, before flying to Brazil on Monday for a South American summit.
AFP - Cuban President Raul Castro was to hold talks with diplomats and military officials Sunday during his symbolic first official trip to Venezuela, Cuba's vital political and economic ally.
The visit is the first by Raul Castro, 77, outside Cuba since he formally took over the presidency of Cuba in February, after replacing his ailing brother Fidel, 82, more than two years ago.
Initially set to last only a few hours, the trip was extended until Monday morning when Castro will fly directly to Brazil to take part in a Latin American summit, diplomats and officials said late Saturday.
Castro was also to meet with Cuban specialists working in Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch supporter of Cuba and close friend of former leader Fidel Castro, received Castro with military honors Saturday.
"Brother, welcome to your country," said Chavez.
"I bring greetings to all Venezuelans and an embrace from the Cuban people and the leader of the revolution, comrade Fidel Castro," Raul Castro said.
The Cuban leader placed a wreath at a statue of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar in central Caracas, in a repeat of a gesture made by his brother Fidel in the past, before holding talks with Chavez on economic issues.
Oil-rich Venezuela is Cuba's main business partner, and aside from the symbolism of the visit, the two leaders are likely to discuss joint strategies to combat the global economic crisis, particularly low oil prices.
The visit comes only a few weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, and Chavez has said the trip carries "the same meaning" as Fidel Castro's first international visit -- also to Venezuela -- after claiming victory in 1959.
"If only the destiny of our peoples could be one single destiny!" Fidel Castro said in a speech at the time.
The two countries are hand-in-glove allies today.
Venezuela supported Cuba during its 1990s crisis sparked by the break-up of the Soviet Union, and more recently during Fidel Castro's deteriorating health.
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. Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA is among firms searching for oil off Cuba's north coast.
More than 30,000 Cubans, including doctors, teachers and sports trainers work in Venezuela.
During Chavez's visits to Cuba, the two leaders have agreed on projects in key sectors such as oil, nickel, communications and tourism, and set up joint companies in construction, gas, transport and food production.
According to official figures, bilateral projects since 2006 represent some 3.6 billion dollars, and the two countries plan more than 300 joint projects in 2009.
Both countries, staunch foes of the market-minded US government, together set up the ALBA leftist trade alliance in 2004 as an alternative to US-backed free trade policies.
The Venezuelan leader closely follows the state of health of Fidel Castro, his ideological "father," and has visited the former president at least 13 times at the undisclosed location where he is convalescing.
Raul Castro leaves Monday for a policy-coordinating summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brazil focused on integration and development.
Date created : 2008-12-14