December 14, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Cuban President Raul Castro spent Sunday in private meetings with socialist ally Hugo Chavez after publicly thanking the Venezuelan president for helping Cuba through difficult times.
Castro - on his first trip abroad since becoming Cuba's president - was not scheduled to appear in public the day after he and Chavez agreed to joint projects worth more than $2 billion.
Chavez, a longtime ally of Fidel Castro, gave Fidel's younger brother a warm welcome to Venezuela on Saturday, praising him for challenging U.S. "imperialism" for decades.
Castro, in turn, thanked Venezuela for increasing cooperation with the communist-led island.
"In the name of Cuba, we thank you for your solidarity with the Cuban Revolution," said the 77-year-old Castro. "We've been able to leave the difficult years behind."
Fidel Castro signed Cuba's first cooperation agreement with Venezuela eight years ago.
Raul Castro stopped first in Venezuela on his first international trip as president, a testament to Cuba's reliance on the South American nation that provides the island with oil at a discount.
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 also is the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S. Washington's nearly 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba prohibits nearly all U.S. commerce with the island.
Plunging world oil prices are raising doubts about the future of Venezuela's international largess. But Venezuela and Cuba forged ahead Saturday with plans to expand Cuba's oil refineries.
The Cuban government, meanwhile, has sent Venezuela 30,000 Cuban doctors, nurses, sports trainers and agricultural technicians.
Castro formally succeeded his ailing 82-year-old brother as Cuba's president in February, but had assumed leadership duties on an interim basis after Fidel underwent emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.
Castro said he hopes voters approve a proposed constitutional amendment to lift limits on presidential elections and allow Chavez to run for re-election in 2012. Venezuelan election officials say the term-limits referendum could be held in March.
On Sunday, Chavez says relations between Venezuela and the United States can only improve after President George W. Bush leaves the White House.
But the Venezuelan leader, a fierce critic of Washington, said in a televised interview that bettering relations will require "patience" and "good faith."
Chavez earlier said he hopes Obama will make good on his promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba after taking office on Jan. 20.