Los Angeles Times
December 14, 2008
Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela -- Raul Castro on Saturday began his first international trip as Cuba's president with a visit to Venezuela, a symbolic choice 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 older brother Fidel Castro, who in February ceded power to 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 Raul Castro at the airport outside Caracas, the capital. "Your visit is an honor for us."
Castro delivered greetings from his brother, who has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.
The choice of Venezuela as Castro's first foreign trip reflects Cuba's reliance on the oil-rich South American nation.
Venezuela sells Cuba about 90,000 barrels of crude oil a day on preferential terms and hopes to increase shipments to 150,000 barrels a day by 2013.
Venezuela's state-run oil company has also invested about $83 million since 2006 to rehabilitate Cuba's Soviet-era Cienfuegos refinery, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said in July.
Meanwhile, the Cuban government has sent Venezuela 30,000 doctors and nurses, as well as thousands of sports trainers and agricultural technicians.
Cuba and Venezuela have agreed to invest nearly $1.4 billion in joint projects this year, in addition to about $2.3 billion approved in 2006 and '07, Ramirez said.
Castro was expected to head next to an integration summit of Latin American and Caribbean countries to be held in Brazil starting Tuesday.