Raúl Castro Goes To Venezuela On His First Official Visit as Cuban President

On his first official visit as President of Cuba, Raúl Castro arrived in Caracas yesterday, a symbolic demonstration of the importance that the Cuban government places on its relations with Venezuela.

Cuban President Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

La Habana, December 14, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) – On his first official visit as President of Cuba, Raúl Castro arrived in Caracas yesterday, a symbolic demonstration of the importance that the Cuban government places on its relations with Venezuela. Castro’s visit serves to finalize the 9th meeting of the Cuba-Venezuela Joint Commission.

“I bring greetings for all Venezuelans from the Cuban people and the leader of the revolution, companion Fidel Castro,” said the Cuban head of state upon his arrival to Simon Bolivar airport.

“Brother, welcome to your homeland,” Chavez responded.

Organized in 24 working tables, Cubans and Venezuelans reviewed the progress of joint projects established for the last three years. The Commission approved 173 new projects to be completed in 2009 for a sum of $2 billion, an increase from the $1.4 billion agreed for 2008.

The two countries signed an Integral Cooperation Agreement in 2000 through which Venezuela provides Cuba with 100,000 barrels of oil daily in exchange for services provided by Cuban professionals. Since then, more than 30,000 Cuban doctors, 1,400 agricultural technicians, 6,000 athletic trainers have worked in Venezuela.

According to a statement by the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Oil, $3.6 billion worth of joint projects were undertaken between 2006 and 2008. Initially, most were on education, health, sports and agriculture.

Projects on telecommunications, tourism, transportation, energy and industry were added later, establishing 12 joint ventures on these sectors. Venezuela is assisting the expansion of a refinery and the creation of oil processing facilities in Cuba. Ethanol plants and other sugar processing facilities with Cuban technology have been set up in Venezuela.

The plan for next year includes the creation of a telecommunications technologies joint venture, as well as a holding in charge of establishing joint enterprises for the processing of oil and gas in Cuba, including the creation the joint oil company Cuvepetrol, with a mission of “developing the various companies that refine oil and natural gas in Cuba,” and will aim to double capacity in two Cuban refineries.

The partnership has grown since it was first proposed as an alternative to the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Cooperation between Cuba and Venezuela is guided by the principles laid out in the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América-ALBA). Since Cuba and Venezuela founded ALBA in 2004, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Honduras have joined.

Cuban President Castro was received in the Maiquetía international airport, near Caracas, by Hugo Chávez, as well as members of his cabinet and a military parade. “Your visit is an honor. With you we receive Fidel and the Cuban people, and the guerrillas of the Sierra Maestra and the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, an example for all our peoples,” Chávez told Castro.

As he did during a previous visit to Venezuela 55 years ago, Raúl Castro first activity was to pay homage to Latin American independence hero Simón Bolívar at his tomb in Caracas.

Chavez also decorated Castro with the “Order of the Liberator” medal and presented him with a replica of Simon Bolivar’s sword. Castro thanked Chavez for his solidarity in recent years, as well as his “care and respect for Fidel,” who Chavez calls his ideological “father.”

The trip highlights Cuba’s close ties to Venezuela at a time when other nations also look to advance their relations with Havana. Brazilian officials have publicly expressed their intention to become Cuba’s principal economic partner. Russia has expressed interest in greater military and economic collaboration. China has steadily expanded its trade and investment relations with Cuba.

After declarations made by the Obama campaign about the importance of improving relations with Cuba as a vehicle to repair U.S. standing in the region, Cuba looks to play an increasingly strategic role in the hemisphere.

The visit of the new Cuban President (since February 2008) to Venezuela serves to address doubts about the future of the two countries’ relations when Fidel Castro is no longer the President of Cuba, and the price of oil—Venezuela’s main source of revenue—in the international market has sharply declined. If the agreements of the Cuba-Venezuela Joint Commission are an indication, cooperation between both countries is indeed expanding.

Castro will continue his trip to Brazil to participate in the Latin America and Caribbean Integration and Development Summit, to take place in Salvador de Bahía on December 15 and 16. For the first time, representatives of all 33 Latin American countries will meet without the presence of the U.S. or European countries.

The Summit will be attended by executive secretaries of Latin America’s most important regional institutions: Mercado Común del Sur (Mercosur), Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración (ALADI), Comunidad Andina (CAN), Comunidad del Caribe (Caricom), Sistema de Integración Centroamericano (SICA), and Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Unasur).

According to Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, the goal of the meeting is to expand the recently created Unasur to all Latin American and Caribbean countries, and thus further regional integration. The most pressing point will be to decide on a mechanism for compensation among countries that are seeking greater independence from the U.S. dollar, in hopes of lessening their vulnerability to global economic crises.

For Cuba, the expansion of Unasur and its materialization as the main regional integration body is a very important event. Unasur has emerged as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), controlled by the U.S., and from which Cuba was expulsed in 1962.

Raúl Castro’s trip to Caracas recalled another highly symbolic trip nearly 50 years ago, when his brother Fidel also chose Venezuela as his first journey abroad after the triumph of the Revolution, on January 23, 1959. During that visit, Fidel Castro met with Wolfang Larrazabal, president of the governing Junta after the fall of the Jiménez dictatorship, and signed several agreements.

From the Plaza of Silence Fidel had said: “I wish the destiny of our peoples be only one destiny. For how long are we going to continue in lethargy, for how long are we going to continue divided, victims of powerful interests?”