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Raúl Castro's visit with Chávez shows Cuba's need for oil

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Raúl Castro signed a series of bilateral accords in Caracas on Saturday in Mr. Castro's first foreign trip since he succeeded his ailing brother Fidel.

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / December 15, 2008

Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, stands with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Saturday.

Fernando Llano/AP

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Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Raúl Castro – two presidents who need each other but for different reasons – signed a series of bilateral accords here Saturday in a visit heavy with symbolism because it marked the first trip abroad by Mr. Castro since he succeeded his ailing brother Fidel.

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"We give a fervent welcome to you as one of the forces behind the [Cuban] Revolution," Mr. Chávez said, as he greeted Raúl Castro with a hug at the international airport outside Caracas. "It's a great honor for us to receive you."

"I bring a salute, a hug for all Venezuelans from the Cuban people and from the leader of the revolution, Fidel Castro," Raúl Castro replied.

Speaking to reporters a few minutes later, Castro remarked that he had last visited Venezuela 55 years ago, when he was a student conspiring with his older brother to overthrow Cuba's dictatorship.

Raúl Castro said he offered his respects then to Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan who played a decisive role in freeing South America from colonial Spain nearly 200 years ago. Chávez constantly cites Bolivar as a role model.

So it was not surprising that the two presidents laid a wreath at a statue of Bolivar in downtown Caracas in the morning and at Bolivar's tomb in the afternoon.

Cuba depends on Venezuelan oil

For Raúl Castro, the trip was important for more than just the symbolism: Cuba's economy depends on Venezuelan oil that Chávez is believed to provide free of charge.

For Chávez, the trip was important for its imagery: it reinforced his ties to the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro that serve as the guiding stars in his efforts to forge an anti-US and anti-capitalist alliance throughout Latin America.

Outside commentators have speculated that Chávez has been unable to establish with Raúl Castro anything near the warm and indeed fatherly relationship that he has enjoyed with Fidel Castro, who relinquished power in July 2006.

To perhaps show otherwise Saturday, Chávez hugged Raúl Castro upon his arrival and draped his arm around him repeatedly as if they were best friends.

But Daniel Erikson, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and author of the recently published book "The Cuba Wars" said that the question of personal chemistry between Chávez and Raúl Castro takes a back seat to their mutual needs.

"Venezuelan oil has kept Cuba running the past few years," Mr. Erikson said.

Besides wanting to link himself to Cuba and the Castros, Chávez benefits from the thousands of doctors, nurses, sports coaches, and agricultural specialists who serve Venezuela's poor, Erikson said.