Raul Castro makes historic first visit to Venezuela

Cuba's new president is not as close to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as Fidel Castro. But Raul and Chávez need each other, now more than ever, say analysts.

HANDSHAKE: Raul Castro (R) will make his first overseas trip as Cuba's president with a visit to Venezuela on Saturday.The trip recognizes the strong friendship Fidel Castro had with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (l). Above, Mr. Chavez and Raul Castro spoke during the inauguration of a new refinery in December 2007 in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

­ Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has gushed many times that Cuba's Fidel Castro is like a "father."

Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage has been just as effusive: "Cuba has two presidents: Fidel and Chávez."

So, it's no surprise that Castro's successor, his younger brother Raul, will, on his first overseas trip since becoming Cuba's president in July 2006, go to Venezuela.

"[This] has for us the same significance of the visit of Fidel in 1959," Mr. Chavez said on Wednesday, in announcing Raul Castro's visit on Saturday. "Raul is going to repeat history."

But Raul is not Fidel ­and the relationship with Chávez is not as close.

"It's Fidel who Chávez idolizes.... Chávez considers himself to be a descendent of Fidel," says Brian Latell, author of the book "After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba's Revolution." "From Raul's perspective... he has lived under the shadow, the often overbearing shadow, of Fidel for 50 years. Does he want to put himself under someone else's shadow?"

Mr. Chávez and Fidel Castro – Latin America's most vociferous foes of the US – have forged a strong friendship since the mid-90s. The visit by Raul to Caracas, his first trip since taking over from his ailing brother, underscores the continuity of that connection.

While the relationship between Chávez and Raul is shallower than that with Fidel, the mutual needs of the two – Chávez needs the revolutionary brand, while Cuba needs the money – is likely to take precedent over any lack of personal chemistry. In fact, say analysts, the two leaders may need each even more now that oil prices have taken a dramatic dive and Chávez's popularity seems to have slackened.

The visit underscores Cuba's dependence on Venezuela after the collapse of the Soviet Union – a relationship that, despite a visit from Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev last month, has been eclipsed by Venezuela. Cuba is in a vulnerable position today as the price of oil has fallen to $48 per barrel. "Chávez provides such an enormous subsidy, Raul may perceive [this visit] as something close to obligatory," Mr. Latell says.

The US State Department reported in August that Venezuela sends Cuba 90,000 barrels per day of crude oil and other types of fuel. The Venezuelan government has spent $166 million to help Cuba retrofit a Soviet-era petrochemical plant in Cienfuegos, according to Oil & Gas Journal Worldwide Refining Survey.

Antonio Jorge, a professor of political economy at Florida International University, says the fuel and other forms of Venezuelan assistance amount to a subsidy of more than $2 billion per year. "Venezuelan aid is decisive for maintaining the Cuban regime," he says.

In return, Cubans staff medical clinics throughout Venezuela and send coaches to train an upcoming crop of Venezuelan baseball players.

Sergio Rodriguez, a senior official at a Venezuelan government foreign affairs think tank in Caracas, calls the trip "symbolically important," recalling that Fidel Castro's first trip abroad as a Cuban leader in 1959 was also to Venezuela. "The trip sends a signal by Raul that he wants to maintain strong relations between the two countries," Mr. Rodriguez says.

But Maria Teresa Romero, an international relations professor at Venezuela's Central University, says the trip matters more to Chávez than to Raul Castro. "Chávez wants the visit to reinforce the belief that he is the political heir of Fidel Castro, of the revolutionary movement in Latin America," Ms. Romero says. "Chávez wants people to believe that he has the same relationship with Raul as he has with Fidel. But Raul Castro is trying to improve relations with other countries, including even the United States. It appears that Raul doesn't want to depend as much on Venezuela."

Mark Falcoff, Latin America expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, adds that Chávez also stands in the way of Raul's attempt to carve out his own political identity, apart from his brother's larger-than-life personality.

This has posed something of a burden for Chávez, said Thomas Shannon, the State Department's top envoy for Latin America.

"President Chávez has really had to work hard to build a relationship with Raul Castro and with those around Raul Castro who play very important roles in the day-to-day governance of Cuba," Mr. Shannon told a congressional committee in July.

"Obviously, this is a very important relationship for Venezuela, because an ability to connect to a Cuban revolution that has historically been hostile to the United States has been an ideological North Star of sorts," he said.

Chávez has some practical needs too, as the dip in oil prices may force cuts in social programs and as the results from recent gubernatorial and mayoral elections have favored opposition leaders in some key races. The types of social programs, which the Cubans help staff particularly in the poorer neighborhoods of Caracas, could be more important now than ever.

The most heralded program, "Barrio Adentro," at its peak sent some 30,000 Cuban doctors, nurses, and medical specialists to provide free health care to Venezuela's poor. "It's been one of the principal successes of the [Chávez] government," says Marino Alvarado, director of a Caracas-based nonprofit called Provea. "Many people have received medical care that they weren't getting."

The program is smaller now, however.

Mr. Alvarado's group issued a report this week saying that the number of medical personnel under Barrio Adentro has declined to 8,500 because the Cuban government has not replaced those who finished their two-year terms and returned home. Many of the health care clinics in slum neighborhoods have been abandoned, Alvarado says.

The Miami Herald reported in August that many Cuban doctors have chosen to remain rather than return to the difficult living conditions back home.

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