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Raul Castro visits "nephew" Chavez on first trip
Sat Dec 13, 2008 4:51pm EST
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By Saul Hudson
CARACAS (Reuters) - Cuban leader Raul Castro strengthened his relationship with his "nephew" and biggest benefactor, President Hugo Chavez, symbolically starting his first foreign trip as president in Venezuela on Saturday.
The two men share a rejection of capitalism and the Bush administration but are unlikely to become as close as Chavez is to Raul's older brother, Fidel Castro, who this year gave up the presidency of the communist-run island due to illness.
Raul Castro, 77, worked in the shadow of his iconic brother for decades and is now seeking to boost his credentials as a statesman, as well as his country's trade, on visits to Venezuela and Brazil.
With cheap oil aid exchanged for doctors working in Venezuelan slums, Chavez has helped Cuba to recover from the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up the island's statist economy in the face of a U.S. embargo.
But with Venezuela's oil income plunging and signs that Chavez's support may be gradually eroding after a decade in power, Cuba needs to diversify its foreign support.
Since taking office in February, Raul Castro has bolstered ties with Russia and China and is now seeking to take advantage of Brazil's stated goal of boosting Cuban trade, especially in its nascent oil industry.
Oil is also the focus of bilateral ties with Venezuela, an OPEC member. A Cuban delegation spent Friday thrashing out plans for cooperation in the industry over a joint refinery and the development of offshore fields that Havana hopes can bring a boon to its economy that this year was hurt by hurricanes.
Chavez, 54, received Castro on the tarmac of Venezuela's main airport at a red-carpet ceremony with an artillery salute, national anthems and a Navy honor guard in crisp, white uniforms.
Chavez strode up to the short, bespectacled Castro and put his arm around his shoulders. Both wearing suits, they briefly embraced, but it was little like the effusive bear-hugs Chavez and Fidel Castro typically shared.
The chemistry between Fidel Castro and Chavez is obvious. In public over the years, they were typically seen guffawing together, hugging frequently and tightly and engaging in intense philosophical debates.
"I bring a greeting and an embrace from the Cuban people and from the head of the revolution, from Fidel Castro," Raul Castro said.
"Your visit is an honor for us," Chavez replied. "In welcoming you, we welcome Fidel and the Cuban people."
Chavez, a socialist, rarely makes a speech without praising Fidel Castro's communist revolution. He calls Castro his mentor and father and says his lobbying during a brief coup helped restore him to the Venezuelan presidency in 2002.
While Raul Castro calls the Venezuelan his "nephew," he generally projects a stern-faced image alongside Chavez. Continued...
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