New Buddies Bond on Oil, Baseball ; Monday, Venezuela's President Signed a Pact, Giving Cuba a Great Deal on Oil for Five Years

Article excerpt

In case anyone had any lingering doubts about the matter, it's official: Cuban President Fidel Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez are very good friends. They visit each other's homes, indulge their shared passion for baseball, and engage in extended, public reminiscences about their respective revolutions.

Castro was back in Havana yesterday after a four-day state visit to the South American nation that included a veterans' baseball match (won hands-down by the Cubans), an extensive tour of the country, and a speech to Parliament. Venezuelans were left pondering the domestic and international implications of a trip that went well beyond the realms of protocol into what looked at times embarrassingly like a love affair.

It is five years, 10 months, and 12 days since I first met Fidel," a dreamy-eyed Chavez reminisced to reporters in his home state of Barinas. Chavez's birthplace, Fidel assured them on the same leg of the trip, would in time be more visited than that of the liberator of South America, Venezuelan national hero Simn Bolivar.

It must have been music to the ears of the former lieutenant- colonel, who was jailed after an abortive coup in 1992 but won a landslide election victory in 1998 and insists he is embarked on a "Bolivarian" revolution.

After more than 40 years in power, Castro declared that neither his death nor his removal from the scene would affect the course of Cuba's Communist revolution. Chavez, however, he sees as indispensable. "To be objective," he told a special session of the Venezuelan Parliament, "I believe that only one man could carry out such a complex process in Venezuela - Hugo Chavez." Since being elected in 1998, the populist leader has pushed through a new Constitution, which increases the president's individual powers.

The remark was typical of a visit which was, for the most part, an extended round of backslapping and mutual admiration, which raised the hackles of many in Venezuela's opposition.

Several opposition parties boycotted Castro's address to parliament, which is dominated by Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and its allies. "I don't want dictators here, whatever their political tendency," said congresswoman Liliana Hernandez. Only the "small-mindedness" of his opponents, countered Chavez, prevented them from recognizing Castro's qualities as a world leader and "example of dignity".

Officially, Castro was in Caracas to sign a cooperation agreement under which Venezuela will meet most, if not all, of Cuba's oil needs at concessionary terms. Unlike similar agreements signed recently with Central American and some Caribbean nations, this is a five-year (rather than annual) renewable agreement and incorporates barter trade from the outset, rather than as an option at the behest of Venezuela.

Some see the deal as a virtual gift to Cuba, which has had a hard time meeting its energy needs since the collapse of its former supplier, the Soviet Union. …

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