Maduro first foreign leader to visit new president of Cuba

Reuters, HAVANA

Mon, Apr 23, 2018 - Page 5

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday became the first foreign leader to meet with newly elected Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, underscoring the importance of the Venezuelan-Cuban alliance.

Diaz-Canel, 58, was sworn in on Thursday to succeed his mentor, Cuban Communist Party (PCC) First Secretary Raul Castro, 86, in a transition designed to continue, rather than change the one-party socialist system.

Maduro flew to Havana the following day to congratulate him and map out further cooperation between the two countries, which in 2000 became strategic allies with the rise to power in Venezuela of then-president Hugo Chavez.

“We come to renew hope, to renew dreams and ... above all, to visualize the 10 years ahead,” Maduro told Cuban state-run media shortly before meeting with Diaz-Canel in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution.

Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, exchanges oil for Cuban medical and other technical services, although deliveries have dropped over the past few years, hurting Cuba’s already struggling economy.

In a change from official events during the nearly 60 years that the Castro brothers led Cuba, Diaz-Canel’s wife, Lis Cuesta, also attended the welcome ceremony at the palace as first lady.

Raul Castro was a widower when he took over as leader in 2008 from his older brother, former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who was guarded about his private life.

Cuban state-run media on Saturday also reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had in a telephone call spoken with both Diaz-Canel and Raul Castro.

Putin, who has overseen increased Russian trade with Cuba over the last few years, confirmed Russia’s willingness to help the country modernize its old Soviet-style centrally planned economy, Cuban state media said.

Some analysts have argued that US President Donald Trump’s partial rollback of the US-Cuban detente has pushed the island toward strengthening its alliances with Russia, against the security interests of the US.

However, a White House official on Thursday said that the Trump administration does not see Cubans gaining greater freedoms under Diaz-Canel and that it therefore has no plan to soften its policy toward the country’s government.