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Brazil Deepens Strategic Cooperation with Cuba

HAVANA, Feb 2 2012 (IPS) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Cuba served to further strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries, leverage the South American giant’s investments in the Caribbean island, and deepen political ties.

On Feb. 1, Rousseff travelled to Haiti, where she was set to meet with government officials to discuss a number of issues, including migration and the reconstruction efforts underway since the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Brazil and Cuba are backing the establishment of a healthcare system in that impoverished Caribbean nation.

Brazil’s first woman president arrived in Havana on Jan. 30, where she held talks with her Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro, paid a visit to his brother, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro -who she said she felt “immensely honoured” to meet – and toured a logistics hub being developed with Brazilian investment in the port of Mariel, some 50 kilometres west of Havana.

According to official press accounts, during her stay in the capital she signed several agreements with Cuba, but no details of their content were released. In her only statements to the press, on Jan. 31, Rousseff defined her country’s cooperation with Cuba as a contribution to economic development in the current state of affairs.

The Cuban government is implementing a number of reforms under what it calls “updating the economic model,” which includes opening up to private initiatives such as self-employment and non-state managed business ventures, in particular in the services sector, and the granting of productive lands to individuals.

In what was her first trip to Cuba, Rousseff judged as wrong “a blockade that denies a people access to food,” in reference to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, and said her government would be granting 350 million dollars in credit for food purchases from Brazil.

“We also agreed to finance the purchase of equipment, machinery, small tractors, and harvesters, with a 200 million (dollar) credit to boost food production in Cuba,” Rousseff said, and insisted on a partnership between the two nations that will help the island’s development and ensure better living conditions for its people.

Accompanied by Raúl Castro, Rousseff toured the industrial development works in Mariel that are led by a Brazilian company and which include a major renovation of the port and all the infrastructure necessary to receive ships of up to 15-metre drafts.

The works are expected to turn Mariel into a development hub, with the port operating as the main receiving point for future trade activities, linked to the tapping of what is thought to be a major oilfield within Cuba’s exclusive economic zone in Gulf of Mexico waters.

The works, valued at some 900 million dollars, of which Brazil contributes a little over 600 million, are part of a significant medium and long-term development planned by Cuba, which includes expanding the Cienfuegos oil refinery to bring production up from the current 65,000 barrels to 150,000.

Located 254 kilometres southwest of Havana, Cienfuegos has attracted oil investments from Venezuela and China. Plans there include the construction of a liquefied gas plant and a 320-kilometre gas pipeline.

Another area mentioned by Rousseff as a target for Brazil’s contribution is the medical and pharmaceutical industries, where both countries have already been working together for some time.

Cuba “as a country and a people excels in biotechnology and medical sciences, and Brazil benefits from” cooperation in these fields, she said.

According to Brazilian sources, in 2011, bilateral trade between the two countries hit a record 642 million dollars, 31 percent higher than in 2010, making Brazil Cuba’s fifth largest commercial partner, after Venezuela, China, Canada, and Spain.

Rousseff is the first Latin American head of state to visit President Castro this year, following the establishment of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) in December 2010.

“The press did not give much importance (to the Celac founding summit), but to me it was one of the most important ever,” the Brazilian president said.

For Castro, the main advantage of Celac is its independence from the United States. It also consolidates “the concept of a united and sovereign region, committed to a common destiny,” Raúl Castro said.

Celac groups 33 nations from Latin America and the Caribbean, with a combined population of 580 million people.

On the issue of human rights, Rousseff avoided criticising the island, as some opposition sectors hoped she would do, and opted instead for a conceptual approach.

“I am willing to discuss human rights from a multilateral perspective; it is a commitment of all civilised people,” she said.

The state of human rights needs to be improved everywhere in the world, she said. “Human rights are not a stone to be thrown from one side to the other.”

Regarding Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez’ request for support in obtaining an exit visa to travel to Brazil for a film festival, Rousseff said her country had granted her an entry visa and “the rest is not up to the Brazilian government.”

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