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Brazil's outreach to Cuba may dilute Venezuela's influence

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published January 16, 2008


MIAMI - For decades Washington has sought to isolate Cuba politically and economically. It hasn't worked.

In the latest blow to the United States' Cuba policy, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva offered on Tuesday a $1-billion line of credit for a wide range of items vital to Cuba's survival, from road building, food products, nickel mining and offshore oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

This comes on top of Cuba's recent economic agreements with China and Iran, as well as $4-billion worth of petroleum products it receives annually from oil-rich Venezuela.

The news is sure to go down badly among hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, but don't expect to hear much complaining from Washington about Lula's generosity toward Cuba.

Despite being a lifelong leftist and ally of Fidel Castro, Lula has lately become one of the United States' principal allies in the region. One of the world's largest producers of biofuels, Brazil shares the Bush administration's keen interest in ethanol, though it uses more efficient sugar cane, rather than the much criticized corn feedstock used in the United States.

Even so, Brazil's decision to engage Cuba economically makes a mockery of President Bush's Cuba speech last October, when he appealed to the rest of the world to join with Washington in condemning Cuba's communist system. It was time, Bush said, for the world to stand in solidarity with Cuba's dissidents, not its communist rulers.

The speech was met with official silence in most countries, along with some quietly blown raspberries.

In the last couple of years, Brazil has privately made it known to Washington and Havana that it isn't interested in taking sides in their political battle. Brazil offers a pragmatic alternative, visibly on display in Lula's trip this week to Havana, Brazilian diplomats say.

On the one hand, Lula has told Havana that he will have no part in Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's "anti-imperialist" crusade against the Bush administration. At the same time, Brazil is willing to offer all the technical support and financial assistance Cuba needs to modernize its economy.

"I think Lula is saying Bush is a lame duck, he's history," said Jorge Pinon, a Cuban-American energy expert at the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy. "Lula sees the horizon. He knows there is change coming."

In fact, Pinon believes Bush should welcome Brazil's role in Cuba, embarrassing as it may be for U.S. efforts to snuff out communist rule.

Washington is acutely aware of the close ties between Venezuela's Chavez and Castro. Having Brazil raise its economic profile in Cuba may be no bad thing for the United States, as it potentially dilutes the influence of Chavez at a time when Castro's star appears to be waning. Castro, who has not been seen in public for 17 months since he underwent intestinal surgery, was strong enough Tuesday to meet with Lula in Havana.

Castro's brother, defense minister and acting President Raul Castro, is considered a less ideological figure by some observers. So far, he has adopted a far less hostile tone toward Washington. And he does not appear to share his brother's effusive enthusiasm for Chavez.

Relations between Venezuela and Brazil have also cooled of late, almost to freezing. Brazil is frustrated by Chavez's political meddling in the region, especially with Bolivia, a key supplier of natural gas to Brazilian industry.

Lula's visit to Cuba can thus be seen as a new assertion of Brazilian confidence in its regional role.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.