Lula, Fidel Castro meet

2010-02-25 10:37

Havana - Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had an "emotional" meeting on Wednesday on Lula's last official trip to the island before his term expires, Cuban media reported.

Photographs showed the two longtime friends chatting and smiling while sitting around a table and standing in the backyard of a two-story home. Castro wore a white Nike windbreaker and looked elderly but in good shape.

Lula told reporters the ailing 83-year-old looked "exceptionally good", state-run media said.

A report on Cuban television said the two men had a long, "friendly dialogue" touching on topics including the global climate change conference in December in Copenhagen and the just-ended Rio Group summit in Cancun.

Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before health problems forced him to give way in 2008 to his younger brother, President Raul Castro, thanked Lula for his "gestures of solidarity and co-operation" with Cuba, the report said.

"The emotional meeting was an expression of the existing friendship between the two leaders and the brotherhood that unites the two countries," it said.

Global economic recession

The trip was Lula's third to Cuba in two years and was meant to signal Cuba's importance to whoever is elected his successor in Brazil's October election, a Brazilian diplomat said.

Under Lula, a former union leader, Brazil has provided money and corporate muscle to the island at a time when its economy has suffered in the global economic recession.

State-controlled oil giant Petrobras is studying whether to drill for oil in Cuba's offshore and Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht is heading a massive remake of the port of Mariel, west of Havana, into Cuba's main commercial port.

Brazil's state-run National Development Bank has given $300m to Odebrecht to build new highways, rail lines, wharves and warehouses at Mariel, best known as the site of a 1980 exodus in which thousands of Cubans fled to the United States in boats.

Lula's visit has been overshadowed by the death on Tuesday of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 85-day hunger strike.

Lula has not spoken to foreign press based in Cuba and news coverage of his departure for Haiti on Thursday was canceled by the Cuban government.

Dozens of accords signed

While touring the Mariel project on Wednesday, Raul Castro expressed regrets about the death of Zapata, jailed since 2003 and serving a 36-year sentence, but blamed it on "relations with the United States".

Cuba considers dissidents to be US mercenaries working to overthrow the communist-led government and blames Washington for encouraging their activities against the Cuban state.

President Castro said Zapata was not murdered or tortured.

He and Lula presided over a meeting on Wednesday night when Cuban and Brazilian officials signed a dozen accords on such things as technology transfer, biotechnology, agriculture and public health.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday, after the completion of the Rio Group summit, that he also would come to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro, but there have been no reports on his visit in Cuban press.