Brazil leader arrives in Cuba to talk trade, ties

HAVANA Mon Jan 30, 2012 6:29pm EST

1 of 2. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff waves during an official visit to Cuba after arriving at Havana's Jose Marti airport January 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Enrique de la Osa

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff arrived in Havana on Monday for a two-day visit focused on trade, but nagged by Cuba's ever-present human rights issues.

She was scheduled to tour the port of Mariel near Havana, where Brazil is helping finance an $800 million renovation by Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht; witness the signing of new trade agreements with the Communist island; and meet with President Raul Castro and possibly his older brother Fidel Castro.

Rousseff was greeted at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, then driven away without addressing reporters.

Economic and political ties between the two countries were deepened under Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but she has focused more on business issues since taking office last year and was expected to do the same with Cuba.

The Caribbean island has sought, among other things, agricultural aid from Brazil, and Odebrecht said on Monday it would sign an agreement to work with Cuba's troubled sugar industry to increase production at a sugar mill in Cienfuegos province.

A Brazilian sugar industry executive told Reuters the company also would produce ethanol from sugarcane at the plant.

The company is turning Mariel, best known as the site of a 1980 Cuban exodus to the United States, into Cuba's main commercial port and a hub for its nascent offshore oil industry.

In her youth, Rousseff was a leftist guerrilla fighter inspired by Fidel Castro's 1959 communist revolution.

In 1970, she was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for three years.

The recent death of hunger-striking Cuban dissident Wilman Villar has created pressure on Rousseff to raise human rights issues with Cuban leaders, but Brazilian media reports said she was unlikely to do so publicly.

Brazilian sources have said the government favors a democratic opening in Cuba, but that it will not push hard.

The Cuban government has said Villar was a common criminal, not a dissident, and did not conduct a hunger strike as his fellow opponents claimed.

At a Monday news conference on Villar, former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer said Rousseff may sympathize with Cuba's dissidents, but he also did not expect her to discuss it publicly.

"There are other interests, other matters of greater interest for the Brazilian leader," he said.

The Brazilian government roiled the waters ahead of the visit last week when it granted dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez a visa to visit the country in February for the airing of a documentary in which she appears.

The Cuban government views Sanchez as one of its top enemies and, like all dissidents, a mercenary in the pay of its long-time ideological enemy, the United States. It has repeatedly blocked her from traveling abroad, where she has a large international following.

She said on Twitter she has requested permission to go to Brazil.

Sanchez and the dissident group Ladies in White have sought visits with Rousseff, but that also appeared to be unlikely.

Last week, Sanchez wrote on Twitter that she had seen a photograph of "young Dilma, sitting on a bench blindfolded as men accused her. I feel that way now."

Rousseff was to travel to Haiti on Wednesday, where Brazilian troops lead the U.N. peacekeeping force and Brazil has helped finance a Cuban medical mission at work since a powerful earthquake struck that Caribbean country two years ago.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Tom Brown)

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