Brazil's Rousseff meets with Fidel Castro in Cuba

Wed Feb 1, 2012 12:18am EST

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a ceremony commemorating the award of one million grants from the University for All Program (ProUni) at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia January 23, 2012. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelin

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a ceremony commemorating the award of one million grants from the University for All Program (ProUni) at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia January 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelin

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(Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met with Fidel Castro, the revolutionary hero of her youth, and held talks with his younger brother, President Raul Castro, on Tuesday in a visit to strengthen financial ties with communist-led Cuba.

She toured the port of Mariel near Havana where a Brazilian company is leading a massive renovation and chided the United States for its controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Cuba released few details about the visit and did not allow coverage by the international media, but state-run television said the two governments signed agreements on Cuban food purchases from Brazil, the Mariel project and Cuba's biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industry.

A Brazilian diplomat confirmed that Rousseff had met with Fidel Castro, whose 1959 communist revolution she tried to emulate as a leftist guerrilla fighter against Brazil's 1960s military dictatorship.

She told reporters she would go see him with "much pride."

Citing a Brazilian press report, government website www.cubadebate.com said Rousseff, after lunching with Raul Castro, led a "small delegation" to meet the man who ruled Cuba for 49 years.

The 85-year-old Fidel Castro resigned the presidency four years ago, but still occasionally writes columns for Cuban press and meets with visiting leaders. Younger brother Raul Castro, who is 80, succeeded him in office.

Cuban media said Rousseff and Raul Castro discussed "the excellent state of their bilateral relations" and later toured the Mariel port together.

She said Brazil is contributing $640 million toward the $900 million project, led by Brazilian firm Odebrecht.

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

HISTORIC COMMITMENT

She also said Brazil had granted $400 million in credits for Cuba to buy Brazilian food and $200 million under a program to improve Cuban agriculture.

Rousseff said Brazil had made a "historic commitment" to "help the process of economic development" on the island, which has been under a U.S. trade embargo for 50 years.

Cuba is in the midst of modernizing its creaky Soviet-style economy by easing the role of the state and encouraging more private initiative.

Brazil is one of Cuba's largest commercial partners, with $642 million in trade last year, and one of its biggest foreign investors. Brazil-Cuba economic and political ties were deepened under Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Rousseff arrived in Cuba on Monday amid controversies over the recent death of a jailed Cuban dissident and Brazil's decision to grant a visa to dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Brazil's first woman president was arrested in 1970, tortured and imprisoned for three years for guerrilla activities, which some believe would make her more sympathetic to opponents of the Cuban government.

Sanchez and others asked to meet with her, which Brazilian media reports said was unlikely.

On Tuesday, Rousseff said she would discuss human rights with Cuban leaders, but that talks would include the controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorists.

"We are going to start by talking about human rights in the United States, with respect to a base here (in Cuba) called Guantanamo," she said.

The United States has been accused of depriving suspects of civil liberties by holding them indefinitely at the U.S. base in eastern Cuba. Many detainees have said they were tortured at the prison, opened in 2002 by President George W. Bush to hold suspected terrorists after the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Rousseff did not speak of dissident Wilman Villar, who fellow government opponents said died of a hunger strike and mistreatment behind bars. The Cuban government has said he was a common criminal and denied that he conducted a hunger strike.

Of Sanchez, Rousseff said Brazil had given her a visa last week but whether she could travel was up to Cuba.

The Cuban government views Sanchez as one of its top opponents and as such a mercenary for the United States. It has repeatedly blocked her from traveling abroad, where she has a large international following.

Sanchez said on Twitter that she has requested permission from Cuba to go to Brazil and is awaiting an answer.

Rousseff was set to go to Haiti on Wednesday, where Brazilian troops lead the UN peacekeeping force and Brazil has helped finance a Cuban medical mission at work since a powerful earthquake struck that Caribbean nation last year.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes)

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