The Miami Herald
May 15, 2001

Cuban leader in first visit to Syria for talks with Assad

 DAMASCUS, Syria -- (AP) -- Cuban leader Fidel Castro arrived Tuesday on a previously unannounced two-day visit to Syria on a tour of strengthening ties with new and old allies in the Middle East and Asia.

 Castro, 74, flew in from Qatar after visiting Algeria, Iran and Malaysia since May 6.

 President Bashar Assad greeted Castro at Damascus airport, from where he was taken to a presidential guest house where he will spend the night. Large sections of the the 35-kilometer (21.8-mile) long road, as well as the area around the house, were festooned with Syrian and Cuban flags.

 No word on his itinerary in Damascus has been announced, but he is expected to have talks later Tuesday with Assad who, at 35, is less than half Castro's age.

 Castro and Bashar's father, the late President Hafez Assad, had met several times on the sidelines of international gatherings. Tuesday's meeting will be the first between the Cuban leader and the younger Assad, who succeeded his father after he died 10 months ago.

 News of Castro's visit was the front page in Syria's three state-run dailies, along with pictures of the Syrian and Cuban leaders.

 Under the pictures, Tishrin, one of the newspapers, lavishly praised the Cuban leader and bilateral relations, using the kind of rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Castro's own speeches throughout his 42 years in power.

 "President Castro does not need introductions -- he is the leader of a revolution that shook Latin America and destroyed the might of imperialism and restored to the people their independence, dignity and charted for them the path to social and economic recovery,'' Tishrin said.

 Talks between Assad and Castro will benefit bilateral relations and ``reflect positively on the world liberation movement and the struggle of peoples for a better tomorrow that is rid of threats, oppression and suppression,'' the newspaper said.

 Like Cuba, Syria is on the U.S. State Department list of countries sponsoring terrorism. And like Cuba, Syria also is a harsh critic of U.S. policies, particularly what it sees as Washington's strong bias in favor of Israel, Damascus' archenemy for more than a half century.

 Castro's current tour is partly designed to boost bilateral relations with friendly countries in the Middle East and Asia, especially those thought to be potentially beneficial in Havana's search for cheap energy. Syria produces about 650,000 barrels of oil daily, of which it exports about 300,000 barrels. Its natural gas output is expected to reach 18.2 million cubic meters per day this year.

                                    © 2001