October 31, 2000

Chavez supporters wary of closer ties to Cuba

                  CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -- "We
                  love Cuba so much we don't mind losing to them all the time," quipped
                  Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez after his veteran baseball players were
                  thrashed by Cuban leader Fidel Castro's visitors.

                  Perhaps not many of the Venezuelans who drifted from the stadium during
                  Saturday's 17-6 defeat would have agreed.

                  But Chavez, a populist one-time coup leader who played first base during the
                  rout, has risked more than sporting pride with his outspoken support for Castro,
                  who on Monday ended his first state visit to Venezuela in 40 years.

                  Political analysts said former paratrooper Chavez's unflinching support for
                  Cuba's communist government may have worried many voters in a country that
                  long had been a moderate, pro-American voice in Latin American politics.

                  "I believe that in the medium-term Chavez is going to pay a price for this ... in
                  terms of popularity," said Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla who now
                  runs opposition daily TalCual.

                  In a display of unbridled admiration for Cuba's veteran president, Chavez
                  showered Castro with honors, decorating him with Venezuela's highest award,
                  the Order of the Liberator Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's 19th century independence

                  Challenging what he called U.S. "imperialist" interference in the region, Chavez
                  also signed a deal to finance about $150 million of Cuba's annual oil import bill.

                  Chavez took office 20 months ago in the world's No. 3 oil exporter with an
                  overwhelming mandate to root out corruption and hike social spending. While
                  sharing Castro's taste for both fiery revolutionary rhetoric and military uniforms,
                  Chavez also says he welcomes foreign investment.

                  Chavez may alienate the United States

                  Analysts said his brazen defiance of U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba diplomatically
                  will weaken ties between Venezuela and its biggest oil market. The United States
                  has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba for 38 years.

                  "This is going to have a political effect on Chavez's government, but it appears
                  he is determined to have a policy which is much more independent with respect
                  to North America," said Manuel Felipe Sierra, editor of weekly magazine

                  This was Castro's first state visit to Venezuela since the days immediately
                  following his 1959 revolution, although he has made several lower-level trips
                  here. As with Saturday's baseball game, it appeared to be the wily Cuban leader
                  who emerged with honors from the encounter.

                  "The real winner is Castro, who gets a beneficial oil deal and manages to break
                  the embargo with one of the most influential nations in Latin America," said

                  Chavez already has boosted Venezuela's regional clout by promising cheap oil for
                  several South American countries. He has signed 11 bilateral agreements in the
                  Caribbean and Central America, including Cuba. The promise of cheap
                  petroleum, at a time when oil is near its highest price in 10 years, has generated
                  support for Chavez's talk of regional integration.

                  Chavez, 46, dismissed an outcry from the fragmented opposition, which labeled
                  the 74-year-old Castro a "tyrant" and said he should not have been allowed to
                  address Congress last Friday. And Castro's praise for Chavez's "social
                  revolution" during the speech could have politically harmed his host.

                  "Castro meddled in domestic Venezuelan politics ... and, of course, that
                  generates opposition because many people voted against Chavez precisely
                  because they fear a Cuban (style) regime here," said Petkoff, who has abandoned
                  his former communist beliefs.

                  Venezuelans no fans of Cuba

                  A survey last year by respected pollster Alfredo Keller showed 85 percent of
                  Venezuelans disapproved of the Cuban government. For Keller, the 40 percent
                  who opposed Chavez in two elections since 1998 strongly rejected Castro's visit.
                  The other 60 percent, mainly poor, could be swayed either way.

                  "Venezuelan public opinion buys arguments very easily, it has no capacity for
                  critical analysis," said Keller.

                  Should Venezuela's terminally disorganized opposition manage to find its feet, it
                  could make good use of Chavez's expensive oil handout to Castro, Keller said.

                  Amid the congratulatory rhetoric, analysts said Castro had not pushed Chavez
                  toward the communist style of his own government.

                  While the Cuban leader repeatedly compared conditions in Venezuela to the start
                  of his own government, he said that times had changed. Castro, who has opened
                  his own economy to foreign capitalists in recent years, spoke of the possibility
                  for leftist reform within the framework of the market economy.

                  "This trip has consolidated an agenda which has been underway for some time,
                  that is to hand over the leadership of Latin America's left from Castro ... to
                  Chavez," said Keller.

                      Copyright 2000 Reuters.