- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

CARACAS, Venezuela — After serving an eviction notice to the U.S. military mission in Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez welcomed Fidel Castro for a weekend of birthday celebrations and political tributes.
Mr. Castro, who turns 75 tomorrow, received full military honors at Caracas' international airport yesterday as hundreds of Chavez supporters waved red, white and blue Cuban flags along with signs reading, "Fidel, Venezuela Salutes You."
The Cuban leader, clad in trademark olive fatigues and cap, saluted with a sober stare as the Cuban and Venezuelan national anthems were played.
Mr. Castro, who has ruled Cuba for 42 years, said it was his "duty" to visit the southern state of Bolivar — cradle of South America's independence movement from Spain — where he will receive a medal.
"I wanted to celebrate my 75 years in the land of the Liberator [Simon Bolivar]," Mr. Castro said. "It will be very emotional to visit so many historic sites associated with Venezuela and Simon Bolivar."
"We welcome our brother, we welcome our friend, we welcome our revolutionary soldier who has been an example of dignity for all the continent," said a beaming Mr. Chavez, draping an arm around "this 75-year-old boy."
It was Mr. Castro's first foreign trip since he fainted during a speech in June and caused the world to speculate about a post-Castro Cuba. The visit came after Venezuela ordered the U.S. military mission to vacate rent-free offices in Caracas.
Venezuela insists it needs the space and isn't distancing itself from the United States, its biggest oil customer. But the announcement angered U.S. officials.
"We regret this decision, as it will make it difficult to carry on our long-standing relationship with the Venezuelan government's military," the U.S. Embassy said in a prepared statement.
Venezuela said the mission, which had occupied the offices for 40 years, could relocate in Caracas.
Washington and Caracas cooperate closely on drug trafficking and are negotiating a bilateral investment treaty. But Mr. Chavez condemns what he calls "savage neoliberalism," characterized by U.S. economic dominance abroad, and is a vocal opponent of the U.S. embargo on communist Cuba.
Mr. Chavez is also a leading critic of a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, slated to be signed by 2005. Talks on the hemispheric trade pact have excluded Cuba.
A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was Cuba's principal financial backer, Mr. Castro has found a political ally in Mr. Chavez, a former military officer who led a failed coup in 1992.
Collaboration with Cuba is a cornerstone of Mr. Chavez's "social revolution," which aims to rescue Venezuela from four decades of democratic but corrupt government. Mr. Chavez was elected president in 1998 and maintains high popularity ratings among the poor, a majority of Venezuela's 24 million people.
Venezuela's fragmented opposition accuses Mr. Chavez of trying to import Cuban ideals.

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