February 24, 2010 / 2:22 AM / 9 years ago

Brazil's Lula makes final official visit to Cuba

* Lula makes final visit of presidency to Cuba

* Will meet with Fidel Castro

* Venezuela’s Chavez says he coming too

By Esteban Israel

HAVANA, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva arrived in Havana on Tuesday to say goodbye to his friend Fidel Castro and underscore his legacy of closeness to the island on a final official visit to Cuba before his term expires at year’s end.

Lula was to meet with the former Cuban leader and his younger brother, President Raul Castro, during a three-day stop before he goes to Haiti on Thursday to survey earthquake relief operations.

He was greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at Havana’s airport, but made no public statement.

In a last minute surprise, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also announced he would go to Cuba on Friday to meet with Fidel Castro, but it was not known if he and Lula would go together to talk to the 83-year-old comandante.

Both men were coming from a Rio Group summit in the Mexican beach resort of Playa del Carmen where the member countries agreed to form a new Latin American diplomatic group.

For Lula, the trip is his third to Cuba in two years and is meant to signal Cuba’s importance to whomever is elected his successor in Brazil’s October election.

“It’s a message to his successor that the relationship with Cuba is strategically important and he would like for the cooperation to continue and deepen,” a Brazilian diplomat told Reuters.

Under Lula, a former union leader and longtime friend of Fidel Castro, Brazil has been a solid political and economic ally of Cuba, providing money and corporate muscle to the financially troubled island.

State-controlled oil giant Petrobras has taken a block in Cuba’s offshore to explore for oil and Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht is directing a massive project, financed in large part by Brazil, to turn the port of Mariel into a modern container terminal.

Mariel, 30 miles (50 km) west of Havana, is best known as the site of a 1980 exodus when thousands of Cubans fled to the United States in boats. But Cuba wants it to be the island’s primary port.

Brazil’s state-run National Development Bank so far has given $300 million to Odebrecht to build new highways, rail lines, wharves and warehouses at the port.

Lula said this month that Brazil also wants to invest in hotels and highways in Cuba.

During his visit, Cuba and Brazil will sign agreements to create joint ventures in making glass, furniture and biotech products, the diplomat said.

Petrobras has been conducting seismic tests in its offshore block, but has not yet decided whether oil is there to be tapped.

Lula said this week on his radio program that Petrobras could drill a test well this year. (Editing by Jeff Franks)

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