HAVANA - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez headed home this weekend after deepening his country's investment in Communist-run Cuba with new energy, finance, mining and agricultural agreements.
He drove himself to the airport, honking wildly through the streets of the eastern city of Santiago as small groups of Cubans cheered him on, official media reported yesterday.
The midday news on Cuban state television showed interim leader Raul Castro sitting in the open-top, four-wheel-drive military vehicle as Chavez drove to the airport for the flight back home Saturday night.
The deals include a project to expand an oil refinery in the eastern city of Santiago and to develop the production of petrochemicals on the island.
The 14 agreements were signed Saturday in Santiago, where Chavez was joined by Raul Castro on a tour of the military barracks that he and his brother Fidel attacked with a band of armed rebels in 1953, launching the Cuban revolution.
Communist Party newspaper Granma quoted Vice President Carlos Lage as saying that Venezuela and Cuba have now signed more than $7 billion in deals this year - a figure cited by other officials in recent weeks. The new agreements come as Chavez continues to expand his oil-rich nation's largesse and influence across the region through cheap petroleum deals.
During the Santiago tour, Chavez repeatedly mentioned Fidel Castro, his 81-year-old socialist ally and close friend. Castro has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery prompted him to cede power to a provisional government led by his younger brother Raul in July 2006.
Chavez met privately in Havana with the elder Castro for 21/2 hours Thursday afternoon.
On Friday, Chavez led a regional oil summit in the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos, and oversaw the reopening of a nearby Soviet-era refinery renovated with Venezuelan assistance.
During the summit, Chavez talked up his effort to use discount oil to build alliances in Latin America and the Caribbean and to diminish U.S. influence in the region. The Petrocaribe pact supplies oil to the region through long-term, low-interest financing.
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, and it is the fourth-largest supplier of crude to the United States.
The South American country sends nearly 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day to Cuba. In exchange, thousands of Cuban doctors treat poor patients in Venezuela.