Cuban leader defends Maduro on first foreign visit

by Alex VASQUEZ
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (L) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro shake hands during a meeting at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on May 30, 2018

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel rallied to the defense of embattled ally Nicolas Maduro on his first foreign visit Wednesday, calling on Latin American nations to support his Venezuelan counterpart's cause.

The Cuban, who succeeded Raul Castro on April 19, was received with open arms by Maduro's government -- Cuba's closest political and economic ally -- on his arrival at Caracas' Maiquetia airport.

"Very happy to be in Venezuela; and long live the Bolivarian revolution, and also, long live President Maduro," Diaz-Canel said.

After being honored at the presidential palace by Maduro, Diaz-Canel stressed: "No matter how big the troubles and challenges may be, you can rely on Cuba -- today and always. The support is unconditional."

Diaz-Canel said the main reason for his visit to Venezuela was to show solidarity with Maduro after his May 20 reelection was widely dismissed as a sham by the US, EU and 13 other Latin American states.

He described the elections, boycotted by the main opposition, as an "overwhelming success."

"Maybe that sound rising up from the majority so bothered the United States and the right that they are not capable of recognizing legitimacy," he said.

The Cuban leader's visit coincided with Canada's announcement of further sanctions against Maduro associates, including his wife Cilia Flores, for holding "illegitimate and anti-democratic" elections.

Canada rejected the result as "fraudulent," and along with its G7 partners has called on Maduro to schedule another vote, release all political prisoners and restore the authority of the country's National Assembly.

Beaten candidate Henri Falcon has called for fresh elections and filed an appeal with the country's highest court Wednesday to have the result annulled.

Speaking to the Constituent Assembly -- set up by Maduro last year to usurp the opposition-dominated body -- Diaz-Canel said the main purpose of international sanctions was to obliterate Maduro's reelection victory.

And he called on "the people of the Americas" to show solidarity as Venezuela resists a "political, diplomatic, economic and financial war" waged by what he called US "imperialism."

Venezuela under Maduro had fallen victim to "the imperialist actions of submission, harassment, isolation and blockades," Diaz-Canel told the Assembly to loud cheers.

- US 'interventionism' -

The 58-year-old Diaz-Canel, who before his address laid a floral wreath at the grave of independence leader Simon Bolivar at Caracas' National Pantheon, called on Venezuela to "repudiate with firmness" Washington's attempts to return to "the period of interventionism."

The United States has maintained an economic embargo on the Communist-run island since the early 1960s.

Diaz-Canel was also expected to visit the tomb of late president Hugo Chavez, who forged close ties with Fidel and Raul Castro during his 1999-2013 presidency, which included supplying cheap oil to Cuba.

Venezuela once exported as much as 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba in exchange for Cuban medical staff, coaches, social organizers and military advisers.

But analysts say the amount has decreased considerably under the strain of Venezuela's crippling economic crisis.

"It would seem that supporting Venezuela is not fashionable. But we will not be deterred, we are defending a people's sovereign choice," Diaz-Canel said.

Some analysts pointed out, however, that Cuba's new leader has little choice but to support Maduro given his country's dependence on cheap Venezuelan oil imports.

"This visit demonstrates the weakness of Maduro's government which is cornered by sanctions and needs all the support it can get. Cuba is giving it, which gives it some legitimacy, but in return it expects to continue receiving benefits," analyst Leandro Area told AFP.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (L) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro shake hands during a meeting at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on May 30, 2018