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Venezuelan president reaffirms alliance with Cuba

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech in Caracas on April 25, 2013
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech in Caracas on April 25, 2013. Maduro has renewed a strategic alliance with Cuba, signing $1 billion in cooperation agreements two weeks after his election to replace the late Hugo Chavez.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has renewed a strategic alliance with Cuba, signing $1 billion in cooperation agreements two weeks after his election to replace the late Hugo Chavez.

The 51 agreements signed Saturday during Maduro's visit to Cuba encompass health, education, transportation, sports, energy and special "social missions."

An estimated 40,000 Cuban doctors, technicians and advisers work in Venezuela, which supplies Cuba with 130,000 barrels of oil a day as part of a 12-year-old relationship that has closely bound together their leftist, anti-US governments.

"Cuba and Venezuela are going to continue working together," Maduro said, calling it "a strategic alliance that transcends the times, which, more than an alliance, is a brotherhood."

Cuba is only the second country Maduro has visited since his election April 14 by a narrow margin that is the subject of a bitter, unresolved dispute with the opposition charging the vote was stolen.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council said late Saturday it will begin an expanded audit of the results on Monday, but not under terms demanded by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

The council's president, Tibisay Lucena, has said that the audit cannot overturn Maduro's win. The opposition has until the end of next week to file suit with the Supreme Court to contest the outcome.

In Cuba, Maduro held talks with President Raul Castro, who reaffirmed Cuba's "unyielding will to continue cooperation in solidarity with Venezuela, determined to share our fate with the heroic Venezuelan people."

Maduro said he met separately for five hours with Fidel Castro, 86, the retired leader of the Cuban revolution, remembering Chavez and the alliance they forged in October 2002.

"It is a relationship of brothers," Maduro told reporters.

The relationship has been crucial to Cuba, shoring up a Soviet-style economy that has floundered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The deal is Cuba's biggest source of cash, well ahead of money sent home by expatriate Cubans, tourism or exports of nickel, tobacco and drugs.

The two countries also have engaged in a variety of joint projects, like a refinery in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

But the Cuban connection remains a point of heated contention in Venezuela, which split 50.8-49 in the elections to succeed Chavez, which saw some 700,000 people switch to the opposition.

During the election campaign, Capriles repeatedly attacked the "gifts" sent from Venezuela to Cuba, calling Maduro "Cuba's candidate" and demanding that Caracas cut off oil supplies to Havana.

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