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Venezuela's President Chavez to Visit Cuba

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will visit Cuba on Thursday to discuss bilateral relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The populist Venezuelan president's latest trip to the communist nation comes at a time of increasing strain with the United States.

During his visit to Havana, President Chavez plans to discuss energy and trade issues with Mr. Castro, but the two leftist leaders are likely to also team up in condemning U.S. policy.

In particular, President Chavez has taunted President Bush over the asylum appeal of Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted in Venezuela in connection with the bombing of a Cuban passenger plane in 1973 that killed 73 people.

Posada Carriles is currently in the United States seeking asylum, after having been released from prison in Panama where he was convicted of a plot to kill Fidel Castro at a summit held there in the year 2000.

President Chavez maintains that it would be hypocritical for President Bush to pardon a man convicted of terrorist acts, while at the same time carrying on a war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Chavez has been a vocal critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq as well as U.S. trade policy in Latin America. The Venezuelan government is portraying the current visit to Brazil and other Latin American nations by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an effort to convince other regional nations to join Washington in isolating Mr. Chavez. But Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra says that effort will fail.

He says Ms. Rice will not find support for any move against Venezuela in the region and that her criticisms, like those of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, will be brushed aside.

Mr. Rumsfeld, during a recent visit to Brazil, questioned Venezuela's purchase of 100,000 Russian AK-47 automatic assault rifles for an army that is nowhere near that large. Chavez critics, both here and abroad, have expressed fear that some of those weapons could end up in the hands of Colombian leftist guerrillas or be used to arm militant Chavez supporters in order to quash domestic dissent.

U.S. officials have expressed increasing concern over what they describe as the undermining of democracy by the Chavez government. However, many other nations in the region are reluctant to criticize President Chavez, especially after Venezuelan voters overwhelmingly rejected a move to oust him from power through a recall election in August of last year.

Earlier this week, President Chavez ended a military exchange program with the United States that had operated since 1951, claiming that some U.S. officers had attempted to sway Venezuelan military personnel against the government. The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling Venezuela's decision unjustified.