HAVANA – Russia's president met with ailing revolutionary icon Fidel Castro on Friday, winding up a visit aimed at freshening relations with his country's old Cold War ally and raising Moscow's profile across the rest of the Latin America.
Dmitry Medvedev spent hours talking and sightseeing with President Raul Castro before meeting privately with his 82-year-old older brother.
Medvedev and Raul Castro laid a wreath at a monument to Soviet soldiers who died while serving in Cuba in the early 1960s, a symbol of Cuba's once-prominent part in the communist bloc and the history of its ties to Russia.
Wearing a gray suit instead of his traditional olive-green army uniform and clutching Medvedev's arm, Raul Castro shouted to television cameras, "It has been a magnificent visit and now he will see Fidel."
Russian officials deny that Medvedev's four-nation trip is meant to provoke the United States, but the chat with Fidel Castro capped meetings with Washington's staunchest opponents in the region. Details about the meeting with the older Castro were not immediately available.
Medvedev toured a visiting Russian warship on Thursday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and earlier met with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, saying Russia might participate in a socialist trade bloc founded by Chavez and Cuba.
Medvedev also signed deals with Brazil and Peru, part of an effort to strengthen Russia's political, economic and military connections across a region long dominated by U.S. influence.
"One must admit, to put it simply, we have never had a serious presence here," Medvedev told reporters.
"We visited states that no Russian leader, and no Soviet leader, ever visited. This means one thing: that attention simply was not paid to these countries," he said. "And in some ways we are only now beginning full-fledged, full-format and, I hope, mutually beneficial contacts with the leaders of these states...
"We should not be shy and fear competition. We must bravely enter the fight."
Medvedev's Latin America tour is in some ways a response to U.S. moves in eastern Europe, where Russia sees its own security threatened by U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in former Soviet satellite states.
Medvedev said he and Raul Castro had discussed economic and "military-technical cooperation" — apparently arms sales — "as well as security and regional cooperation."
Raul Castro, 77, served as Cuba's defense minister for nearly five decades, working alongside Soviet military officials. A steadfast communist, he often visited the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was Cuba's chief source of aid and trade until it disintegrated in 1991 and Cuba's relations with the Russian Federation soured — though Havana's streets still echo with the clatter of Russian-built trucks and cars.
Former Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a tough message when he visited Havana in 2000, saying Cuba should pay its Soviet-era debt. Moscow closed a Cold War-era electronic spying center shortly thereafter.
Now that spy center is an elite computer sciences university, and Russia is looking to spend money again on projects such as oil exploration in Cuba's part of the Gulf of Mexico and in a Venezuelan effort to refurbish a Soviet-era refinery in the port city of Cienfuegos.
Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. Suffering from an undisclosed illness in a secret location, the ex-president has continued to release essays several times a week. He also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who came to Cuba as part of his own tour of Latin America last week.
In Venezuela, Medvedev's team pledged to help Venezuela develop nuclear energy, oil projects and shipbuilding.