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For cheap oil, Cuba to train Venezuelan athletes

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

By JORGE RUEDA, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez gave a hearty welcome to hundreds of Cuban sports trainers who plan to whip Venezuelan athletes into shape in exchange for cheap Venezuelan oil.

The training regimen is part of a pact in which Venezuela sells Cuba oil at preferential rates in exchange for Cuban expertise in tourism, sugar, medicines and other areas.

"We are happy to receive this extraordinary reinforcement of 300 men and women from Cuba ... to add muscle to the effort we are making to lift Venezuela, little by little, after years in oblivion," Chavez said at a welcoming ceremony at a Caracas stadium late Monday.

Chavez signed the oil-for-expertise pact with Cuban President Fidel Castro in October. Venezuela provides Cuba 53,000 barrels of oil a day — by some estimates worth $500 million a year. Cuba pays for the oil in barter and in cash.

Cuba has 15 years to pay with a 2 percent interest rate. Venezuela has signed similar pacts with Central American and Caribbean nations.

Cuba owes Venezuela's Central Bank an estimated $69 million, and its communist government has agreed to begin paying down that debt.

Critics said Venezuela could ill afford the deal. Chavez responded that Cuba was among the first nations to help when flooding in 1999 killed at least 15,000 people. Cuban doctors still tend to victims in the Caribbean state of Vargas.

Venezuela can use the sports training. While its strong suit is baseball, with plenty of Venezuelans in the Major Leagues, it didn't win a medal at the Sydney Olympics.

Cuba, a perennial sports powerhouse, won 29 medals at Sydney, including 11 gold. Its trainers are sought by many states, including Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth that has its own Olympic team.

Alberto Juantorena, Cuban gold medalist in the 400 and 800 meters at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, assured Venezuelans that there is no plan to '"Cubanize' sports or any other Venezuelan sector."

"Our only mission here is to cooperate, share our experience in high competition and contribute so that soon, Venezuelans will rise frequently to the podiums of the largest sports championships in the world," said Juantorena, vice president of Cuba's Sports, Physical Education and Recreation Institute.

Cuban trainers will spend 18 months in Venezuela focusing on baseball, boxing, wrestling, karate, weightlifting, volleyball and track and field.

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