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HAVANA (AP) — Russia’s president headed into a meeting with Fidel Castro on Friday, visiting an old ally of his nation on the final leg of a Latin America tour designed to bolster Moscow’s profile in a region long dominated by the United States.

Dmitry Medvedev spent hours talking and sightseeing with Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing, 82-year-old older brother as Cuba’s president in February.

The pair laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown Soviet solider, which holds the remains of about 50 Soviets who died in Cuba in 1962 and 1963 at a moment when the island was forging a close alliance with the communist bloc.

Wearing a dark 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 was the Russian president’s follows a series of meetings with Washington’s staunchest opponents in the region. On Thursday, he met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez aboard a Russian warship docked in a Venezuelan port, after earlier talks with leftist presidents of Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Medvedev said Russia is stepping up its political ties in Latin America .

“One must admit, to put it simply, we have never had a serious presence here — these have been just episodes,” he told reporters, referring to Latin America as a whole.

“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.”

The visit comes at a time when Russia is angry at U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in eastern Europe, saying the project in former Soviet satellite states threatens its security.

The upper chamber of the Czech Parliament on Thursday approved a deal to accept a U.S. missile defense installation.

Medvedev told reporters he and Raul Castro had discussed relations “in the economic sphere and the sphere of military-technical cooperation” — apparently arms sales — “as well as security and regional cooperation,”

The 77-year-old Raul Castro served as Cuba’s defense minister for nearly five decades, working alongside Soviet defense officials. A steadfast communist who visited the Soviet Union often, Castro has long been thought of as a great admirer of Moscow and its policies.

The Soviet Union was Cuba’s chief source of aid and trade until its disintegration in 1991, and relations between the Russian federation and the island soured. Former Russian President Vladimir Putin visited in 2000 to strengthen ties but told Havana it should pay its Soviet-era debt.

Shortly after Putin’s visit, Moscow closed a Cold War-era electronic spying facility in Lourdes, just outside Havana, and it has since been converted into an elite computer sciences university.

Russia’s ambassador to Cuba suggested last week that his country is interested in offshore oil exploration in deep Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico and in joining 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.

Earlier Thursday, Medvedev toured a Russian destroyer in Venezuela, one of two large Russian warships that arrived for training exercises in the first deployment of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War.

Russia pledged to help Venezuela with oil projects and building ships, while Chavez’s government signed a deal to buy two Russian-made Ilyushin Il-96 passenger jets. Moscow also plans to develop a peaceful nuclear cooperation program with Venezuela by the end of next year.

While in Caracas, Medvedev also met with presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and said Russia is ready to consider participating in a socialist trade bloc led by Chavez.

Medvedev also visited Peru and Brazil.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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