Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to hold talks with the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia in Caracas as he makes his first-ever official visit to Venezuela.
Officials say the talks with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales today are expected to focus on energy, agriculture, and military ties -- and a number of agreements are expected to be signed.
Chavez called Putin's visit a "day of true importance for [Venezuela] and Latin America."
Ahead of Putin's visit, Caracas and Moscow this week announced a joint venture to extract oil from Venezuela's Orinoco River basin. Officials say the project aims to produce 50,000 barrels per day starting this year from the Amazon region.
The project would be 60 percent-owned by Venezuela's state oil company, and 40 percent-owned by a consortium of Russian companies, including Rosneft, LUKoil, TNK-BP, Gazprom, and Surgutneftegas.
More Than Talk?
Nevertheless, some Venezuelan analysts are skeptical about the latest announced energy venture. "Many times [Venezuelan energy agreements] have ended up being just words," says Elsa Cardozo, an international-relations professor at the Metropolitan University of Caracas and a columnist for the "El Nacional" newspaper in Venezuela.
"This agreement is not new. In mid-2008, President Chavez was already speaking of the participation of Russia in the exploitation of the oil reserves of the Orinoco. This is the issue that they are now returning to touch on now," Cardozo adds. "So they have been speaking about this for a while; now we will see if something actually comes out of it."
Venezuelan acquisitions of Russian arms are also expected to be on Putin's agenda. Venezuela has signed agreements for more than $4 billion worth of Russian weapons, including assault rifles, helicopters, planes, and missiles, in recent years.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency has reported that Putin will deliver the final four Mi-17 Hip helicopters that Caracas purchased in a 2006 deal. There will also be discussions regarding a $2.2 billion loan from Russia to Venezuela for the acquisition of Russian arms.
A U.S. State Department spokesman on April 1 questioned Venezuela's need for such defense systems.
Putin will also be meeting Bolivian leader Evo Morales in Venezuela. They are expected to discuss joint ventures for oil and gas exploration in Bolivia, as well as sales of Russian military hardware to the landlocked Andean nation.
As Cardozo sees it, Bolivia is following a pattern of Chavez's regional allies who have strengthened ties with Russia. "[Chavez] has helped open opportunities [for Russia], especially with energy business opportunities and Russian arms sales to Latin America," she notes.
Chavez has already visited Moscow eight times since he took office in 1999. During Chavez's last visit to Moscow, in September 2009, he drew international attention when he recognized the sovereignty of Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Putin will arrive at 7 a.m. local time today (1130 GMT/UTC) in Caracas. His schedule calls for him to pay homage to Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Latin America from Spain two centuries ago.
RIA Novosti is also reporting that Putin will lay the cornerstone of a new Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Caracas.