President Bashar al-Assad of Syria begins a tour of several Latin American countries today with the goal of extending its diplomatic reach and attracting investment in Syria. Assad is scheduled to arrive in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday and will visit then Brazil and Venezuela—countries with significant Syrian expat communities. Syrian media also reports that he will be visiting Cuba. The visit reciprocates previous official visits to Damascus by Fidel Castro in 2001, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003 and Hugo Chávez in 2006.
The president’s trip, his first to the region since taking power in 2001, comes as Damascus seeks to continue opening diplomatic channels with the West. This follows their involvement in brokering a deal with Iran to send low-enriched uranium abroad for reactor fuel, in cooperation with Brazil and Turkey. Damascus is also seeking over $40 billion in investments over the next five years, nearly 80 percent of Syria’s annual GDP, to repair and replace Syria’s ageing infrastructure.
The majority of the millions of Syrian-origin émigrés in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are businessmen, engineers, doctors, and politicians including former Argentinean president Carlos Menem. President Assad also plans to meet with members of the Arab communities during his visit.
“Bilateral relations and developments in the Middle East and Latin America” will dominate discussions during the trip, according to the official SANA news agency. Brazil plans to sign trade and technology cooperation protocols with Syria, and Argentina is anticipated to sign nine transportation, tourism and cultural agreements.