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Castro and Chávez Attack US Backing For Biofuels

Leaders say diverting crops for fuel starves poor

By Rory Carroll

13/04/08 "ICH"  -- - Cuba and Venezuela have launched an offensive against biofuels, warning that the US-backed rush towards ethanol will worsen global hunger and poverty.

Fidel Castro has written two newspaper articles in a week voicing alarm at the prospect of countries boosting sugar and corn crops to make ethanol, a fuel that can be used an additive or a substitute for petrol.

By diverting crops to feed cars rather than people, the price of food would rise and the world's poor would go hungry, Mr Castro wrote in the Communist party's official newspaper, Granma.

The columns marked an unexpected return to international policy debate after an eight-month convalescence that forced the 80-year-old president to cede day-to-day control to his brother, Raul.

Mr Castro's ally, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, also attacked biofuels in a sharp U-turn that put the two leaders shoulder to shoulder against Brazil and the US, the two big ethanol champions.

Until recently, Cuba and Venezuela were enthusiastic about the fuel and with Brazil's help planned to jointly build sugar mills and ethanol plants, hitching the Caribbean to the "green" fuel bandwagon.

That changed after the US president, George Bush, touted his support for ethanol during a tour of Latin America last month that clinched an ethanol deal with Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The men followed up last week with a meeting at Camp David.

Washington, a foe of Mr Chávez and Mr Castro, has promoted home-grown corn-based ethanol as well as the sugar-based variety produced in Brazil and tropical countries as a way to reduce US dependency on oil. Biofuels are also perceived to be less environmentally damaging.

However critics say the fuel, especially the corn-based variety, is far less green than it appears and that converting swaths of land to provide fuel for cars would push up prices of food crops and meat, since animals eat corn. In the wake of Mr Bush's tour, Mr Castro echoed those arguments. A recent column said 3 billion people would die prematurely of hunger and thirst. "Where are the poor countries of the third world going to get the minimum resources to survive? This isn't an exaggerated number; it is actually cautious." He made a polite but pointed criticism of Brazil.

Mr Chávez also expressed dismay. "When you fill a vehicle's tank with ethanol, you are filling it with energy for which land and water enough to feed seven people have been used." It was unclear whether Venezuela's mooted sugar mills and ethanol plants would go ahead.

Brazil brushed aside the criticism and on Wednesday its state oil firm, Petrobras, signed a biofuel deal with Ecuador's state oil firm, Petroecuador. The issue may cloud a meeting scheduled next week between Mr da Silva and Mr Chávez.

Cuba and Venezuela are joining an unlikely alliance including anti-poverty campaigners, environmentalists, economists and scientists. The Economist, offended by Washington's ethanol subsidies, said it seldom found itself agreeing with Mr Castro. "But when he roused himself from his sickbed last week to write an article criticising George Bush's unhealthy enthusiasm for ethanol, he had a point."

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