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Venezuelan experts in Cuba due to Gulf oil spill

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela has sent a team of experts to Cuba to help the island prepare in case the Gulf of Mexico oil spill reaches its shores, President Hugo Chavez said Sunday.

Speaking during his weekly TV and radio program, Chavez said the spreading spill "is threatening Cuba's coasts." He said Venezuelan oil experts will help carry out "simulation drills because the Cubans didn't have much experience in this."

"Now the oil stain is coming toward Cuba, but it's streams of oil and they haven't been able to stop that," he said.

Chavez said he sent a team Saturday headed by Eulogio Del Pino, vice president of exploration and production for state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.

The Venezuelan leader, whose country is a major oil supplier to the United States in spite of tensions with Washington, also predicted the spill caused by the April 20 rig explosion off Louisiana will interfere with President Barack Obama's energy plans.

"This is very, very, very bad. Among other things, this is going to knock down the plans that Obama said he was going to launch to drill along the coasts of the United States," Chavez said. "That is going down because it's putting in danger ... the whole Gulf of Mexico, the coasts of Mexico, the coasts of the United States, the coasts of Cuba."

Chavez brought up the issue while discussing declining oil production in some countries, saying Venezuela is well-positioned to increase crude output, which it hopes to double in the coming years.

The government says Venezuela is producing about 3 million barrels a day, but international market observers estimate output is closer to 2.2 million barrels.

Under Chavez's drive to make Venezuela a socialist society, the government took over majority stakes in oil projects previously run under contract by private companies. But Venezuela has recently been signing multibillion-dollar deals with international oil companies to bring needed investment and expertise in hopes of boosting output.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez has said the government hopes to boost oil production to about 6.7 million barrels a day by 2021.