Cuba and Russia strengthened bilateral relations in the political and economic spheres with the official visit to Havana of President Vladimir Putin, who hailed the Caribbean nation's "strategic" importance in Moscow's foreign policy.

Putin, whose 2000 journey to Havana opened a "second phase" in ties between the two countries, chose Russia's oldest ally in Latin America as the first stop on a regional tour that will also take him to Argentina and Brazil.

The Russian president met Friday with Cuban counterpart Raul Castro and his 87-year-old brother Fidel, the leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution who formally resigned the presidency in 2008 after being stricken with a serious gastrointestinal illness.

Putin also presided over the signing of nearly a dozen agreements in a range of sectors.

Based on photographs that were posted on the Web site Cubadebate and which show Fidel in his now-customary track suit, the meeting with Putin took place at the retired leader's Havana home.

The Russian president arrived Friday in Havana a week after Russia's parliament voted to forgive 90 percent of the $31.7 billion in outstanding debt Cuba had with the former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991.

Putin signed the bill into law on Friday, saying the debt write-off would create "new conditions" for developing bilateral relations.

Raul Castro, for his part, said the debt forgiveness was "yet another sign" of the Russian people's "great generosity" toward Cuba, and he also recalled that the Cuban Revolution would not have survived without the aid of its Soviet patrons.

The Cuban president also said he was very satisfied with the current phase in bilateral relations that began with Putin's first visit to the island 14 years ago.

Castro and Putin also presided over the signing of a package of 10 agreements and memoranda to expand bilateral cooperation, including accords on oil exploration signed by Russian state oil company Rosneft and Cuban counterpart Cupet.

Putin later traveled Friday to Nicaragua for a previously unannounced visit, meeting in that Central American country with President Daniel Ortega. EFE