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Cuba and Venezuela have signed an agreement to develop ethanol production from sugarcane, despite mixed signals from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The agreement, signed in Havana last week (28 February), is part of a joint effort to preserve the environment, reduce fossil fuel consumption and stimulate the use of alternative sources of energy.

It follows a meeting in 2000 at which the two nations agreed to collaborate in the areas of health, education, agriculture and information communication technology.

Eleven ethanol production plants will be established in Venezuela, according to the Granma newspaper.

The agreement states that the plants will provide a "starting point…to stimulate a high level collaboration [to] allow the development of new alternatives for energy sources in Cuba and Venezuela, contributing to the development of other nations".

Correspondence between Castro and the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is reputedly the inspiration for the collaboration.

In a letter to Chávez, Castro is reported to have said that "the existence of our species is in danger with the huge waste of hydrocarbons" and that biofuels were of "vital importance" for human beings.

However, the day before the agreement was signed, a radio interview saw Castro express concern over the use of the ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels.

He said, "The idea of using food for producing fuel is tragic, dramatic. Nobody knows [how high] the price of food will reach or when soya may become fuel, when the world already lacks enough production of eggs, milk and meat."