By Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba said on Wednesday it would remain steadfast by Venezuela even as it seeks to improve ties with the United States, criticizing Washington's Venezuela policy before a summit meeting where the U.S. and Cuban leaders will meet face-to-face.
Cuban Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel chastised Washington over its decision last month to declare Venezuela a national security threat and order sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials.
"Nobody could think that in a process of re-establishing relations, which we're trying to move forward on with the United States, Cuban support for Venezuela could be made conditional," Diaz-Canel, the heir apparent to Cuban President Raul Castro, told reporters in Havana.
"If they attack Venezuela, they're attacking Cuba. And Cuba will always be on Venezuela's side above all things," he said.
Under late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Venezuela became Cuba's closest ally and its most important benefactor.
When Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced in December that the longtime enemies would restore full diplomatic relations and seek to improve trade, the move was widely applauded by Latin American governments.
But the praise of Obama's policy shift was tempered when the United States imposed the Venezuela sanctions on May 9, and the controversy now hangs over the Summit of the Americas in Panama this week.
Ahead of the meeting, the U.S. government has tried to persuade Latin American leaders that declaring Venezuela a security threat was a prerequisite for the sanctions, not a signal of U.S. aggression.
"The wording ... is completely pro forma," Ben Rhodes, a national security advisor to Obama, told reporters on Tuesday. "This is a language that we use in executive orders around the world. So the United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security."
Thomas Shannon, a top aide to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, was in Caracas on Wednesday to meet with senior Venezuelan leaders in an effort to ease tensions.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray)