Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev received a warm Latin-style greeting, including a bear hug from President Fidel Castro, on his arrival here for a firsthand look at Cuba's tropical brand of communism.

Gorbachev, who arrived Sunday for his visit to this island-nation ruled for three decades by Castro, promptly expressed delight that he was "in the embrace of friends."At a news conference for Soviet and Cuban television with Castro at his side, a smiling Gorbachev said friendship between the two countries "has sometimes gone through difficult times, but it is tried and tested, and we all know where we stand."

Flag-waving crowds officially estimated at half a million turned out to greet the Kremlin leader along the highway from Jose Marti Airport into the city.

Gorbachev and Castro stood side by side in an open Soviet limousine despite sometimes heavy rain, linking hands and holding them over their heads in a victory salute, as Cubans along the roadside waved enthusiastically.

"I would like to express my deepest thanks to the Cuban people for this welcome, for their enthusiasm," Gorbachev told television reporters from the two countries soon after he and Castro arrived at a government protocol house.

"It is very important for our Soviet people that we are in the embrace of friends," he said with a broad smile at Castro.

He said his visit was an important event for the whole of Latin America, a continent which he has long planned to visit.

"Over the past few years I have had many meetings with representatives of the continent," Gorbachev said. "I think this continent has a big future."

Earlier, Gorbachev received a 21-gun salute as he stepped off his Ilyushin-62 airliner after a 13-hour flight from Moscow which included a stopover in Ireland.

The bearded Castro, clad in his habitual olive-drab military fatigues and accompanied by his brother and closest aide Raul, stood side-by-side with Gorbachev as the salute rang out across the airport tarmac.

The two leaders, meeting for the third time, are expected to play down their differences during the visit, which lasts until Wednesday.

During his stopover in Ireland, Gorbachev urged East and West Europe to "put its common house in order" and defuse tensions.

Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey, leader of a country that prides itself on its neutrality, offered Ireland as the site for a Gorbachev summit with President Bush.

"We put it on the table," Haughey said, without giving any details of Gorbachev's response.