Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Castro visits Venezuela's Chavez to boost morale

REUTERS , CARACAS, VENEZUELA

Cuban President Fidel Castro met revolutionary ally President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela at a Caribbean island retreat on Monday in a morale-boosting visit to the leftist Venezuelan leader, who faces a campaign to vote him out of office.

"We talked about everything," Chavez told reporters after returning from the talks on Orchila island, a military base and presidential retreat 180km north of Caracas.

Government officials had earlier refused to disclose the site of the meeting. This had shrouded in secrecy the brief visit by the 77-year-old Castro to Venezuela, Communist Cuba's biggest political ally and trade partner in Latin America.

Chavez said he and Castro had discussed growing medical and energy cooperation between their nations. They also reviewed the political situation in Venezuela, where the populist president is resisting a determined opposition bid to trigger a referendum next year on whether he should stay in power.

State television showed the two leaders embracing. It also broadcast a long, rambling interview with Castro in which he praised Chavez as an influential leader spearheading the fight in Latin America against US-style global capitalism.

"I challenge the world to produce a more generous man," the Cuban leader, who spoke slowly and haltingly, said.

Venezuela's opposition criticized Castro's trip as a meddling attempt to support Chavez at a time when he faces a campaign by foes to try to vote an end to his rule in the world's No 5 oil exporter.

"I think Chavez is looking for someone to cheer him up," opposition spokesman Timoteo Zambrano said.

Castro and Chavez consult frequently and are both outspoken critics of US policy, even though Venezuela is a leading supplier of oil to the US.

If Chavez, 49, was voted out, Cuba would be deprived of a major source of political support and cheap energy supply in the region. Under a three-year-old preferential energy accord, Chavez's government sends Cuba up to 53,000 barrels per day of oil -- about one third of the island's consumption.

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