Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chavez says Venezuela isn't copying Cuba, but Castro a key influence

International Herald Triune

The Associated Press
Published: June 13, 2007

HAVANA: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned to Cuba to visit his convalescing friend and ally Fidel Castro, spending six hours with the 80-year-old leader he considers a guiding light for the Latin American left.

State television reported the pair shared an "emotional" meeting Tuesday, discussing Venezuela-Cuba relations, climate change and a socialist-leaning regional pact they created.

"I can tell you that he has recovered his 90 mile an hour fastball," Chavez said Wednesday, using a baseball metaphor to describe the Cuban leader's recovery.

Chavez spoke to a small group at a university Wednesday after dedicating a statue of Venezuelan independence hero Francisco de Miranda placed at the eastern end of Havana's Malecon waterfront facing Havana Bay.

The Venezuelan leader was accompanied during the Wednesday morning events by Castro's younger brother, and acting President Raul Castro.

State television broadcast the dedication ceremony, panning over the new statue with the city's iconic San Cristobal de la Cabana Fortress in the background as a military band played.

Politics aside, Chavez and the elder Castro clearly share a deep personal affection, with Chavez visiting Castro more than any other foreign leader since he fell gravely ill in late July.

Chavez, 52, spoke fondly of his friend during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Saturday. He brought up memories of their many conversations, recalled greeting crowds of supporters together in Venezuela and also talked about Castro while condemning as unjust the execution of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Fidel Castro told me one day, after they captured Saddam there in that hole where they found him... 'Chavez, look at how they captured Saddam. He should have died fighting. If they invade Cuba, I'm going first, and you will see what you do. You're also on the list. But in any case we cannot be captured in a hole,'" Chavez recalled in the interview with the AP.

Chavez said with a chuckle that Castro told him recently, "I was needing this illness because now I read more." The Venezuelan leader said Castro has largely recovered and has kept involved in running the government alongside his younger brother, Raul.

Castro announced July 31 that he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and temporarily ceded his presidential duties to his brother Raul, the defense minister.

Chavez praised Cuba's political system during the weekend interview, and criticized that of the United States — saying it is dominated by "the elite."

"In Cuba there is no child that isn't in school, no sick person who isn't tended to," Chavez said.

To improve health care for poor Venezuelans, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors who offer free treatment while Chavez's government sends the island increasing amounts of oil.

Despite his admiration of Cuba, Chavez denied that Venezuela's emerging socialist system is being modeled after the island's. "We're in the middle of building it, like an artist painting a picture," Chavez said. "We aren't copying anything."

Chavez recalled that when he took office in 1999, "our only ally on the American continent was Cuba." Today — with many more leftist leaders in countries from Nicaragua to Bolivia — "how the map of Latin America has changed," he said.

Chavez shares Castro's affinity for hours-long speeches and spontaneity. During the four-hour drive, Chavez abruptly broke away from his motorcade at one point, saying he wanted a glimpse of the Apure River swollen by rains — "a magic river," he called it.

When he stopped his Toyota 4Runner at National Guard checkpoints, troops snapped to attention and saluted, reciting Castro's trademark slogan, now adopted by Chavez: "Socialism or death!"

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AP writer Anita Snow reported from Havana and Ian James contributed reporting from an exclusive interview with Chavez in southern Venezuela.

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