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Sunday, 12 August, 2001, 06:42 GMT 07:42 UK
Castro visits Venezuelan ally
Castro and Chavez
Castro and Chavez have forged a strong friendship
Cuban President Fidel Castro is in Venezuela for talks with one of his closest political allies and personal friends, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

We welcome this 75-year-old youngster, the same Fidel as ever

Hugo Chavez
President Castro was received with full military honours at Caracas international airport, as hundreds of wellwishers waved Cuban flags and placards reading "Fidel, Venezuela Salutes You".

He was also awarded Venezuela's highest civil award, the Order of Angostura, which commemorates the independence struggle of the South American liberator, Simon Bolivar.

BBC Havana correspondent Daniel Schweimler says the Cuban leader is trying to silence fears of his deteriorating health with a trip abroad.

He is due to return to Cuba on Monday, his 75th birthday.

Observers have been watching for signs of illness since he fainted while addressing an open-air rally seven weeks ago.

Wellwisher with Cuban flag
Castro was met by hundreds of flag-waving wellwishers
"We welcome the brother, the friend, the revolutionary soldier who has been an example of dignity for this entire continent, for the heavens and the sea," President Chavez said in greeting.

"We welcome this 75-year-old youngster, the same Fidel as ever."

Political ally

Mr Castro said it was a privilege to begin his birthday celebrations in the country of Simon Bolivar, who freed Venezuela from Spanish rule in the 19th century.

The two men began their meeting by signing a UN-backed agreement designed to boost Venezuela's agriculture sector with the help of Cuban expertise.

The last time they met in Venezuela last October, they watched baseball and sang together.

Hugo Chavez is one of President Castro's few political allies in the region, supporting Cuba in its long-running conflict with the United States.

President Chavez has, in turn, been criticised in Venezuela for trying to import Cuban communist ideals to his country - accusations that Washington is watching closely.

Oil deal

In October, President Chavez signed a pact to allow Cuba to pay for part of its oil imports from Venezuela with goods and services.

Caracas protest
Thousands protested during Castro's last visit
Cuban sports trainers and doctors are now working in Venezuela for free.

On this visit, the two men will travel to Ciudad Bolivar in the south of the country, where President Chavez and his Brazilian counterpart Fernando Henrique Cardoso will open the first electric power line between their two countries.

While there, President Castro will receive an award, cementing the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba, and a birthday present as he flies back to Havana.

The BBC's Jane Ball in Cuba
"The deal has provoked anger amongst opposition politicians."
See also:

12 Jul 01 | Americas
Exiles plan for post-Castro Cuba
27 Oct 00 | Americas
Protests as Castro visits Venezuela
20 Oct 00 | Americas
Venezuela signs cheap oil pact
31 Jul 00 | Americas
Chavez: Visionary or demagogue?
19 Oct 00 | Americas
Castro: The great survivor
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