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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.
Chavez was to unveil a statue of Venezuelan independence hero Francisco de Miranda on Wednesday morning and stop by a nearby college.
Politics aside, the two men 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."
"Democracy is government of the people," Chavez said. "I think if we're going to compare the extent of power that the people have, without a doubt Cuba is more of a democracy than the United States."
"In Cuba there is no child that isn't in school, no sick person who isn't tended to," Chavez said.
Chavez dismissed acusations he wants to hold lifelong power, and said he faces serious threats of being killed, just like Castro.
"Can someone who is threatened with death have plans to be in power forever, knowing that any error could be fatal?" Chavez said, driving along a country road in southern Venezuela in a route he kept secret for security reasons.
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."
The US government has repeatedly denied Chavez's accusations that it plotting an invasion of Venezuela, but Chavez said his intelligence confirms there is a danger.
"They have a plan to invade Venezuela. To deny it would be absurd ... just as they have a plan to invade Cuba. Who could think they don't have a plan to invade Cuba?" said Chavez, who has pledged Venezuela would help defend the island if needed.
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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