October 29, 2000

Stunned by rural poverty, Castro urges Venezuelans to back Chavez

                  GUANARE, Venezuela (AP) -- Saying he was stunned by the problems of rural
                  Venezuela, Cuban leader Fidel Castro urged Venezuelans to rally behind President
                  Hugo Chavez's efforts to change the society.

                  "When I saw the people say 'Chavez, don't forget about us,' it occurred to me,
                  sadly, that this is the result of the thousands of promises that the old politicians
                  never kept," Castro said in a fiery speech to thousands of university students in
                  the western city of Barquisimeto.

                  Castro, who is on a five-day visit to sign an oil aid pact, made a daylong journey
                  with Chavez on Saturday through the western "llanos," or plains, that are
                  Venezuela's breadbasket.

                  After visiting rural towns in the states of Barinas, Portugesa and Lara, Castro
                  said the problems he saw -- from a lack of medical care to companies that wield
                  power over farmers -- were a reflection of Latin America's struggle to develop.

                  "There are a million people here with problems to be solved," Castro said.

                  In the town of Guanare, he charmed sugar farmers with questions on the
                  minutiae of potash fertilizer and soil ratings, then shook his head sadly at their
                  complaints that sugar and coffee processors are making fortunes by selling
                  crops at three times the farmers' prices.

                  He and Chavez doled out promises of free medical care in Cuba to poor farmers
                  -- even promising, on the spot, eye surgery and air travel for a child whose
                  crying mother begged Chavez for help.

                  On Sunday, Castro was to participate in Chavez's weekly radio talk show, "Hello
                  President," then visit the Carabobo Battlefield, where South American liberator
                  Simon Bolivar defeated the Spanish colonial army in 1821.

                  In the farming town of Sabaneta, Castro and Chavez visited the small concrete
                  house where Chavez was born, then walked to the main plaza surrounded by
                  thousands of admirers.

                  Speaking from a stage draped with a large banner portraying Cuban revolutionary
                  Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Castro likened Chavez to Bolivar and predicted Sabaneta
                  would one day become famous as the "cradle of the Bolivarian revolution" -- a
                  phrase often used by Chavez to describe his overhaul of the government.

                  The two leaders toured nearby Barinas and visited Chavez's father, Hugo de los
                  Reyes Chavez, a retired school teacher who is now the area's governor. A
                  late-night baseball game ended the day's tour, with Castro managing the Cuban
                  national squad and Chavez shedding his green combat fatigues to play first base
                  for Venezuela.

                  Elected in 1998, Chavez has deepened ties with Cuba, and his close friendship
                  with Castro has made the United States -- and some Venezuelans -- uneasy.

                  As president, he has overhauled political institutions in this nation of 24 million
                  people. His leftist coalition eliminated the old Congress and Supreme Court and
                  dealt heavy blows to the two traditional political parties that ruled Venezuela for
                  40 years.

                  Yet even in Venezuela's openhearted countryside, there were doubts. Angelo
                  Gilotti, whose farm was chosen for a Castro visit because of its bumper corn
                  crop this year, said he was secretly relieved when the stop was canceled because
                  of logistical problems.

                  "I probably would never have gotten a U.S. visa again," he said.

                  Castro last week warned Venezuela's Congress to beware of a U.S. backlash
                  against Chavez. He also endorsed Chavez's hope of forming an "axis of power,"
                  using Venezuela's position as one of the world's biggest oil producers to counter
                  the influence of wealthier countries.

                  "This country is in the best of conditions to fight for the unity of Latin America
                  ... so that the giant from the north does not swallow us one by one," he declared

                  Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.