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
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
with Chavez on Saturday through the western "llanos," or plains, that are
After visiting rural towns in the states of Barinas, Portugesa and Lara,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
... so that the giant from the north does not swallow us one by one," he declared
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.