HAVANA Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is getting "much better" as he recovers from cancer surgery almost two months ago in Havana, Communist Party newspaper Granma reported on Monday.
Castro, 86, spoke to reporters as he voted on Sunday in Cuba's parliamentary elections in one of his increasingly rare public appearances.
He said he gets daily reports on the condition of Chavez, who is Cuba's top socialist ally and benefactor.
"He is much better, recovering. It has been a tough fight but he is improving," the frail, white-bearded Castro was quoted as saying.
"We have to cure him. Chavez is very important for his country and for Latin America," he said.
Chavez, 58, is battling cancer in the pelvic region discovered in June 2011 by Cuban doctors.
He has undergone four cancer-related surgeries on the communist island, the last a six-hour operation on December 11 in Havana.
Castro's description of Chavez's condition matches increasingly positive public statements from Venezuelan officials, but the Venezuelan leader has not been seen nor heard from publicly since the surgery.
He was unable to return to Venezuela on January 10 to be sworn in for a new term in office, which he won in an October election.
Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years after taking power in a 1959 revolution, has been battling his own health problems since undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding in July 2006.
He resigned the presidency in February 2008 and was succeeded by younger brother Raul Castro. The elder Castro still meets occasionally with visiting leaders and plays a behind-the-scenes role but rarely appears in public.
(Reporting By Jeff Franks; Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman)