February 24, 2008 / 11:26 PM / 10 years ago

Chavez jokes with new Cuba leader, promises help

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By Frank Jack Daniel

CARACAS, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez chatted, joked and sang with Cuba’s new leader Raul Castro on Sunday and promised to continue supporting the country despite the retirement of his close friend Fidel Castro.

Raul Castro was named president of communist Cuba on Sunday, ending his brother Fidel Castro’s 49-year rule but keeping the country on a communist path.

Soon after his acceptance speech in Cuba’s National Assembly, Raul Castro spoke by phone on socialist Chavez’s weekly live television show. Chavez reaffirmed his commitment to Cuba and denied speculation that the two men did not get on well.

"Nothing is going to change," Chavez said during the call. "I ratify my commitment to Cuba, the commitment of the Venezuelan people, of the Bolivarian revolution, to you, to Fidel, to the Cuban revolution, to the people of Cuba."

Venezuela is Cuba’s biggest benefactor and sends the Caribbean nation millions of barrels of favorably priced oil each year. In return, Cuba has sent about 30,000 doctors to work in the OPEC nation.

Critics say the Castros are dictators propped up by Chavez’s largesse and accuse him of trying to turn Venezuela into a replica of Cuba.

Chavez and Raul Castro sang Venezuelan cowboy folk songs together on the call and joked that neither Fidel Castro nor legendary Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara had good singing voices.

Raul laughed about the famously long and fiery discourses that are a trademark of his brother and of Chavez, implicitly recognizing the similarities and closeness between the two.

"No speech of mine lasts more than an hour," Raul Castro said. "That’s because Fidel and the president of Venezuela are more intelligent than me and have more to say, not for any other reason.

"Fidel is watching you," Raul Castro, said in reference to Chavez’s TV show. "If he didn’t see the first part, it’s because he was watching me.

"Fidel is the most faithful follower of all your words, which are not in short supply," he said, before sending condolences to the relatives of 46 people who died in a Venezuelan plane crash on Thursday.

Chavez praised the smooth transition of power in Cuba and denied he did not get on well with the new president.

"An international campaign has already started to make people believe there is distance between Raul and I, that things are now going to change," he said.

Chavez led a standing ovation to celebrate the naming of Raul as Cuban president but said ailing Fidel, who he describes a father figure, would continue to be "El Comandante."

Fidel Castro has long seen Chavez as a protege and the two men frequently appeared together at radical events on the sidelines of presidential conferences in the region until the octogenarian was forced by illness from the public eye in 2006.

Chavez, 53, visited his friend in the hospital on several occasions and was seen in videos of the meetings bringing Castro gifts and holding his hand.

Many observers have said there is not such a natural friendship with Raul Castro, 76, but Chavez’s stated commitment to socialism and admiration for Cuba’s system means the two nations will stay close at least in the short term.

"It will be impossible for Raul Castro to replicate Fidel’s close personal relationship with Chavez," said Dan Erikson, a expert on Cuba at Washington think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.

"However in the short term, Cuba is likely to remain highly dependent on Venezuelan oil and this means that Raul will need to stay in Chavez’s good graces."

(Reporting by by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jackie Frank and Bill Trott)

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