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Archive for Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Castro stays abroad to mark 75th birthday

August 14, 2001

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— Fidel Castro drank champagne and ate cake during a 75th birthday party that lasted until dawn Monday, then traveled deep into the rain forest with Venezuela's president to inaugurate a multimillion-dollar power project for Brazil.

"In all my life, I've never received this kind of tribute," said Castro, when President Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper, presented him with the first rifle Chavez was issued as a 17-year-old Venezuelan army cadet.

Backed by a quartet, Chavez sang "Happy Birthday." Castro, who has ruled communist Cuba for 42 years, reciprocated with a few quips about his age.

"In my 50s I was beginning to learn. In my 60s I was still learning, and at 75 I'm still learning. I'm still a Pioneer," he said, referring to Cuba's Pioneers communist group for schoolchildren.

In Havana, state television broadcast extensive footage of Castro's trip, and government-controlled media were filled with greetings. No big events were planned.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker joked Monday that Castro should step down as Cuban president because he "has reached the mandatory retirement age for dictators."

Castro, who arrived in Venezuela on Saturday, postponed his return to Cuba until late Monday to attend the inauguration in the tiny plains town of Santa Elena de Uairen, 600 miles southeast of Caracas on the Brazilian border.

Citing Cuba's self-reliance in the face of the U.S. embargo, and its dispatch of hundreds of doctors abroad to give free medical care, Castro praised the power project as an example of how developing nations can collaborate to provide their peoples essential services. He even raised the prospect of someday sending Venezuelan hydroelectric power to Cuba.

"Either we integrate or we disintegrate," Castro de-clared.

Bidding his audience fare-well, he added: "I leave here with stronger hopes for the future of a united Latin America. Long live Latin America. And long live the Caribbean."

Castro spoke after Chavez condemned the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, saying it's up to Latin nations to integrate to face the giant of the north. Talks on FTAA, to be signed in 2005, exclude Cuba.

"Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil are essential countries in the integration of Latin America," said Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Cardoso has called FTAA an "option" for Brazil, which belongs to the Mercosur trade pact.

Castro, wearing trademark fatigues and cap, was greeted by about 1,500 people, including indigenous leaders and construction workers. Youths played regional music; flags of the three nations decorated the streets.

Castro spent the weekend touring Venezuela's Angel Falls and meeting impoverished indigenous leaders in the remote rain forest. It was Castro's first foreign trip since he fainted during a June 23 speech, raising concerns about his health.

The 47-year-old Chavez is a steadfast Castro ally. The United States Venezuela's biggest oil consumer keeps a wary eye on the relationship.

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