Chilean president says Fidel Castro doing well

Campaign News | Friday, 13 February 2009

By Nelson Acosta and Esteban Israel for Reuters

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro met on Thursday with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who said he was active and in good condition, further easing recent speculation over his health.

Bachelet said they chatted for 1 1/2 hours and that Castro, 82, peppered her with statistics and questions about Chile's economy, one of Latin America's strongest performers.

"He is in very good condition," Bachelet told reporters in Havana.

He was "as always, Fidel Castro, very interested in the themes of Chile, handling a lot of information, statistics, interested to know the performance in areas that have been successful, like the development of grape growing and wine, the development of our economy," she said.

Bachelet also said Castro was "very agile" and "active."

Castro, in a column published later on the Internet, described their meeting as "friendly" and said the Chilean had "done me the honour of listening to me with interest."

Castro had surgery for an undisclosed intestinal ailment in July 2006 and has stayed out of sight since then except for a few photos and videos in which he has at times appeared frail.

He was rumoured last month to be in serious condition but the Cuban government insists he is still active and working, and Bachelet's comments appeared to support that view.

Younger brother Raul Castro formally replaced him as president a year ago, but Fidel Castro has continued to meet behind closed doors with visiting foreign leaders and write columns for Cuba's state-run media.

Castro was a close ally of leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende before his death in a September 11, 1973, coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, who instituted free-market economic policies anathema to Castro's socialist beliefs.

Bachelet, whose three-day visit ends on Friday, is the first Chilean president to go to Cuba since Allende visited in 1972.

She is also the fourth Latin American president to visit Cuba this year and analysts say there appears to be a concerted attempt by the region's leaders to send a message to new U.S. President Barack Obama that U.S. policy towards the communist-run island must change.

As have all the others, Bachelet decried the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, saying it had "always seriously affected living conditions of the Cuban people, and in particular during the current (global economic) crisis."

Obama has said he would relax the embargo but not eliminate it until Cuba takes steps towards political and economic reform. He has raised hopes for change by saying he is open to dialogue with Cuban leaders, who have in turn indicated their willingness to meet with him.

Bachelet and Raul Castro signed several agreements to cooperate on such things as agriculture and biotechnology.

Trade between the two countries totalled just $70 million last year, with most of that Chilean exports to Cuba. Bachelet said Chile made $5 million in purchases from Cuba, almost all of it rum.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Kieran Murray)

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