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Castro, Chavez meet in secretive Venezuela talks
( 2003-12-23 09:41) (Agencies)

Cuban President Fidel Castro met revolutionary ally President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela at a secret venue on Monday in a morale-boosting visit to the leftist Venezuelan leader who faces a campaign to vote him out of office.

Shrouding the trip in secrecy, government officials declined to confirm the venue even though Venezuelan state journalists said the two held a lunch meeting for several hours on the Venezuelan island of Orchila, a presidential retreat 110 miles north of Caracas.

On Sunday, Chavez announced the 77-year-old Castro's brief trip to oil-rich Venezuela -- Cuba's biggest political ally and trade partner in Latin America.

Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton described Monday's talks as a "quick, informal" meeting to review fast-expanding bilateral cooperation.

Venezuela's opposition criticized Castro's trip as a meddling attempt to support the populist Chavez at a time when he is resisting a determined opposition bid to trigger a referendum on his presidency next year.

"I think Chavez is looking for someone to cheer him up," opposition spokesman Timoteo Zambrano said.

Castro and Chavez consult frequently and are both outspoken critics of U.S. policy, even though Venezuela is a leading supplier of oil to the United States.

If Chavez, 49, was voted out, Cuba would be deprived of a major source of political support and cheap energy supply in the region.

Opponents accuse Chavez of trying to install Cuba-style communism in Venezuela. The president, who says his self-styled "revolution" will benefit Venezuela's poor, has denounced the referendum efforts as a "mega-fraud."

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