FIDEL CASTRO marks 75th birthday _ not in Cuba, but in Venezuelan jungle

Monday, August 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela (AP) _ Fidel Castro spent his 75th birthday Monday deep in the Venezuelan jungle with two Latin leaders who share his conviction that regional integration is the way to fight poverty afflicting millions.

After a weekend birthday celebration with his close friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Castro headed to the remote border town of Santa Elena de Uairen. There, Chavez and Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso were inaugurating a power project for energy-starved Brazil.

Such projects are key to Latin America's development, Castro said after touring Venezuela's Angel Falls and Canaima National Park on Sunday. He told reporters he was amazed at the crush of impoverished indigenous people who asked Chavez for financial help and government-sponsored development projects.

In Puerto Ordaz, Chavez and Castro exchanged toasts during a dinner party that lasted until dawn Monday. Chavez _ a former army paratrooper who led a failed coup in 1992 _ gave Castro his first army rifle and a statue of South American liberator Simon Bolivar, the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina reported.

``It's the happiest I've ever had,'' Castro said of his birthday.

Chavez and Castro visited a Pemon Indian community where a pair of children gave them good-luck necklaces. They toured Canaima Lagoon in a canoe and drove an off-road vehicle. They also signed a deal for Cuba to provide tourism expertise _ part of a barter pact in which Venezuela sends Cuba 53,000 barrels of oil a day.

It was Castro's first trip abroad since fainting during a speech on June 23 _ prompting speculation about the health of the man who has ruled Cuba for more than four decades.

Despite the rushed agenda, Castro couldn't dispel concerns about his health. He stumbled when reporters mobbed him in Caracas on Saturday. In Ciudad Bolivar, he sweated profusely and repeatedly complained about the tropical heat.

Castro claims he is in robust health. His hand-picked successor, brother Raul Castro, insists Cuba won't plunge into political crisis after Fidel Castro is no longer in power.

Chavez is one of Castro's few steadfast allies in a world increasingly committed to free market economies. The United States _ Venezuela's biggest consumer of oil _ keeps a wary eye on the relationship, and was irritated last week when Chavez ordered a U.S. military mission to vacate offices in Caracas' army headquarters.

Despite a barter pact that has brought hundreds of Cuban advisers to Venezuela in exchange for Venezuelan oil, both Castro and Chavez insist that Venezuela will retain its democratic government and market economy.

While polls show Venezuelans oppose Castro's ideology, thousands excitedly shadowed him.

``I don't think we should isolate a country that needs our help so badly,'' said Alberto Ruiz, struggling to catch a glimpse of Castro in Ciudad Bolivar. ``I guess he is a dictator. But he's done a lot for his people. I welcome him and wish him many more years.''