updated 12/16/2006 1:13:22 AM ET 2006-12-16T06:13:22

President Hugo Chavez said Friday that Fidel Castro is not dying of cancer, saying he had spoken with the ailing Cuban leader by phone and he is eating cautiously and well enough to joke.

“Fidel doesn’t have cancer. I’m very well-informed ... he’s instructed (Cuban officials) to inform me of all the details of what is happening,” Chavez said during a speech in Caracas.

He said the two leaders had spoken twice on Thursday and discussed a series of new projects between Venezuela and Cuba, including plans for joint oil expeditions. He reiterated previous comments that Fidel’s recuperation is going “slowly” and that Castro is fighting “a great battle” for his health after suffering what he described as a “serious illness.”

There has been growing uncertainty in Cuba about the health of the 80-year-old Fidel, who has not been seen in public since he underwent intestinal surgery in July. He temporarily ceded his powers to his 75-year-old brother Raul.

Well enough for jabs at Bush
His medical condition has been kept a state secret, and Cuban officials have insisted he is recovering. But U.S. officials have said they believe he suffers from some kind of inoperable cancer and won’t live through the end of 2007.

“Nobody knows when Fidel is going to die,” Chavez said.

“We are very optimist. Yesterday, I found him to be in a very good mood, well enough to compare my parrots to (President) Bush,” Chavez continued, describing how Castro had told him his pet birds were more talkative than their “northern neighbor.”

Chavez said Castro “is eating little by little” and that he planned to send him one of his favorite treats, Venezuelan chocolate.

Regarding the joint projects, Chavez said Castro’s government would soon be giving a license to Venezuela’s state oil company to allow it to explore for oil in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico. He said Cuba’s Cupep company would help explore for oil in Venezuela’s Orinoco River region, joining a host of other state oil companies from allies like Iran, China, Russia and Spain.

Talking shop
Chavez said he and Castro also discussed other projects, including a wood company, a pharmaceutical factory and a venture to exploit Cuban nickel and Venezuela iron.

“We have so many things to thank Fidel for,” said Chavez, describing how Castro had first surprised him with a phone call in the afternoon before he called him back later in the evening to discuss the left-leaning bloc their two countries founded, known as ALBA.

“ALBA is going to grow,” Chavez continued, saying that Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega, leader of the country’s leftist Sandinista party, told him last weekend that his country planned to join the bloc. The group also currently includes Bolivia.

ALBA rejects U.S.-backed free trade and promises a socialist version of regional commerce and cooperation.

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