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Chavez: Castro health 'magnificent'

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had a private five-hour meeting in Cuba with Fidel Castro.

Cuban state television said Mr Chavez expressed satisfaction at Mr Castro's "magnificent" health.

He subsequently met with President Raul Castro before leaving Cuba.

Mr Chavez is a close ally of Mr Castro and visited him frequently during the four years he disappeared from public view following emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. However, Wednesday's visit was the first time that Mr Chavez has met the Cuban figurehead since Mr Castro began making a string of public appearances in recent weeks.

Separately, Mr Chavez's allies have launched their campaigns for crucial congressional elections that come just as recession, crime and inflation pushed the socialist leader's popularity to a seven-year low.

A survey by the Venezuelan polling firm Consultores 21 indicates just 36% of Venezuelans approve of Mr Chavez's performance, the lowest figure since 2003, when Mr Chavez survived an opposition-led strike that devastated the economy, pollster Saul Cabrera said.

The results suggest Chavez allies could face a difficult struggle to keep control of the National Assembly in the September 26 election.

The survey of 1,500 people nationwide in late June and early July had a margin of error of plus or minus 2%, said Mr Cabrera, who is vice president of the polling firm.

Mr Chavez's popularity suffered a decline of 12% over the past year and a half, Mr Cabrera said.

Critics accuse Mr Chavez's government of severe incompetence and corruption, and many people are unhappy that Venezuela's oil-driven economy remains in recession while all other South American countries are seeing growth. Venezuela's inflation rate, at more than 30%, is the highest in Latin America.

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