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Argentine President: Fidel Castro 'Believes in Obama'

Fidel Castro watched the U.S. inauguration on television and said Wednesday that Barack Obama seems "like a man who is absolutely sincere," Argentina's president said after meeting with the ailing Cuban icon.

"Fidel believes in Obama," Cristina Fernandez said.

The meeting with Fernandez, just before she ended a four-day visit to Cuba, dispelled persistent rumors that the 82-year-old Castro had suffered a stroke or lapsed into a coma in recent days.

"I was with Fidel about an hour or more," she told reporters at the airport as she left. "We were chatting, conversing. He looked good."

Hours later, Castro issued his own account of the meeting in a brief essay that called Obama "honest" in his ideas.

Fernandez said Castro wore the track suit that has become his trademark since he fell ill in July 2006 and vanished from public view. A spokesman said the two met alone.

"He told me he had followed the inauguration of Barack Obama very closely, that he had watched the inauguration on television all day," Fernandez said. "He had a very good perception of President Obama."

Fernandez said Castro called Obama "a man who seems absolutely sincere," who believes strongly in his ideas "and who hopefully can carry them out."

Posted on a government Web site, Castro's essay was his first such writing since Dec. 15. The ailing leader's lengthy silence had fueled speculation his health had taken a turn for the worse.

He wrote that the meeting with Fernandez lasted 40 minutes. "I personally did not have the slightest doubt about the honesty of Obama, the 11th president since Jan. 1, 1959, when he expresses his ideas," Castro said he told her, referring to the day his band of bearded rebels toppled a dictator and took power in Cuba. "But despite noble intentions, there are still many questions to answer."

Raul Castro, who took over the presidency from his brother 11 months ago, appeared earlier with Fernandez and scoffed at the rumors about his brother's health.

"Do you think if he were really gravely ill that I'd be smiling here?" Raul Castro said. "Soon I'm going to take a trip to Europe. You guys think I could leave here if Fidel were really in grave condition?"

Castro, 77, said his older brother spends his days "thinking a lot, reading a lot, advising me, helping me."

Fidel Castro hadn't held a confirmed meeting with a foreign leader since Nov. 28. The presidents of Panama and Ecuador visited this month but left without saying they had seen the elder Castro.

"Now you know that Fidel is fine, and not like the rumors around here," Raul Castro said.

Earlier Wednesday, Raul Castro said Obama "seemed like a good man" and wished him luck.

Obama has pledged to ease limits on Cuban-Americans' visits to the island and on how much money they can send home to relatives. He has also offered to negotiate personally with Raul Castro, though he has said he won't push Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo, at least not right away.

Cubans see those as important steps in improving U.S.-Cuba relations. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, tightened sanctions on the communist-governed country.

The comments by the Castro brothers contrast with those of their ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose government took exception to Obama's characterization of Chavez as "a destructive force in the region." Obama made the comments in an interview with the Univision television network.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said he hoped Obama would "rectify" the comments, which he said showed his "total ignorance" about Latin America.

"President Chavez has won 12 of the 14 elections in the past 10 years," the state-run Bolivarian News Agency quoted Maduro as saying. "He is the legitimate president."