CARACAS - (AP)—Chatting with Fidel Castro during his weekly television show Sunday, President Hugo Chávez thanked the Cuban leader for sending more than 10,000 doctors to work in poor communities across Venezuela.
Chávez and Castro bantered for about 10 minutes on Venezuelan television and radio after Chávez aides telephoned the Cuban president in Havana. Chávez spoke to Castro on a speakerphone live on air.
Chávez announced the expansion of the Inside the Slum program, which began in April with several hundred Cuban doctors in Caracas slums. There are now 10,169 Cuban physicians nationwide, Chávez said.
‘‘Well, Fidel . . . your support and the support of these true heroes of Cuban medicine has been fundamental and essential,’’ Chávez said.
Castro, who sounded hesitant and complained about the phone connection, said Chávez had established himself as a leader of the Third World.
‘‘You are leaving an example not only for Latin America but for all of the Third World,’’ Castro said. “I must express the admiration of all our people for you.’‘
The two leaders have developed a strong friendship rooted in their shared disdain for U.S. economic and political dominance and their conviction that free-market policies have failed to lift millions of Latin Americans from grinding poverty.
Chávez invited Castro to visit Venezuela and tour communities benefiting from Inside the Slum. Castro said a visit ‘‘wasn’t immediately possible,’’ citing a heavy work load. It would be Castro’s fourth visit to Venezuela since Chávez took office in 1999.
Chávez’s government has sent more than 4,000 needy Venezuelans to Cuba for free medical treatment. Cuban teachers are training 100,000 Venezuelan volunteers for a national literacy campaign.
Venezuela, meanwhile, provides Cuba with crude oil under preferential financial terms. Critics say Chávez’s ties with Castro have antagonized the United States, Venezuela’s largest oil customer.
Opposition leaders insist the presence of Cuban doctors and teachers is part of a plan to steer Venezuela toward Cuba-style socialism and authoritarianism. Chávez denies such intentions, insisting he is forging his own balance between socialism and capitalism.
Chávez’s government has ignored a court order to suspend the ‘‘Inside the Slum’’ initiative until the Cuban doctors take equivalency exams required for foreign physicians to practice in Venezuela. The government says suspending the program would leave thousands of citizens without adequate healthcare.