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Fidel Castro joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Thursday at the opening of the South American nation's new oil company office here as the leftist leaders further integrated their economies and promoted a hemispheric trade agreement that would exclude the United States.

Workers applauded as the Cuban president and Chavez entered a restored building in historic Old Havana to inaugurate the new office of Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. Castro, in his traditional olive green uniform, and Chavez, in civilian clothes, were surrounded by their security agents.

The Cuban president, who considers Chavez an important political ally and a friend, greeted Chavez at the airport upon his arrival late Wednesday.

Castro and Chavez on Thursday were signing a string of new trade and other agreements between their countries. A communique from the Venezuelan government said the agreements would cover such topics as energy, health, education, infrastructure, housing and culture.

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