Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Friday he was certain the Cuban leader Fidel Castro did not have cancer, despite allegations by US officials that he has just months to live.
"Fidel does not have cancer, I am well aware of that," Chavez said in a speech before military leaders.
He said Castro had ordered Cuban government officials to keep him informed, and he had been receiving regular updates about the Cuban leader's condition.
The comment came after US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told the Washington Post on Friday that Castro was very ill and close to death.
"Everything we see indicates it will not be much longer ... months, not years," Negroponte told the Post.
Chavez, who said he had spoken to Castro by telephone on Thursday, said he was going to send him some chocolate because he was recovering from his illness and beginning to diversify his diet.
"When I spoke to him, I sensed he was in good spirits, and we hope comrade Fidel will continue to recuperate," Chavez added.
But the Venezuelan leader, one of the staunchest Castro supporters, acknowledged that the father of the Cuban revolution was waging "a big battle."
Castro, 80, handed over the reins of power on July 31 to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, after undergoing intestinal surgery.
He has not been seen in public since July 26.
Rumors about his health were fueled by his failure to show up at a military parade earlier this month that capped his 80th birthday celebrations in Havana.
The absence of Castro, who for more than four decades has led the communist Caribbean island, challenging its democratic US neighbor to the north, signaled new uncertainty about Cuba's future.
His failure to show up at the parade in Revolution Square was a sign -- still stunning for many Cubans -- that he is unlikely to return to public life.
The parade also commemorated the 1956 anniversary of the landing of the ship Granma, carrying 81 fighters including the Castro brothers and Argentine Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, which helped spark the Cuban revolution.
Castro's real 80th birthday was August 13, but the almost week-long fete had been delayed in the hopes that his recovery would be well under way by now.
Raul Castro is widely considered less charismatic than Fidel, but more pragmatic about economics and comfortable with a lower profile.
An economics student before joining his brother in the fight against US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Raul has been Cuba's number two for decades.
He leads huge companies including tourism businesses that technically fall under the military sphere.
Many analysts believe he is interested in the Chinese and Vietnamese models of communism, but Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque in September stressed "between Raul and Fidel there is not the slightest bit of difference."
Meanwhile, the largest group of US legislators to visit communist-ruled Cuba arrived in Havana on Friday for meetings with top Cuban officials and talks about trade and the situation in Cuba.