By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro looked downcast and near tears as he listened to a song about his friend and ally, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in a news report aired on Cuban state television on Thursday.
The unusual report, nine minutes in length on a news program, was the first public glimpse of the impact of Chavez' death last month on the 86-year-old Castro, whom the Venezuelan socialist openly revered and considered his political father and mentor.
Castro, recorded in a rare public appearance on Wednesday for the opening of a school, put his hand over his eyes, his lips trembling, and appeared to fight back tears during the song "The Return of a Friend," which he introduced as having been written and recorded by several musicians to remember Chavez.
Chavez, 58, died on March 5 in Caracas after a long battle with cancer, much of it fought in Cuba under the supervision of Cuban doctors.
"Nobody thinks that he has gone, he went for a moment to mass. He will return with Sandino, with Che, Marti and Bolivar," the song went, referring to several late Latin American revolutionary figures - Augusto Sandino, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Jose Marti and Simon Bolivar - whose names are often invoked in Cuba.
Long close-ups of Castro were interspersed with video of him and Chavez in their many meetings.
"Really, the song is pretty," the gray-haired Castro said hoarsely to the room of students, school workers and officials, some of whom were moved to tears as they watched.
Castro and Chavez forged a strong friendship and political alliance early in Chavez' 14 years in power as he poured oil and money into Cuba to help it emerge from the economic ruin that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the communist island's previous top ally.
Their close relationship continued after Castro, aging and infirm, resigned the presidency in 2008 after 49 years in power and was succeeded by younger brother Raul Castro, who is 81.
Fidel Castro and Chavez spoke often, corresponded frequently and plotted jointly to promote leftist governments in Latin America and diminish U.S. influence in the region.
In his only public comments on Chavez' death, Fidel Castro wrote in a March 11 column in state media that Cuba had lost its best friend ever and he admitted that word of his passing "hit us hard."
But it was not known how hard until Thursday's television report.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Paul Simao)
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