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Cuba's President Raul Castro gestures as he arrives for the ceremony marking the 64th anniversary of the July 26, 1953 rebel assault which former Cuban leader Fidel Castro led on the Moncada army barracks, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alejandro Ernesto/Pool


HAVANA (Reuters) - A senior Cuban official rejected rumours the Communist-run island might intervene as a mediator in Venezuela's crisis and called on Wednesday for "absolute respect for the sovereignty" of its socialist ally.

Visits to Cuba this month by the presidents of Colombia and Bolivia have fuelled speculation that Havana is being courted to help mediate in Venezuela. More than 100 people have died in four months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro's government.

"Cuba roundly rejects such insinuation and claims absolute respect for the sovereignty and the self-determination of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Communist Party, said in a speech to mark a Cuban national holiday.

The Financial Times reported earlier this month that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had flown to Cuba on a mission to convince Havana to support a regional diplomatic push to staunch Venezuela’s growing crisis.

Cuba and Venezuela became close allies in the late 1990s under the respective leaderships of Fidel Castro and his younger disciple Hugo Chavez, both now deceased.

Their close personal and political relationship resulted in extensive Venezuelan aid to the Caribbean island and a shared strategy for promoting Latin American unity against U.S. influence in the region.

"It is solely up to the Bolivarian people and government to overcome their difficulties without foreign intervention in their internal affairs," Machado Ventura said at an event in the northwestern city of Pinar del Rio. July 26 is a holiday marking a 1953 rebel attack that kicked off Cuba's revolution.

"We reaffirm once more our unshakeable solidarity with the Venezuelan people," he added.

Chavez helped rescue Cuba from desperate economic times that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, its former top ally, by providing two-thirds of its oil in a barter deal for the services of thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, sports trainers and security advisers.

But that lifeline to Cuba has ebbed in recent years as Venezuela, in the throes of a deep economic crisis, has cut back on the subsidized crude. Venezuela's economic woes have fuelled its political turmoil.

Maduro's opponents launched a two-day national strike on Wednesday as they sought to pressure him into abandoning a weekend election for a super-congress they say will institutionalize autocracy in Venezuela.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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