Venezuelan V.P. blasts rumors of Chavez's impending death

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Venezuela's vice president called for an end to rumors about the condition of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez as the head of state "is battling for his health."

"End the attack against the comandante, end the rumors, enough of using a situation that is delicate for everyone to try to create destabilization," Nicolas Maduro said at a public event that was aired live on national television and radio.

He was reacting to media accounts that Chavez, now at a military hospital in Caracas and last seen in public Dec. 10, is near death.

The leftist head of state returned to Venezuela 11 days ago after spending more than two months in Cuba due to complications that followed a Dec. 11 cancer surgery in Havana.

Chavez, 58, has undergone four operations as well as courses of chemotherapy and radiation since he was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011.

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Mexico union boss moved to jail with better medical facilities

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Erstwhile teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo, arrested three days ago on embezzlement and racketeering charges, was moved to a prison with better medical facilities, Mexican authorities said.

Gordillo's personal physician requested the transfer and prison doctors agreed, authorities said, stressing that the labor leader is not receiving any special privileges.

Once considered Mexico's most powerful woman, the 68-year-old Gordillo is said to suffer from high blood pressure, chronic hepatitis C and kidney problems, among other ailments.

She was arrested Tuesday and arraigned a day later on racketeering charges in connection with the alleged embezzlement of $157 million in union funds.

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After anemic 2012, Brazil sees 4 pct growth this year

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Brazil's government blamed global economic woes for paltry GDP growth last year, but it expects the country to rebound in 2013 and expand by up to 4 percent.

"In times of crisis, there's weak performance and it's inevitable that the economy will decelerate," Finance Minister Guido Mantega said at a press conference.

Brazil's gross domestic product grew at a tepid 0.9 percent in 2012, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics said Friday.

"Most countries had weak growth or even a slowdown," Mantega, who in early 2012 had forecast growth of 3-4 percent for that year, said.

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More than 2,800 slain in Mexico since new pres. took office

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More than 2,880 people were killed in organized crime-related violence in Mexico during the first three months of President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, according to a tally published by the Milenio newspaper.

The daily noted that that figure included 100 soldiers and federal, state and municipal police killed in operations against organized crime outfits between Dec. 1, 2012, when Peña Nieto took office, and Feb. 28.

Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is continuing the army-led approach to tackling organized crime designed by predecessor Felipe Calderon, but he has said authorities will focus on dismantling cartels not just killing or capturing the bosses.

The war on drug cartels launched by Calderon led to the capture or slayings of several kingpins but also left more than 70,000 people dead during his six-year tenure.

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Cardinals to hold pre-conclave meeting on March 4

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Cardinals will begin holding formal meetings starting March 4 as part of their preparations for a conclave to elect the new pope, the Vatican said.

The first meeting will be held at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Synod of Bishops hall in the Paul VI Audience Hall, used by the pope for general audiences during winter and on rainy days.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano made the date and time official on Friday, just hours after Benedict XVI stepped down and the church entered into a period known as the Sede Vacante, or Vacant See, the transition between the end of one papacy and the start of another.

Some 144 cardinals have already gathered in Rome, but Vatican rules state that they must be formally instructed to make preparations for the conclave.

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Tens of thousands stranded by Brazil transit strike

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A strike by bus drivers here in Brazil's second city left tens of thousands of commuters stranded.

Unions representing the drivers called a 24-hour strike after failing to reach agreement with the transit companies on a new contract. The workers want an increase of 15 percent, but owners are offering a pay hike of only 8 percent.

Less than 10 percent of Rio's bus fleet was on the streets Friday morning, while some transit companies said strikers hurled rocks at drivers who tried to take their units out from depots in the west-side neighborhoods of Santa Cruz and Campo Grande.

Growing crowds of people were seen waiting for hours at bus stops, while shops around Copacabana beach opened late as employees struggled to get to work.

EFE