Chávez set to take Castro's mantle
Venezuela's fiery president gears up to become Latin America's next leftist icon.
When Cuba's erstwhile leader Fidel Castro fell ill a year and a half ago, the first video that aired was of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez sitting at his bedside. Since then, Mr. Chávez, a former lieutenant colonel, has depended on Mr. Castro's revolutionary know-how, playing up the role of the dutiful son.Skip to next paragraph
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But now that the most potent symbol of the Latin American left has announced his retirement, Chávez is poised to inherit the political and symbolic mantle – and all the romanticism it entails.
It is in a different world context, and it's "neoliberalism," not capitalism, that stokes leftist passions today. Still, some analysts say Venezuela's vast oil wealth positions Chávez to take his social movement further than Castro could during his rule.
"Chávez has already achieved a certain level of influence, but with Fidel out of the scenario he becomes the only reference point for the symbol of the leftist revolution," says Alfredo Keller, an independent pollster in Caracas. "But he is trying to build something new, a kind of third world front against the first-world, and has a lot of money to do it."
For now, Chávez says Castro is still the captain of the revolution. "Fidel is not giving up or abandoning anything," said Chávez, who has called Castro his "father." "Fidel always was in the vanguard. Men like Fidel never retire."
Propping up Cuba with oil cash
Cuba would be in economic crisis were it not for Venezuela's largess. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Chávez has formed the economic backbone of Cuba. Today he provides the island nation with an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil daily at subsidized rates, while Cuban doctors staff newly created clinics throughout Caracas.
It is a relationship that the historian Agustin Blanco Munoz, who writes frequently on both countries, dubs "VeneCuba." The term was underscored, he says, when Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage stated plainly: "We have two presidents: Fidel and Chávez."
Chávez has not taken his movement as far as Castro did, even though some of his actions resemble the Castro of the 1960s. Chávez received worldwide criticism for his refusal last year to renew the broadcast license of a popular, but critical, TV station.
Castro came to power in a time of armed conflict, says Luis Fernando Medina, an associate comparative politics professor at the University of Virginia. "Castro could somehow legitimize his heavy-handedness in the eyes of domestic constituencies by pointing to the all-too-real risks of invasion and destabilization," Mr. Medina says. Venezuela, on the other hand, is a much larger and complex society.
Yet, while he is often dismissed as a firebrand and antidiplomat, Chávez seems to share the ideals of Castro as he calls for a new social order. His "Bolivarian Revolution," a path to what he calls "21st-century socialism," has funneled billions of dollars into social programs for the poor. Venezuelans who didn't know how to read are graduating from high school today. He sought more state revenues for such programs in 2007 by nationalizing the assets of major oil companies.