Chávez set to take Castro's mantle

Venezuela's fiery president gears up to become Latin America's next leftist icon.

By , Staff writer

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    Passing the torch: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (l.) and his Cuban counterpart joked as they joined medallions in Havana in 2005.
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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.

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.

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"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.

'21st-century socialism'

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.

Chávez, too, is a phenomenon unto himself, amassing followings from the barrios of Caracas to the presidential palaces of Nicaragua and Ecuador. "When Chávez came onto the scene, Fidel was already there. Chávez ignited the enthusiasm of the left," says Daniel DiMauro, an architecture student at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, opened by Chávez in 2003.

He has paid off the foreign debt of his neighbors and offered the same subsidized oil and energy projects he gives to Cuba to nations around the world. He has also pushed for regional integration, with initiatives such as the Bank of the South, which he calls an alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

While not all neighboring leaders agree with Chávez's stances, he has, almost by default, created a stronger region. "He has opened up diplomatic space that might not be there otherwise," says Daniel Hellinger, a Latin America expert at Webster University in St. Louis.

But Chávez also lacks some of the legitimacy of his mentor. And Castro's charisma and sheer stamina, serving for nearly 50 years, legendary.

Meanwhile, Chávez seems to be an active participant in the same globalist system that he rails against, a perception that, analysts say, could undermine his message. Chávez belittles US policy at every turn, and yet he is one of its most reliable suppliers of crude. Venezuela is awash in luxury goods. Caracas is, in many ways, an open-market, consumerist society.

Chávez is also facing his own domestic problems, including high inflation and food shortages. "It's natural that he will take on a bigger role," says Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But I think Chávez has so many issues right now, and it's hard to be a big international figure abroad if your country is falling apart."

During a constitutional referendum that Chávez proposed in December, which would have scrapped presidential term limits, many Venezuelans spoke with unease about the country moving in the direction of Cuba.

Even Chávez's supporters say that's not what they want – and not what they expect. "There is freedom of expression, we can come and go," says Mr. DiMauro. "It's capitalist, with a push for more equality. People have been tricked to believe we are becoming Cuba."

Different types of legitimacy

But this type of disapproval, has, in a twist, given Chávez the boost that might ultimately be the most important to his legacy: electoral legitimacy. While he was defeated in a referendum to reform the Constitution in December, it only added to the chorus of supporters who say he is a democrat after all.

"He may not have the same kind of matinee idol adulation that Fidel has enjoyed, but he has a different kind of power," says Mr. Hellinger. "He has been elected, and reelected, and he has something Fidel Castro never had: he has got a popular mandate as part of a competitive electoral process."

But, while Castro's resignation opens up space for Chávez to take on the symbolism of the "revolution," it could end up pushing Chávez and Cuba farther apart, say some analysts.

"Opening up to foreign capital ... is a necessity [for Cuba]," says Blanco Munoz, explaining that Cuba's presumed next leader – Castro's younger brother Raúl – may have to open up to trade with the US. "In this scenario, Raul might find that Hugo Chávez is his biggest obstacle."

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