Chávez set to take Castro's mantle
Venezuela's fiery president gears up to become Latin America's next leftist icon.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."