Llorente Muñoz has a photograph of her sons tucked into the corner of her bathroom mirror. Arnaldo, 7, and Enrique, 13, are back in Cuba while she is at this small Caracas clinic taking care, as she puts it, "of my other children" - Venezuela's poor.
Ms. Muñoz, a medic, is one of 20,650 Cuban healthcare workers and 8,600 "sports instructors" who have fanned out across Venezuela in the past two years, offering free checkups, medicines, and stretching classes. President Hugo Chávez, as leader of the world's fifth-largest oil supplier, is footing the bill, sending up to 90,000 barrels a day to Fidel Castro's communist island.
For critics, the relationship is a troubling sign of where Mr. Chávez wants to take his country - and even the region. Unlike Castro, who lacked the funds and support from Latin America's previous right-wing leaders to spread his socialist revolution across the Spanish-speaking world, Chávez is flush with oil money. He is also finding receptivity thanks to a wave of left-of-center presidents who have come to power in recent years. The combination gives the US its first real challenge in the region in decades.
"Chávez sees Castro as a father figure," says Otto Reich, former undersecretary of State for Latin America in the Bush administration, "an anti-American precursor whose footsteps he can follow, and whose built-in network of supporters around the hemisphere he can take over when Castro passes on." Reich calls the Castro-Chávez relationship an "axis of subversion."
Name calling is nothing new to this story. The Venezuelan leader has called President Bush a "jerk," the US government a "mafia of assassins," and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice an "illiterate." Just this week, Cuba and Venezuela have lambasted the US for not immediately turning over Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted on suspicion of blowing up a Cuban airliner in Venezuela in 1976, killing 73 people. They accuse the US of "harboring terrorists."
"The US is a very ideologically oriented administration and has a lot of animosity toward us," says Andrés Izarra, Venezuela's minister of information. "But we can ally ourselves with whomever we want." Since the so-called misión barrio adentro, or mission inside the neighborhood, was started in 2003, some 60 percent of the population have received healthcare at one of the 300 clinics, and 2,575 lives have been saved, says Mr. Izarra. "What is the cost of 2,575 lives saved?" he asks. "Cuba is our ally in the war against poverty and illiteracy. We are thankful to them, and we can show it in any way we please."
They are showing it to the tune of more than $1 billion in annual oil shipments alone, says economist Carlos Granier of Cedice, a think tank based here. Chávez further bolsters the Cuban economy by purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products from Cuba's state-run industries and providing financing to purchase everything from Venezuelan chocolate to sardines to work boots. Hundreds more clinics are set to open in the coming months, while more than 1,000 Venezuelans will be sent to Cuba to study healthcare there.
Opposition figures, meanwhile, like Tulio Álvarez, who was recently sentenced to two years in jail for defamation against a government official, wonder if all these Cuban workers, spread as they are in every neighborhood, are not there to keep tabs on the population.
"The opposition is lost, and they need some way to put down such a successful program, so they say it's ideological," responds Izarra.
It's not hard for Chávez to shrug off criticism these days. Thanks to his 13 "missions" - including ones for literacy, subsidizing food, and issuing identity cards - he is currently enjoying a 70 percent approval rating, according to a Datanalisis poll published earlier this month. It's his highest number in five years. And while 7 of 10 respondents to the poll said they did not want Venezuela to fully imitate the Cuban-style communist system, the percentage was higher than in similar polls taken five years ago.
Jorge Dominguez, professor of International Affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says the most troubling thing about Chávez is his "authoritarian disposition," his "hoarding power," and his "gradual but sure curtailing of political freedom and freedom of expression," referring to his packing of Venezuela's Supreme Court with loyalists and strict new media laws.
This, says Dominguez, combined with Chávez's support of anti-American leftist groups elsewhere on the continent, like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and possibly also revolutionaries in Bolivia and Nicaragua, is reason for alert. Chávez has repeatedly denied that he is funding these groups.
It is clear, though, that the Venezuelan leader, first elected in 1998 and winner of a referendum on his presidency last August, has a more receptive audience in the neighborhood. Since 2001, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay have joined Peru and Chile with left-of-center presidents. While most of them are still wary of Castro, Chávez is increasingly embraced. He has a "preferential treatment" agreement to subsidize oil to Central American and Caribbean countries and is launching a regional television network. And just last month a Washington-backed candidate was defeated in favor of a pro-Chávez one for head of the Organization of American States, largely seen as a rebuff of US influence in the region.
"The people of Latin America support him," Evo Morales, the Bolivian coca farmer who has been leading massive antigovernment protests in Bolivia this week, said at a rally. "That is the new reality."
Outside the clinic where medic Muñoz works, Maria Sanchez and Isabel Olivero are taking a calisthenics class with José, a heavyset Cuban gym coach who over the past six months seems to have put the entire neighborhood on an exercise regime. He will not give his last name, he explains, because the sports committee has not told him he could. The ladies put their hands in the air and wiggle their fingers, then squat down and walk around like ducks.
"Oh dear, so exhausting," gasps Sanchez, readjusting her hairs pins. "These Cubans are showing us how to live correctly - but it takes practice."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.
• Born on July 28, 1954
• Graduated in 1975 from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences with a master's in military sciences and engineering.
• Was a lieutenant-colonel in Venezuelan military.
• Led an unsuccessful coup on Feb. 4, 1992
• Elected president Dec. 6, 1998
• On April 12, 2002, was ousted in a coup but returned to power two days later.
• On August 15, 2004, survived a referendum on his rule, with nearly 60 percent of voters against a recall.
• Has four children and is currently separated from his second wife.