Tue, Aug 08, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Chavez the natural heir to Castro

IDEOLOGICAL COMRADES Venezuela's president looks ready to take on Fidel Castro's mantle as the champion of Latin America, and could even surpass his `master'

DPA , BUENOS AIRES

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, offers a sword similar to the one used by Venezuela's hero Simon Bolivar to legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap at his home in Hanoi last Tuesday.

PHOTO: EPA

Cuban President Fidel Castro turns 80 on Sunday. He has for decades been a natural leader in Latin America, with charisma that more than made up for Cuba's limited resources and gave the small country an oversized position in the continent's politics.

Today, as Castro grows inevitably older and the first clear signs appear of deterioration in his health, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is at his side, ready to take on the mantle as champion of Latin America's identity.

"I listen to you like to a pupil," Fidel Castro told the Venezuelan president only last month, at a regional summit meeting in Argentina.

The leaders were inseparable in Cordoba, one of the last public appearances of the Cuban president before handing power to his brother Raul on July 31 due to illness.

Chavez and Castro, wearing suits, spoke at the summit of the Mercosur trade alliance, which Venezuela recently joined. Then they shed their dress clothes for an alternative People's summit, giving their anti-imperialist rhetoric free rein in front of a cheering crowd of 50,000. Castro, who spoke for three hours, wore his trademark military fatigues. Chavez donned a red scarf.

The next day, the ideological comrades visited Alta Gracia, paying tribute to Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara who was born in Argentina, stopping at his childhood home and talking to some of his childhood friends.

At age 52, Chavez is keen to show that he has the nod from the continent's most significant living historical figure, a feather in the cap of a leader who already casts a large shadow through Venezuela's huge oil reserves.

After the Cuban revolution ended in 1959, and with Soviet backing, Castro transformed the small, poor Caribbean island into a communist country of crucial symbolic significance only 150km off shore of the world's largest declared foe of communism, the US.

Castro's regime, for decades the symbolic Cold War launching pad for hypothetical foreign attacks on the US, may now have been reduced to little more than a pebble in Washington's shoe since the end of the Cold War in 1990.

But Castro still commands high political clout in a Latin America whose economy suffered greatly in the 1990s under governments that enjoyed US approval. Castro is a presence at most important Latin American gatherings, and leaders like Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pay homage with visits to him.

Even Colombia's right-wing President Alvaro Uribe claims that Castro is the head of state he can reach fastest on the phone, and the Cuban leader has played an important part in peace negotiations with Colombia's left-wing guerrillas.

Relations between Cuba and its traditional ally Mexico -- the country where an exiled Castro prepared his definitive 1956 assault -- have deteriorated in recent years. But Cuba remains a "must" destination for Mexico's left-wing politicians.

Thus it is hardly surprising that Chavez likes to be seen with Castro. He has a similarly fiery anti-US rhetoric and his left-wing, authoritarian ways are criticized from Washington in much the same way that the Cuban regime is vilified.

Many analysts say Venezuela is stepping in to replace the lost Soviet backing. Castro's regime receives up to 90,000 barrels of crude oil daily from Caracas, and pays below-market prices in kind by sending its highly trained health, education and security professionals to Venezuela.

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