Hugo Chavez: the Next Castro?

By Ibsen Martínez
Sunday, August 6, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela

The democratic opposition in Cuba and abroad looks to the island's new day, without Fidel Castro at the helm, as a moment of transition. But Castro and his regime's apparatchiks refer instead to a "succession," as though living in a monarchy. Nearly 200 years after Latin American nations began winning independence from imperial Spain, and on a continent that has produced so many wondrous novels about deteriorating despots succumbing to the perils of absolute power, it seems we still can't let go of our kings.

The only problem with succession planning, of course, is that dead dictators can rarely stick around to supervise their elaborate designs. Today, things in Havana seem to be developing much as the ailing Castro desires, with younger brother Raúl assuming control. Nevertheless, the Shakespearean logic of royal successions suggests that more than one duke of Gloucester will try to crown himself Richard III. The extraordinary difference in this case is that not all the dukes vying to succeed Castro can be found in Cuba. To the south, across the Caribbean, another duke has emerged: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Indeed, Chávez is the piper leading the most strident anti-Americanism to parade through Latin America since the Bay of Pigs invasion, and his ascent has done much to shape the popular belief that radical left-wing governments modeled after his own will soon dominate the region. But does Chávez really have what it takes to assume Castro's place as the leader of Latin American anti-imperialism? Will he become a permanent pebble in Washington's shoe, as persistent and vexing as Castro, for decades to come?

Certainly, Chávez seems to believe so. However, he is missing much more than the charisma of the receding Cuban leader. He lacks the essential ingredient to take Fidel's place: legitimacy. Castro, for all his faults, earned his anti-American and anti-imperialist stripes. Chávez, awash in petrodollars, is too embedded in the very global system he purports to reject.

Castro sets a high bar for any regional successor, all the more evident now at the moment of his political death.

Consider his superlative permanence in power: 47 years. That is 17 more years than Mexico's Porfirio Díaz, 12 more than Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner and 11 more than Spain's Francisco Franco. Even North Korea's Kim Il Sung -- the gold standard of aged despots -- totaled only 46 years in power. To match Castro, Chávez would have to remain in office, without interruption, until 2045, past his 90th birthday.

Such prolonged rule is possible only in a totalitarian dictatorship that leaves no space for dissent. In Castro's case, the Cold War helped him win absolute control over Cuban society. With a powerful and ever-present enemy so close, Castro could always manipulate the fear of an imminent invasion to militarize Cuban life. Any opposition was more than political -- it was treasonous. Castro thus governed unencumbered by domestic adversaries.

Chávez, by contrast, lives in a post-Cold War world, his conspiracy theories about the CIA notwithstanding. And in an era of democratic consolidation in Latin America, he has much less room to suppress the opposition at home, no matter how hard he may try.

Despite Castro's unquestioned power base, however, his capacity to disrupt his Latin neighbors, or even to predispose them against los Yanquis , has long been overestimated by his sympathizers, including Chávez. Castro's anti-American credentials date to the 1960s, when the Cuban revolution, still imbued with childlike optimism, openly backed leftist guerrilla movements emerging throughout the continent. But one by one, they failed. Indeed, the dictator's supporting role in the Soviet Union's military adventures in Africa during the 1980s came about only after his efforts to spark uprisings closer to home faltered -- a sort of revolutionary diversification strategy. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, "exporting the revolution" ceased to be a priority for Castro long ago. After the Soviet collapse, survival became more important.

His regional appeal lingered, but in a half-hearted, nostalgic kind of way. Since the late 1980s, Castro has always been the star attraction at the inaugurations of democratically elected presidents throughout Latin America. His presence was a cheap and harmless way for other Latin American leaders to display a modicum of independence from the United States. Yet, as soon as the crazy uncle boarded his flight back to Havana, his erstwhile hosts quickly adopted the pro-market economic policies pushed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund. Castro -- whether wiser or simply older, or both -- looked the other way.

Chávez seems not to understand this hypocritical undertone to our region's anti-Americanism. Recall the Summit of the Americas last November in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he proclaimed the death of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a long moribund initiative begun by President George H.W. Bush. Though Chávez garnered great press -- not to mention fun photo ops with Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona -- many of the Latin American governments that he aspires to lead on his anti-imperialist crusade preferred to keep quietly negotiating trade preferences with the United States.

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