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The Two Paths of Castro's Legacy in Latin America
More Leaders Inspired To Adapt Revolution Than Embrace It

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Feb. 19 -- Fidel Castro sparked revolution and inspired guerrilla leaders and progressive politicians in Latin America who came of age watching him defy the United States, champion socialism and oppose a string of military dictatorships.

They included such disparate figures as Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan who helped topple a strongman; Venezuela's bombastic president, Hugo Chávez, who controls the hemisphere's richest oil reserves; and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a lathe operator and union leader who was imprisoned by a military junta and later became president of Brazil.

But while Castro may have inspired budding leaders, many of the leftist movements that rule the region's most important countries are far from revolutionary and more pragmatic than their model. They are intent on reducing poverty and income inequality but are inclined to do so through trade, good governance and solid ties with Washington, if not a formal embrace of U.S. policies.

"In 50 years he tried to export his revolution," said Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico who has written frequently about the Latin American left, referring to the ailing Cuban leader. "And today, now that the left governs many countries, none follow his example, except the leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia. The left that works, and with lots of success, is social-democratic, globalized and pro-market."

Venezuela leads a second group of countries that revere Castro, oppose U.S. policies -- sometimes stridently and provocatively -- and adopt economic policies that mix state control with a heavy dose of nationalism. Among the countries that have allied themselves with Chávez are two of the poorest: Bolivia, whose president, Evo Morales, is an indigenous peasant leader, and Nicaragua, where Ortega, a longtime nemesis of U.S. administrations, returned to power in 2006 after a 16-year absence.

"There are two major lines," said Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla in Venezuela who later broke with Castro and is among Chávez's most determined critics. "There's a left that's democratic and modern in its economic concept. And then there's a left that is lost in history, a left that's rooted in the anachronism of Marxist-Leninism of the past," said Petkoff, now a newspaper editor and author of a recent book, "The Two Lefts."

Petkoff expressed particular concern about Chávez, saying his government had become highly personalized and cultlike, with the president making practically all key decisions and controlling everything from the courts to the Congress.

Since Chávez won the presidency in 1999, leftist movements have swept to power from Argentina to Central America as market reforms failed to deliver long-promised prosperity and instead generated widespread discontent.

In Uruguay, a physician allied with former guerrillas took office in 2005 and ended the rule of two parties that had shared power since the 1800s. Neighboring Argentina has seen two Kirchners -- Néstor, and now his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner -- veer that country away from the so-called Washington Consensus, a set of economic prescriptions touted by the United States and international financial institutions. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, whose father died while imprisoned under the government of strongman Augusto Pinochet, was elected president in 2005. Other leftist leaders have been elected in Ecuador and Guatemala, while leftist movements have surged in countries such as Paraguay and Colombia.

Many of these leaders cut their teeth fighting military juntas stridently opposed to communism and viewed the loquacious, bearded revolutionary in Havana as a beacon. His boldness in the face of 10 U.S. administrations bent on ousting him, coupled with policies that ended illiteracy and brought health care to Cubans, won him admirers throughout Latin America.

"There are few, if any, leaders on the left who do not claim that they were inspired by Fidel," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian who heads the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami and has studied leftist movements closely. "After Fidel is long gone, many -- but especially Hugo and Evo -- will continue to refer to him as their ideological mentor."

Today, most leaders in the region have put their countries on a path in which dogmatic socialism has been replaced with more practical policies balancing attention to social needs with sound economic policies that have Wall Street's approval. Not all leftists agree with the new direction. But few see Castro as a model to emulate.

"The leftist parties in Latin America had changed their initiatives long before Fidel got sick and stepped down," said Roy Cortina, a congressman from Argentina's Socialist Party. "The political projects that are in development in Latin America right now obviously respect all that has happened in Cuba, but they are pursuing their own objectives."

On Tuesday, Lula, the Brazilian president, called Castro "the only living myth in the history of humanity," adding, "I think that he built that with a lot of competition, a lot of character, a lot of willpower and also a lot of dissent."

The admiring words were characteristic of Lula, who recently visited Castro in Havana but has also built a solid relationship with Cuba's nemesis, the United States. Demetrio Boersner, a left-leaning historian and former diplomat in Venezuela, describes Lula's government as part of a social democratic-style left that would like to see the capitalist system evolve to benefit the poor but observing accepted rules of the game that ensure Brazil remains competitive and in the good graces of international investors.

"They are gradualists, evolutionary social democrats, and I think they are perfectly clear in regard to the need to keep the market economy in existence," Boersner said. "They don't believe in state control or state ownership of everything, but in a mixed economy where market forces provide the main drive for economic production and growth."

In both substance and tone, Venezuela has taken an entirely different path under Chávez, a former army lieutenant colonel whose first attempt to gain power was in a 1992 coup. As president, he has nationalized the oil sector, instituted price controls that have caused food shortages, and proposed a military alliance with Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador to counter the influence of the United States.

Chávez, who frequently hails Castro as one of the world's greatest leaders, has also reproduced many of the slogans and programs that have marked Castro's rule in Cuba. Some policies, such as providing direct medical care in poor neighborhoods, have won praise from Venezuelans. Others, such as the creation of citizen militias to defend Venezuela from the U.S. invasion Chávez warns about constantly, have generated sharp domestic criticism. Often, Chávez's dire warnings about U.S. designs on his country stir memories of Castro's long and divisive relationship with Washington.

"Chávez really regrets that the Cold War is over, and he speaks the language of the Soviet Union of the past and of Cuba, of Fidel Castro," said Boersner, the Venezuelan historian. "It sometimes seems he would love to be back in the old times with the Soviet Union on his side and the world divided among two camps."

Special correspondent Brian Byrnes in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

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