Jorge G. Castañeda
Chávez Lives Castro's Dream
Feb. 19, 2007 issue - Fidel Castro used his reappearance on TV late last month to show that his health has finally improved. But he also carefully staged the event to send a serious message to the world. He could have had himself filmed alongside his family or his brother and successor, Raúl. Instead, he picked Hugo Chávez: a sign that Fidel possibly views the Venezuelan, and not Raúl, as his true heir.
Chávez was thrilled: he wants nothing better than to inherit Castro's radical mantle, and hopes to overshadow Raúl. Behind this dance, however, lies a more worrisome story. The alliance between Cuba and Venezuela is finally taking shape and becoming a significant force in Latin America. Taking advantage of the failure of Brazil, Mexico, Spain or the United States to show leadership in the region, the Caribbean caudillos have begun to extend their influence to Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Thanks to Chávez, Fidel is finally realizing a 40-year-old dream. Ever since the early 1960s, Cuba has sought to extend its tropical socialism throughout Latin America. Despite some near misses the model never really took hold; Cuba lacked the economic and military resources to make it happen, nor was the Soviet Union willing to provide sufficient support.
Today, however, circumstances are proving much more amenable. Thanks to Venezuelan aid Cuba has been able to dispatch medical, security and social workers throughout the region: some 20,000 to Venezuela, 3,000 to Bolivia and unknown numbers to Ecuador and Nicaragua. These missionaries may defect every now and then, but by and large, they have remained faithful to the cause. The secret behind their new efforts is Caracas. Chávez has begun using his plentiful oil, and oil money, to finance ambitious Cuban-inspired social policies in his own country and elsewhere, either by providing cheap oil (as in Bolivia and Nicaragua) or by helping ease his friends' financial burdens, as with Argentina. So far, many Latin Americans have responded hungrily to such overtures, for they desperately need the education, health care, housing, and low-cost food and clothing that Caracas and Havana are offering.
The problem is that this largesse has been accompanied by a frightening assault on democracy and a concentration of presidential power in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. The joint Castro-Chávez charm offensive will not outlive the Venezuelan oil bonanza. But while it lasts, it is damaging electoral politics throughout the region, encouraging more and more strident strains of anti-Americanism and promoting a more-confrontational approach to uncooperative leaders.
Chávez and Castro could never have made this much progress had other regional players not abandoned the field. Certain key countries could have rebutted the claims of the radical duo, highlighting how their social programs rely on reckless macroeconomic policies and involve authoritarian rule and human-rights violations. Yet, inexplicably, no one has played that role. Spain's current leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, simply lacks the commitment to Latin America that Felipe González showed in the '80s and '90s. Brazil, another good left-of-center candidate, has similarly refused, thanks to the giant's traditional aloofness and pressure from the radical wing of its president's otherwise moderate party. Despite its small size, Chile could offer its own attractive economic, political and gender record as an alternative to Cuba's or Venezuela's, but President Michele Bachelet has been reluctant to do so. As has Felipe Calderón, Mexico's new leader. Mexico could easily use its size and record to provide a counterweight to Havana and Caracas. But Calderón has been unable to pick an approach, vacillating between cuddling up to Castro and Chávez (even if this means abandoning his two predecessors' human-rights and democracy-based foreign policies) and using his considerable debating skills and economic and democratic credentials to contest the influence of Cuba and Venezuela.
The United States, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. Under the best of circumstances, Washington finds it difficult to tackle several crises simultaneously. Given the current disaster in Iraq, U.S. policymakers seem even less interested in Latin America than usual. They are postponing immigration reform and trade agreement ratifications and cutting anti-drug programs, without supporting other, more effective anti-poverty programs or dearly needed rule-of-law reforms. This indifference, however, will have a high cost. In others' absence, a frail and dying octogenarian patriarch and his exuberant and eccentric disciple—both ardent baseball fans— are stealing home without the pitcher, the catcher, the third baseman or even the umpire seeming to notice.