Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chavez and Castro: the friendship that may help Cuba's revolutionary legacy live on

China Post, Taiwan


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP)

One is an icon of the Cold War who has defied the United States for nearly half a century. The other is a charismatic ex-military man who is Washington's new nemesis and promises a revolution for the poor bankrolled by petrodollars.

Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have markedly different styles but are as close as any two world leaders today, and their friendship ensures Cuba critical economic support through a bonanza of Venezuelan oil and credit.

Their alliance promises to outlast the 80-year-old Cuban leader, whose bedside Chavez began frequenting last month as soon as Castro was well enough following intestinal surgery.

Venezuela's evolving brand of socialism under Chavez remains a far cry from Castro's Cuba, but some who know the 52-year-old Venezuelan predict he will firmly promote Castro's revolutionary legacy in the future _ on the island and off.

"He would be willing to provide all the economic support that's necessary to avoid an opening in Cuba, to avoid the U.S. having an influence in Cuba," said Cristina Marcano, co-author of a critical biography of Chavez. "He's raised the flag of anti-imperialism, and I think that is a battle he'd like to fight."

Castro and Chavez are just as united by their crusade against U.S. dominance of Latin America as they are convinced that unbridled capitalism is driving the world to ruin. And a personal connection feeds their ideological closeness.

At Castro's bedside in Cuba recently, Chavez lovingly grasped the hand of the man he sees as a mentor and a father, and with whom he has spent many nights talking into the wee hours.

"He's like the father of all the revolutionaries of our America. He's the lighthouse that lights the paths," Chavez said in one of his marathon speeches that, like Castro's, often run for hours.

Chavez is returning to Cuba this week to attend the Nonaligned Summit hosted by the Cuban government.

Castro has designated his younger brother Raul as his eventual successor, but in many ways Chavez has already assumed Castro's role as Latin America's biggest challenge to the U.S. government.

On the economic front, Cuba's trade with Venezuela is booming. Venezuela has helped Cuba defy the U.S. trade embargo, partly supplanting Soviet subsidies that dried up in the early 1990s.

Venezuela predicts trade with Cuba will reach US$1.8 billion (�1.4 billion) this year, including shipments of some 98,000 barrels of oil a day sold under preferential terms including deferred payment.

Meanwhile, thousands of Cuban doctors are treating poor Venezuelans for free, and Venezuela has pledged credit for projects in Cuba including electricity upgrades.

"Chavez is a major factor in what's going to happen in Cuba from now on," said Larry Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based group. "He essentially has rendered Castro and Castroism immune to any kind of U.S. action unless the U.S. is prepared to threaten its oil supply and begin a diplomatic conflagration in the Caribbean."

Chavez also says Venezuelan troops would help defend Cuba against any U.S. invasion.

Cuba's parliament speaker, Ricardo Alarcon, has said the island symbolically has two presidents: Castro and Chavez. But whatever role Chavez may play in the future will depend on his relations with Raul Castro or other successors.

Chavez refers to Fidel Castro nowadays in most every televised speech, often interjecting with a smile in accented English: "How are you, Fidel?"

He has followed Castro's health closely since Cuba announced July 31 that Fidel was temporarily ceding power to his brother because of surgery.

Chavez increasingly adopts ideas and phrases coined by Castro, including his common exclamation "Fatherland or death!" But Chavez, unlike the more agnostic Castro, often breaks into song during speeches and expounds on links between Jesus Christ and socialism.

There are also less subtle differences.

Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution _ named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar _ differs markedly from the brand of communism Castro installed after the revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

While Cuba maintains its single-party political system, Chavez _ first elected in 1998 _ is running for re-election in a multiparty system.

And while Chavez opponents accuse him of being an autocrat, much of Venezuela's news media remain virulently anti-Chavez and private businesses continue to be a major, driving force in the economy despite an increasing state role.

Chavez says the "21st century socialism" he's building will not fit a Cuban blueprint.

He also says Castro assures him Cuba's socialist system will live on, and Chavez promises Venezuelan help: "We are brothers of the same historic birth, and we're going in the same direction."

On a Sept. 1 visit to Cuba, Chavez told Castro he had prayed for him days earlier on a sacred mountain in China: "We all need you, to continue pushing up the sun."

With a TV camera rolling, Chavez invoked the Cuban leader's traditional call-to-arms: "Hasta la victoria siempre! Venceremos!" _ "Toward victory always! We will prevail!"

Castro, visibly moved, repeated the words with gusto.

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