For nearly 50 years, Cuban President Fidel Castro has been Latin America's best-known leftist revolutionary. Who will wear the revolutionary mantle in the post-Castro era? Many analysts believe President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela will pick up Castro's banner, but others question whether Mr. Chavez will ever attain the Cuban leader's international stature. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Until disappearing from public view in 2006, Fidel Castro lambasted the United States at every turn. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist, does the same.
"The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species," Chavez told the UN General Assembly.
Hugo Chavez viewed Fidel Castro as a mentor and friend. Campaigning for re-election last year, he dedicated his victory to the man he called "the bearded one."
Cuba expert Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy says, "Fidel Castro is seen as the revolutionary leader, the historical figure opposed to the United States. It is that which gave Castro his position, his standing, his stature in Latin America. Hugo Chavez, clearly, wants to receive that mantle, wants to receive that heritage."
Can he succeed? Mr. Chavez is already emulating the Cuban leader's style of governance, according to Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy analysis group.
"I think his commitment to democracy -- in terms of rule of law, checks and balances, constraints on his power -- I think [is] not too far away from Fidel Castro's. [Mr. Chavez] has a tremendous desire to consolidate and concentrate power in his own hands, to make all decisions. Just as Fidel Castro made all decisions in running Cuba, he wants to make all decisions in running Venezuela."
But can Mr. Chavez capture Fidel Castro's larger-than-life stature?
"Fidel Castro fought the revolution, fought against the Batista government. He had his troops, he went to the mountains,” explains Shifter. “This is somebody who is seen as having made a sacrifice, having fought on the basis of ideas and convictions. Hugo Chavez is somebody seen as being lucky for presiding over a situation of high oil prices and using that as a political instrument."
In the 1960s and '70s, Fidel Castro tried to export communism across Latin America. In recent years, President Chavez has used his country's vast oil wealth to forge new economic and political ties in the region. Analyst Wayne Smith says Mr. Chavez' international overtures appear to be meeting less resistance than did Fidel Castro's.
"Castro, for all practical purposes, most of the time, was alone. There was no one else [championing socialism in Latin America]. Now, Hugo Chavez has all sorts of leftist friends in Latin America to hold hands with," Smith says.
Chavez allies include Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. However, Mr. Chavez' tendency to declare his favorites in other countries' presidential races has led to friction with Peru, and elsewhere in Latin America.
Friction could also be on the horizon between Caracas and Havana, according to analyst Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute.
"Raul Castro, it is rumored, is not that fond of Hugo Chavez, and will be very careful not to come under his thumb. He has been under the thumb of his own brother for more than 40 years. He certainly is not going to want to be under the thumb of a new upstart trying to model himself on his brother. So there are inevitably going to be some tensions between Cuba and Venezuela."
In an era of growing global energy consumption, analyst Vazquez says, Venezuela's vast oil wealth automatically makes it a player on the world stage, in a way that Cuba never was under Fidel Castro. But, he adds, the Venezuelan model, relying heavily on petrodollars to satisfy people's needs, is one that few other nations can follow.