Hugo Chavez as "Lineup Replacement" for the Left

Jay Moore research at
Sat Nov 20 20:55:03 MST 1999

Chavez: Now batting for Fidel?
2.13 p.m. ET (1924 GMT) November 20, 1999
By John Rice, Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) - Fidel Castro has a new best friend in Latin America.

Laughing, backslapping and trading curveballs with Castro's baseball team,
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a lefty to be sure, shares the wit, wind
and populism of the Cuban leader. And he promises that the two countries are
now marching together toward a "sea of happiness.''

So far, however, the idea of Chavez has been easier for the United States to
swallow, a Castro without calories, with no anti-American rhetoric, no
expropriations of private property and no squelching of domestic dissent.

Many have seen Chavez as a sort of Castro for the future: a lineup
replacement for the left in Latin America - much as wily manager Castro
gradually slipped young stars into the old-timers baseball game against
Chavez's Venezuelans on Thursday.

The two leaders, both pretty fair baseball players in their youth, are
strikingly similar in style.

Chavez's speeches can ramble for hours - though he avoids Castro's practice
of drowning listeners with enough statistics to fill an almanac. Like
Castro, Chavez mixes humor with bitter references to the "false democracy''
and corruption that reigned in his country prior to his arrival.

Chavez also calls himself a revolutionary and says he is dedicated to
"structural changes.''

Some suspect he plans a Castro-like stay in power. "This is a long
process,'' he said Thursday in Havana. "We see ourselves giving our life to
this project, all our life.''

But so far there's little evidence that Chavez's "sea of happiness'' looks
much like Fidel's.

"Chavez is a social reformer. His objectives are social justice, a more
equal distribution of income, a better shake for the downtrodden,'' said
Wayne Smith, a Cuba specialist who is senior fellow at the Center for
International Policy in Washington, D.C.

Even so, "I don't see any indication Chavez is going to follow the path that
Cuba did in terms of massive nationalizations,'' Smith said. "They may have
very similar goals ... but different ways of achieving it.''

Chavez convened a constitutional convention that is remaking Venezuela's
courts, legislature and government. It has called for state control of oil
and social security - but so far it has stopped far short of Cuba's path of
nationalizing businesses and expropriating foreign property.

The leaders' obvious compatibility may stem partly from a mutual impatience
with partisan democracy, a common charisma and a shared sense of humor.

They are so comfortable with one another they can exchange good-natured
jibes that have their audience roaring with laughter. And no U.S. politician
can outdo Chavez in telling a joke.

But their outlooks may be affected by very different paths to power.

Castro's campaign for Cuba's congress in 1952 was foiled by Fulgencio
Batista's coup d'etat. He came to power in 1959 as a guerrilla fighting the
established army.

Chavez was an ambitious mainstream army officer who failed in a coup attempt
before he won a peaceful election as president in 1998.

They share the dream of Latin American unity proposed by South American
liberator Simon Bolivar. Chavez scampered about Havana the past week
unveiling new monuments to Bolivar and he wants his country to change its
name, becoming the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Castro grew up in a Cuba that was almost a U.S. colony, and he developed a
profound distrust of the United States that has permeated his politics.

That prickly nationalism is one reason Chavez calls Cuba "an example of
pride and courage'' for Latin America.

Chavez visited Cuba in 1994, shortly after being released from prison for
his coup attempt. Castro's warm welcome shocked some at the time, but now
seems remarkably foresighted.

Oil-producing Venezuela could be useful to energy-starved Cuba. Under
Chavez, Venezuela plans to renovate a major Cuban oil refinery and it has
suggested restoring subsidized oil shipments to Cuba under a treaty with
Mexico. So far, Mexico has blocked that idea because of Cuba's outstanding

Chavez says he "laughs at that propaganda'' comparing him to "the son of
Fidel.'' But he welcomes Castro's friendship.

Speaking alongside Castro on Friday in Havana, Chavez said rivals had tried
to use the 1994 meeting with Castro to discredit him, circulating photos of
the two embracing.

"'Chavez is finished,' they said. 'Fidel killed him in Havana with his
embrace,''' Chavez recalled. "Here we are, more alive than ever, more united
than ever.''

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