Castro, Cuba enjoying newfound popularity


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Castro, Cuba enjoying newfound popularity
June 8, 2006

Bolivian President Evo Morales autographs a 
portrait of Cuban President Fidel Castro for a 
group of Cuban doctors in May. Castro has been 
increasingly popular in anti-American countries 
like Bolivia. (AIZAR RALDES/Getty Images-Agence 

MIAMI -- Where did new Haitian President Rene 
Preval go on his first trip abroad?


With whom did Bolivian President Evo Morales meet 
the day before he nationalized his country's 
natural-gas industry?

Cuban President Fidel Castro.

And which country did a high-level St. Vincent 
official recently describe as a "stabilizing 
force" in the region?


As Latin America elects more and more presidents 
who lean to the left and the Bush 
administration's standing in the region slumps, 
experts say Castro is enjoying his warmest 
relations with his hemispheric neighbors in 

And as long as his friend Venezuelan President 
Hugo Chavez is flush with cash and oil, the 
two-man leftist team is bound to gain legitimacy 
and recognition in a region where many complain 
they have long been ignored by the United States, 
experts add.

"We are seeing a revival of Fidel Castro, a 
resurgence of his presence and persona," said 
business consultant Manuel Rocha, the former U.S. 
ambassador to Bolivia. "There's been a 
reinvigoration of the Cuban revolution, and all 
of it because of one person -- Hugo Chavez."

Cuba watchers largely agree that Castro's 
standing in the region has not been this good 
since at least the dissolution of the Soviet 
Union in 1991. Others point out that a leader in 
power as long as Castro -- 47 years -- is bound 
to experience booms and busts along the way.

The Cuban leader had one of those booms in the 
late 1970s, when Marxist-led Sandinista 
guerrillas seized control of Nicaragua, the 
leftist New Jewel Movement ruled Grenada and 
Castro hosted dozens of heads of government for a 
summit of the then-powerful Non-Aligned Movement.

He lost some ground in the 1980s and especially 
in the 1990s, but as a leader who has stuck 
around to outlast nine U.S. presidents, Castro 
now has been around long enough to see a leftist 

"I wouldn't say he's enjoying more support; I'd 
say he's feeling better than ever, because things 
are going his way in Latin America when they 
hadn't for years," said Susan K. Purcell of the 
Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University 
of Miami. "His support is certainly higher than 
it was a decade ago. He's certainly less 

During the Cold War, Cuba's economy and 
revolution were pumped up with billions in aid 
from the Soviet Union. That aid collapsed at a 
time Cuba was cut off from much of Latin America, 
which was then generally following U.S. economic 

But those policies failed to enrich Latin 
Americans in general, and now voters in 
Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and Chile 
have turned toward leftist leaders who are far 
more likely to maintain friendly relations with 
Castro. With three crucial elections coming this 
year in Nicaragua, Mexico and Peru, Castro's 
standing in Latin America hangs in the balance.


Bolivia's Morales has joined Chavez and Castro in 
what they dubbed "an axis of good." Fueled with 
Venezuelan oil profits, Chavez has embarked on 
Cuba-style social programs he learned from his 
elder mentor to benefit Bolivia's disenfranchised 

Experts say that while Castro is viewed as 
Chavez's mentor, in some respects he has taken a 
backseat to his oil-rich protege. But Chavez is 
quite willing to share the limelight with the 
grandfather of Latin U.S. leftist politics, and 
Castro, experts say, is just as willing to ride 
the coattails.

In exchange, Castro has gained recognition in the 
international community, particularly during key 
votes in international bodies. Last month, Cuba 
was elected to a United Nations human rights 
council with 135 votes. Castro needed only 96.

"It shows he can work other countries' foreign 
ministries and he can get a certain limited 
support for whatever he wants," said a U.S. State 
Department official, who spoke on the condition 
of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak 
publicly. "I wouldn't say it shows greater 
influence in the region."

In addition to the state visit by Haiti's Preval, 
Panama's President Martin Torrijos visited Cuba 
this year and stopped by to visit Panamanians 
getting eye surgery in Cuba. At the Caribbean 
Community summit in Barbados late last year, 
Castro was received warmly.

"He's enjoying more support than ever before, 
more than he's ever enjoyed in the 47 years he's 
been in power," said Wayne Smith, a former head 
of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana and now 
a frequent visitor to Cuba. "This is relatively 
new. He has been invigorated."

Looking good in comparison

But Smith added that Castro's good standing has 
more to do with a growing disdain for the United 
States. A Latinobarometro poll last year showed 
that while President George W. Bush is favored 
over Castro in Central America, in South America, 
Castro's approval rating was 4.8 out of 10, and 
Bush's was 4.1.

"It's not so much that they like him, but they don't like us," Smith said.

While Castro and Chavez are clearly forging 
forward in places like Bolivia, their position is 
less clear in places like Argentina, Chile and 
Brazil. Those countries all have elected leftist 
heads of state, but they are moderates who have 
friendly relationships with the United States.

Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva did not become 
the leftist firebrand and Castro cohort as feared 
when first elected, experts point out. But even 
Colombia, which recently elected conservative 
Alvaro Uribe to an unprecedented second term as 
president, has cordial relations with Cuba. Peace 
talks with one of Colombia's leftist rebel 
groups, the National Liberation Army, are in 

Caribbean countries have always maintained good 
relations with Cuba, relations that have grown 
deeper with the brigades of Cuban doctors who 
work in neighboring nations and the scores of 
low-income Caribbean students who attend medical 
school in Havana.

That goodwill extends beyond Latin America, as 
Cuba befriends countries around the world with 
its medical missions. Cuba's foreign minister 
recently announced that about 60 nations would 
participate in the next summit of the Non-Aligned 
Movement, to be held in Havana in September. The 
president of Iran is also expected to visit.

"All this gives him legitimacy and recognition 
and strengthens his hand in negotiating things 
with the United States," former Ambassador Rocha 

Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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