BY FRANCES ROBLES | MiamiHerald.com
Where did new Haitian President René Préval 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 decades.
And as long as his friend Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is flush with cash and oil, the two-man leftist team is bound to gain legitimacy and recognition in a region where many complain that they have long been ignored by the United States, experts add.
‘‘I think 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 Chávez.’‘
TIDES OF POPULARITY
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 resurgence.
‘‘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 isolated.’‘
COLLAPSE OF SOVIET AID
During the Cold War, Cuba’s economy and revolution were pumped 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 policies.
But those policies failed to enrich Latin American masses, 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 critical elections coming this year in Nicaragua, Mexico and Peru, Castro’s standing in Latin America hangs in the balance.
Bolivia’s Morales has joined Chávez and Castro in what they dubbed ‘‘an axis of good.’’ Fueled with Venezuelan oil profits, Chávez has embarked on Cuba-style social programs he learned from his elder mentor to benefit Bolivia’s disenfranchised poor.
Experts say that while Castro is viewed as Chávez’s mentor, in some respects he has taken a back seat to his oil-rich protégé. But Chávez is quite willing to share the limelight with the grandfather of Latin American 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 Préval, Panama’s President Martín 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.’‘
`THEY DON’T LIKE US’
But Smith added that Castro’s good standing has more to do with a growing disdain for the United States. A Latinobarómetro poll last year showed that while President 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 Chávez 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 also have been keeping up friendly relationships with the United States.
Brazil’s Luiz Inácio 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 Havana.
Caribbean countries have always maintained good relations with Cuba, relations that have grown only 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.
FILLING THE U.S. VOID
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 said. ``The United States left a void—and it is being filled.’’