Héctor Tobar / Andrés D'Alessandro
Los Angeles Times
February 23, 2008
MEXICO CITY -- When Fidel Castro and his band of bearded rebels entered Havana just after New Year's Day 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, and few questioned American hegemony in Latin America.
Castro soon declared himself a communist, and nearly every government in the region joined the United States in condemning his regime. Two generations and nine U.S. presidents later, Castro is finally stepping down -- widely admired, even if his policies are not widely emulated.
Castro did not win his battle against U.S. "imperialism," a struggle that has impoverished and isolated his people. But he did stick around long enough to see Washington's grip on the region weaken.
His revolution was, in many ways, the defining event of Latin American history in the 20th century, said Lorenzo Meyer, a professor at the College of Mexico here. "There is no other leader who was able to confront the United States for half a century and survive."
For decades, Latin America was one of the front lines in the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. As Moscow's ally, Castro's Cuba stood at the opposite end from Washington in the ideological tug of war for the region.
Today, every Latin American government except Cuba's has a democratically elected head of state. Falling trade barriers allow cash and commodities to flow back and forth across the region as never before, and the dollar even circulates as the official currency in El Salvador and Ecuador.
But the United States is far from triumphant. In some places, new players have emerged to challenge its influence, including the oil-rich government of the firebrand Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Even if they do not mirror Castro's policies, many of the region's leaders feel free to look elsewhere to ensure their countries' interests, and embrace the same defiant rhetoric that marked Castro's early career. It was a rhetoric that attacked an "oligarchy" servile to foreign interests, most famously expressed in a 1953 speech Castro made while on trial for a failed uprising against the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
"We were born in a free country that our parents bequeathed to us," Castro said. "And the island will first sink into the sea before we consent to being the slaves of anyone."
The improbable triumph of Castro's rebels over Batista less than six years laterinspired a generation of young men and women to mimic his guerrilla campaign. Cuba offered funding and training for their efforts, most of which were quixotic failures.
Castro's agents funded small guerrilla bands in Argentina, Peru and other countries that were quickly crushed. His closest collaborator, the Argentine doctor Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was killed in a disastrous attempt to launch a "continental revolution" in Bolivia.
Still, Castro's survival just across the Straits of Florida changed political calculations across the region.
"For Latin America, the steps taken by the Cuban Revolution were a clear example that change was possible," said Jose Gabriel Vazeilles, a Buenos Aires historian.
The Cuban regime, while imprisoning dissidents and constructing a one-party state, also built model education and health programs.
The Kennedy administration responded with the Alliance for Progress, a mini New Deal designed to address poverty and illiteracy and promote land reform. Billions of dollars in aid poured southward.
To stop the spread of Castro's "communist menace" to other countries, the U.S. backed some of the most violent dictatorships in the region's history, including the military government responsible for 10,000 deaths in Argentina in the 1970s and '80s. The CIA orchestrated a campaign to undermine the democratically elected leftist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, a Castro ally who was overthrown in a 1973 coup.
Chile's new military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, adopted free-market polices of the "Chicago school" of economics. By the time he left power in 1990, Chile had South America's most vibrant economy.
But other countries failed badly in attempts to implement the economic and political reforms backed by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund. Argentina's economy collapse in 2001-02, and Bolivia's attempts to privatize its economy sparked popular uprisings that eventually brought to power to Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian with radical roots.
At the same time, the Soviet Union's collapse robbed Castro of money, power and influence, and in the early 1990s he had to implement modest economic reforms just to survive.
The United States unquestionably remains the most powerful force in the region, and some Latin American countries have sought to tie their economic fortunes directly to their northern neighbor. Mexico and Chile negotiated free-trade agreements with the U.S.; Panama, Colombia and other countries are seeking to do the same.
But for many others, railing against economic reforms urged by Washington, such as privatization of utilities, is simply good politics. Leaders with biographies much like the young Castro's have come to power through the democratic elections the U.S. has promoted.
Besides Venezuela, former leftist rabble-rousers are in power in Nicaragua, Brazil, Bolivia and other countries. Most of them are careful not to set themselves squarely against Washington. But with the U.S. largely preoccupied with the Middle East, they also are looking elsewhere.
Nicaragua returned the former leftist revolutionary Daniel Ortega to the presidency last year, and he now maintains good relations with the United States. But one of the first leaders to visit Ortega after he took office was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
Ahmadinejad also is a close ally of Venezuela's Chavez.
In January, the Iranians also sent a high-ranking delegation to the inauguration of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom.
"In Latin America, every country is following its own path," said Colom, an engineer elected on a platform critical of U.S.-backed economic privatization and other policies. "There are lots of different flavors to choose from now, depending on your tastes."
China is also seeking to expand its influence in the region. It has contemplated building a canal through Central America to compete with the Panama Canal.
Given his age and his country's precarious economy, Castro is no longer feared much by the region's conservatives.
Instead, in his final years, he has been embraced -- even by center-left leaders such as former President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina -- as a grandfatherly symbol of Latin American independence.
"Fidel is the only living myth in the history of humanity," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said this week. "The myth lives on."
In 2002, Castro visited Argentina, where he spoke one night to tens of thousands of people gathered outside the University of Buenos Aires law school. "Tell us about El Che!" several students yelled out, referring to Guevara. Castro, by then a frail man with a tremulous voice, obliged with 20 minutes of war stories and anecdotes about his old friend.
"There are millions of men like El Che among the masses of Latin America," Castro said, to loud cheers.
Even if that was more rhetoric than reality, critics of the Bush administration say the White House lacks an effective and unifying vision for Latin America. Elsa Falkenburger, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said U.S. policy has focused on free trade as a catchall solution to the region's problems, at the expense of social investment.
"For a number of reasons," she said, "our influence over the region is dwindling away."
Andrés D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.