By Isaac Risco*
HAVANA TIMES — With the death of Hugo Chavez, Cuba also lost the longed for great political leader after the slow public demise of Fidel Castro.
An admirer and close friend of the Cuban revolutionary, the Venezuelan president was the person who best embodied the ideas of Castro in recent decades throughout Latin America.
Chavez took on the responsibility not only helping the economically troubled Cuba with oil, but to also breathe fresh air into Fidel’s political ideas.
If Castro was for Chavez the great role model to follow, Chavez was for Castro his ideal heir at the forums throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
“For my brother Chavez, that Olympic champion of new socialist ideas,” wrote the former Cuban president to the Venezuelan in the dedication of a book given to him in 2006 in Havana. “Fidel has always been a Quixote (…), but a victorious and invincible Quixote,” said Chavez in turn concerning his “friend” and “mentor.”
They met over 18 years ago, in 1994, after Chavez left prison for his failed coup two years earlier. He traveled directly to Havana to seek advice for his political future. What he also had planned was to request an interview to get to know his idol. However Castro, witnesses recall, showed up by surprise at the airport to receive the then unknown Venezuelan soldier.
With his fine nose for politics, the Cuban revolutionary had recognized the future leader of the masses early on. “I waited for Chavez at the airport. I drove him to the place where he would stay and I talked with him for hours, exchanging ideas,” recalled Castro himself a few days ago in a letter about the Venezuelan president.
Not only did the ideas of the left unite the two, but also their particular style of political engagement. Castro as well as Chavez each constructed a governmental apparatus modeled around their persona, and both were accomplished mass idols who enthralled their audiences from the podium.
Bright, sharp and charismatic, Fidel Castro. Forceful and direct and brash Hugo Chavez. From his mentor, the Venezuelan inherited terms like “the empire” to beat back the US, and he also frequently referred to Castro as he flew the flag of Latin American emancipation.
If Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar was the historical figure who represented Chavez’s quintessential socialist mission, Fidel Castro was possibly the living political leader who he most praised in his speeches.
“Chavez’s name is known and respected throughout the world,” wrote Castro in his last letter to Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro. These words could also serve well in describing the role that former Cuban president himself liked to see himself in for decades as a leader of Third World emancipation movements.
Chavez was the figure that succeeded Fidel Castro as Latin America’s icon image of the left when the image of Castro began to fray. “I hold him in the highest esteem,” said Argentinean soccer star Diego Maradona, a declared Castro admirer, when discussing the Venezuelan leader with the dpa news agency earlier this year.
The visits of celebrities captivated by the Latin American revolutions, reserved in the ‘60s for Fidel Castro, also began arriving in Caracas in the early 21st century. Filmmaker Oliver Stone, actor Sean Penn and philosopher Noam Chomsky were some of the best known admirers of Chavez, just as at one time it was Jean-Paul Sartre and Julio Cortazar who looked up to the Cuban leader.
Chavez’s solidarity with Cuba wasn’t limited to public statements. For years Caracas supported Havana with about 100,000 barrels of oil per day, sold at very favorable terms in exchange for medical and educational services the island provided in the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities.
Cuba and Venezuela “are one nation,” said Chavez, the architect behind the concept of “VeneCuba” as the heart of the Latin American bloc.
Therefore the evolution of Chavez’s health was always followed with particular interest on the island. “Chavez is in bad shape,” could be heard in the streets of Havana during his last days of life, when the medical reports pointed to the worst.
Accustomed to the details about Fidel Castro’s health being kept as a state secret, Cubans commented avidly about what little was known about the disease at the end of Chavez’s life.
The Raul Castro government guaranteed Chavez maximum discretion concerning his medical treatment. Chavez had surgery four times on the island and visited the country dozens of times for chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
During one of his first convalescence periods in Havana, the Venezuelan leader still used to count the visits Castro made to see him in the hospital. “I’m here watching the game with Fidel!” Chavez wrote on his Twitter page during the Americas Cup in 2011.
Castro was also the one responsible for telling Chavez that he had cancer, in June 2011. “Life comes first for a revolutionary,” Chavez later recalled Fidel’s words. That was the day he cried in front of a mirror upon learning about his diagnosis.
Now that the cancer has finally won that battle, despite the care given by Fidel’s Cuba, it also remains to be seen how it will affect the veteran Cuban revolutionary, now 86.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish from dpa news service.