In Castro void, Chavez inspires left but no icon
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's red beret-wearing President Hugo Chavez has inspired a new generation of Latin American leftists but has a ways to go to achieve the heroic status awarded to his iconic friend Fidel Castro.
Castro, 81, stepped down on Tuesday as Cuba's leader in an armed revolution that made him a hero to guerrillas and young idealists in Latin America, even if he also became a villain for many in the world who saw him as an abusive autocrat.
While he will remain an important influence as the senior statesman in communist Cuba, the ailing Castro's departure after almost half a century in power clears the way for Chavez to try and fill a void as the Latin left's leader.
The burly Chavez, 53, who as a paratrooper led a failed 1992 coup, calls Castro his father, often flies to visit him and shares the bearded Cuban's loathing of the U.S. "empire."
Like his mentor, he rails against U.S. dominance in long and impassioned speeches dressed in military uniform and often ends with a Castro-inspired slogan, "Homeland, socialism or death." Supporters called them both "El Comandante."
"We are all the children of Fidel, the revolutionaries of this continent," Chavez said after Castro resigned.
Many say Chavez aspires to be the galvanizing force that Castro was for many poor nations after his rag-tag rebel army defeated U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Castro touts his protege as the brightest hope to carry on the socialist cause. To an extent Chavez already inherited the mantle of third world leader, forging alliances on the back of his OPEC nation's oil wealth to counter Washington's influence.
He burnished his rebel image when he called U.S. President George W. Bush the 'devil' in a speech to the United Nations. At the 1960 U.N. General Assembly Castro called future U.S. President John Kennedy "illiterate" and "ignorant."
In 2002, Chavez was the victim of a coup that was initially welcomed by Washington, but he swept back to power days later after massive protests in his favor.
Despite such legend-building events and some success in deepening cooperation between Latin American nations, Chavez has yet to capture the region's imagination as much as Castro.
Chavez has had less time than Castro to establish his leftist credentials, faces obstacles at home to his "21st century socialism," has alienated would-be supporters across the region by sparking bilateral spats and never overthrew a ruthless dictator.
"Chavez can't match the romantic aura and enormous symbolism that has long been associated with Castro," said Michael Shifter of the U.S. think tank Inter-American Dialogue. "For many in Latin America, he is an old-fashioned strongman with lots of money, not an intrepid revolutionary hero."
Venezuela's opposition says Chavez wants to create another communist state like Cuba, a fear that resonates with consumer-loving voters who rejected a Chavez referendum last year that would have enshrined socialism as a state goal.
Venezuela is Cuba's top ally and main benefactor but Chavez acknowledges Venezuelans are not ready for radical socialism.
Since he won office in 1998, a raft of nations from Argentina to Guatemala have elected leftist governments.
And Chavez has firm allies in the region, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador whose governments share his robust policies to increase state control of natural resources.
Chavez's critics accuse him of secretly funding political allies' electoral campaigns, an echo of the era when Cuba channeled cash to dozens of rebel movements.
Chavez holds rallies with young leftists during summits, often attracting more attention than the meetings themselves.
But Castro devotees such as Ecuadorean indigenous leader Humberto Cholango, who calls the Cuban the "new Jesus Christ," says time will tell if Chavez can replace him.
"Chavez is still proving himself as a leader of our nations," he said.
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