HAVANA With Fidel Castro sidelined by illness, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stormed through Cuba this week and stole the limelight from his ailing mentor.
Eight hours of Chavez speeches -- including his weekly "Alo Presidente" show -- were broadcast live during his three-day visit to Cuba, a burst of rhetoric not seen since Castro dropped out of public view after intestinal surgery last year.
Chavez, bolstered by soaring oil prices, has emerged as Castro's political successor and the new leader of Latin America's growing left-wing bloc, which also includes Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Cuban cabinet ministers wore red T-shirts traditionally used by Chavez supporters in Venezuela as they sat and listened to him propose that Cuba join Venezuela in a confederation of two nations.
"Deep down, we are one single government, one single country," the swaggering Venezuelan populist said on Sunday at the tomb of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Santa Clara in central Cuba.
His remarks and increasing confidence raised questions about his political influence in Cuba now that Castro is largely out of the picture.
Chavez did most of the talking when the 81-year-old Castro, who has not appeared in public in almost 15 months, called in by telephone on Sunday to Chavez's radio and television program broadcast live to Cuba and Venezuela.
Chavez then met with low-profile acting President Raul Castro on Monday and signed a string of economic deals, ranging from oil production, refining and petrochemicals to tourism and the laying of a 1,000-mile underwater fiber optic cable from Venezuela to Cuba.
Cuba's ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma highlighted the economic integration between the two allies, not the political fusion that Chavez touted during his visit.
The agreements cement an alliance between Latin America's two most anti-American leaders that has helped keep Cuba's economy afloat with vital Venezuelan oil supplies in return for Cuban medical and other social services.
Chavez's call for political union surprised Cubans who welcome his economic aid but take pride in the independence of their country, which has faced off with the United States since Castro's 1959 revolution.
"I think this is excellent for our economy," said Lazaro, an apartment building administrator. "But nobody knows how long Chavez will last or who will come after him?"
Some Cubans, weary of communist rule, chose to turn off their television sets and not listen to Chavez. "He looked like a clown, singing on stage. I think it's all a bluff. I switched off," said a Havana housewife, who asked not to named.
Analysts say Chavez still needs the survival of Castro's government in Cuba for ideological legitimacy and that his influence over Cuban policy is limited.
"When Hugo Chavez calls for a 'confederation of republics' between Venezuela and Cuba, it is enough to give any Cuban nationalist nightmares," said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington.
"But despite Chavez's sweeping rhetoric, the reality is that Venezuela still has very little influence on how Cuba manages its domestic political and economic affairs."