- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez, Latin America’s most vocal opponent of the United States, is expected to play a significant role in the future of a post-Castro Cuba, analysts say.

“I think there is no doubt that Cuba relies substantially on Venezuela’s economic support, and that Chavez is not going to go away. He is going to be an important factor in the transition,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

Thanks to his country’s sizable energy reserves, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, Mr. Chavez is able to supply 90,000 barrels of oil daily to his Caribbean ally.

According to Christina Macao, Mr. Chavez has long looked to Fidel Castro as a mentor, and it is possible he would not remain disposed to such favorable commercial terms should he feel the legacy of the Cuban Revolution is not being honored, said Miss Macao, a scholar who follows the Venezuelan leader’s presidency.

“Chavez looks at Castro as Latin America’s greatest leftist leader. They have always had a very close relationship. For Chavez, Castro is like a father figure, a revolutionary like he wants to be.”

Recently, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and Cuba’s acting president, acknowledged in an interview with the state press the possibility of normalizing relations with the United States.

“We have always been disposed to normalize relations on an equal plane. … But this would be possible only when the United States decides to negotiate with seriousness and is willing to treat us with a spirit of equality, reciprocity and the fullest mutual respect,” the younger Mr. Castro said as Fidel continued to recover from intestinal surgery.

The State Department was unimpressed, with a spokesman calling Raul “Fidel light.”

“I think Chavez is going to do anything he can to keep the Cuban system going,” said Mr. Shifter. “Cuba is one of the pillars of the international left. It has provided Chavez with a degree of legitimacy. … It is the greatest symbol of a political experiment that stood up to and defied the U.S. for five decades.”