Byline: Joseph Contreras
Anyone who doubts that symbolism matters to the Latin American left need only have looked last week to Venezuela, where fire-breathing President Hugo Chavez forced several critical changes to the country's flag through a pliant legislature. The new banner will incorporate a machete, bow-and-arrow and tropical fruits and flowers, to acknowledge the nation's peasantry. From it will shine eight stars instead of seven--the last added as a homage to Venezuela's 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar. And most important, a galloping white horse that once faced right--"into the past," according to Chavez--will now look, naturally, to the left.
So, too, does much of the region today, from Brazil to Bolivia. And the symbol that has benefited most from the new perspective is not a horse, but the left's reigning lion in winter, Fidel Castro. Not so long ago the Cuban leader, who will turn 80 this summer, seemed a shrinking figure on the Latin American stage. As recently as 2002 Chavez was his only ally in the hemisphere; his neighbors widely regarded him as a Stalinist dinosaur whose heyday had long since passed. But since then, Castro has experienced a remarkable resurgence. Chavez and new Bolivian President Evo Morales openly hail him in speeches; Havana was Morales's first port of call in his post-election tour of foreign capitals this winter. Even more mainstream leaders, including Argentina's Nestor Kirchner and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, are no longer afraid to grip-and-grin for the cameras with the Caribbean strongman. "The map is changing," a pleased Castro exulted after Morales's December victory.
How it's changing is the question--and the answer says as much about the supposed strength of Latin America's leftward tilt as it does about Castro himself. Fidel's comeback began a year ago when the European Union, at the urging of Spain's left-wing President JosA[c] Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, lifted diplomatic sanctions it had imposed on Cuba in the spring of 2003 to protest a sweeping crackdown on internal dissidents. Moderate governments in Uruguay and Panama restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba later in 2005, and Castro scored a diplomatic coup at a recent summit of the 15-nation Caribbean Community. Leaders there issued a communiquA[c] calling on the Bush administration to extradite a jailed Cuban exile accused of masterminding the bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976.
An unabashedly pro-Cuba documentary about the U.S. trade embargo premiered in Buenos Aires in November with the backing of the Argentine government's film institute. And these days even an openly right-wing, Bush-friendly president like Colombia's Alvaro Uribe Velez can see the benefits of having a working --relationship with Cuba. Late last year he accepted Castro's offer to reopen peace talks in Havana with one of Colombia's leading Marxist guerrilla factions.
The Cuban leader can thank his traditional betA* noire, Washington, for much of his bolstered reputation. "In the last decade we've paid less attention to Latin America than we should have," says Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "Castro is a big beneficiary." The Bush administration's bring- 'em-on approach to foreign affairs has inspired visceral scorn across the region--and a grudging respect for the one leader who consistently rails against America.
If the sorry state of the Cuban economy remains a black mark against Castro, he can always blame it on the longstanding U.S. commercial boycott of the island. Elsewhere, many in the region believe they are seeing no greater benefit from the market-oriented policies aggressively promoted by Washington and have been throwing out pro-U.S. politicians in election after election. The Bush administration's clear distaste for Morales--expressed openly during his failed bid for the …