A Castro Ally with Oil Cash Vexes the US ; Venezuela's Chavez Is the New Driving Force for a Left-Leaning Region

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Llorente Munoz has a photograph of her sons tucked into the corner of her bathroom mirror. Arnaldo, 7, and Enrique, 13, are back in Cuba while she is at this small Caracas clinic taking care, as she puts it, "of my other children" - Venezuela's poor.

Ms. Munoz, a medic, is one of 20,650 Cuban healthcare workers and 8,600 "sports instructors" who have fanned out across Venezuela in the past two years, offering free checkups, medicines, and stretching classes. President Hugo Chavez, as leader of the world's fifth-largest oil supplier, is footing the bill, sending up to 90,000 barrels a day to Fidel Castro's communist island.

For critics, the relationship is a troubling sign of where Mr. Chavez wants to take his country - and even the region. Unlike Castro, who lacked the funds and support from Latin America's previous right-wing leaders to spread his socialist revolution across the Spanish-speaking world, Chavez is flush with oil money. He is also finding receptivity thanks to a wave of left-of-center presidents who have come to power in recent years. The combination gives the US its first real challenge in the region in decades.

"Chavez sees Castro as a father figure," says Otto Reich, former undersecretary of State for Latin America in the Bush administration, "an anti-American precursor whose footsteps he can follow, and whose built-in network of supporters around the hemisphere he can take over when Castro passes on." Reich calls the Castro-Chavez relationship an "axis of subversion."

Name calling is nothing new to this story. The Venezuelan leader has called President Bush a "jerk," the US government a "mafia of assassins," and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice an "illiterate." Just this week, Cuba and Venezuela have lambasted the US for not immediately turning over Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted on suspicion of blowing up a Cuban airliner in Venezuela in 1976, killing 73 people. They accuse the US of "harboring terrorists."

"The US is a very ideologically oriented administration and has a lot of animosity toward us," says Andres Izarra, Venezuela's minister of information. "But we can ally ourselves with whomever we want." Since the so-called mision barrio adentro, or mission inside the neighborhood, was started in 2003, some 60 percent of the population have received healthcare at one of the 300 clinics, and 2,575 lives have been saved, says Mr. Izarra. "What is the cost of 2,575 lives saved?" he asks. "Cuba is our ally in the war against poverty and illiteracy. We are thankful to them, and we can show it in any way we please."

They are showing it to the tune of more than $1 billion in annual oil shipments alone, says economist Carlos Granier of Cedice, a think tank based here. Chavez further bolsters the Cuban economy by purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products from Cuba's state-run industries and providing financing to purchase everything from Venezuelan chocolate to sardines to work boots. Hundreds more clinics are set to open in the coming months, while more than 1,000 Venezuelans will be sent to Cuba to study healthcare there.

Opposition figures, meanwhile, like Tulio Alvarez, who was recently sentenced to two years in jail for defamation against a government official, wonder if all these Cuban workers, spread as they are in every neighborhood, are not there to keep tabs on the population.

"The opposition is lost, and they need some way to put down such a successful program, so they say it's ideological," responds Izarra. …