Castro's Latin American Legacy

A mixed reaction to the announcement that Fidel Castro is to step down.

ByReporter's Notebook By Sonia Gallego
February 09, 2009, 3:21 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Feb. 21, 2008 — -- "A life of contradiction" was just one of the numerous headlines on Fidel Castro's resignation early Tuesday morning.

The announcement prompted a deluge of soul-searching analysis in the Brazilian press. This in itself is not surprising — both are Latin American countries that share common themes in terms of their history and culture and there is a close, mutual affection between the two that goes beyond the apparent political formalities.

To understand why, look at Brazil's dalliance with dictatorship. In 1985 the country emerged from the clutches of a brutal, right-wing military dictatorship.

During those heavy years — nicknamed "Anos de Chumbo" (Years of Lead) — the Brazilian intellectual classes took a turn to the left and looked to Cuba for inspiration, in particular Castro's overthrow of the brutal, right-wing Batista regime in 1959.

For many of these intellectuals, Castro's image provided them with a source of inspiration. Faced with all the harsh restrictions that were imposed by the military, a strong bond grew between the Brazilian resistance and the Cuban leader. The support, more ideological than material, was sufficiently organized for Cuba to even provide the resistance with training in armed guerilla tactics.

Brazil's left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, back then a vocal member of the resistance, was thrown in prison for his political activities during the Years of Lead. He praised the outgoing leader in warm, highly complimentary tones.

"The great myth continues," he told reporters during a tour of a gas plant. "He is the only living myth in the history of humanity and I believe he built that image with great competence, character and willpower."

The praise was in marked difference from the official Brazilian diplomatic response to the announcement that soberly stated that Brazil would maintain its current relations with Cuba and would progress with its ongoing economic agreements.

"The response of President Lula could have been considered imprudent," Renato Galeno, journalist and commentator for the O Globo newspaper, told ABC News. "But his reaction was completely understandable. Castro was the only one sustaining the Brazilian resistance at the time so his support was very important."

And Brazil is not the only country in the continent that has nurtured this deep affection for a man many consider to be a dictator.

In the last decade, left-wing leaders have emerged for whom Castro has been more than just a pinup of their ideals. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez claimed in typically flamboyant tones, "Fidel doesn't retire, he doesn't resign. Fidel was absolved by history and Fidel will always head the revolutionaries of this continent."

President Evo Morales of Bolivia uttered a tribute, tinged with nostalgia. "I'm sorry because I learned a lot from him, [I learned] to work for humanity and to practice solidarity with the countries of the world."

But glowing tributes aside, a sense of discomfort is permeating throughout Brazil's intellectual circles when it comes to Castro — above all, what to make of his dictatorship.

"Principally, many intellectuals in Brazil consider Castro to be a hero and they close their eyes to the issue," Galeno said. "Here was a man who brought down a dictatorship, but now it cannot be denied that he himself became a dictator and this has been a source of much debate among left-wing thinkers."

The pro-Castro argument is wearing thin. Too much has been heard about human rights abuses and the corruption in the Cuban regime. The support that was once so sturdy now is unable to even argue against calling him a dictator.

"When you ask these intellectuals 'why is it that he cannot be called a dictator?' they cannot even respond against it," Galeno told ABC News. Perhaps because these same left-wing thinkers, filled with ardent loyalty toward the man who gave them support in the darkest hours of the Brazilian junta, felt a sense of betrayal when they saw how Castro became the very thing they were fighting against.

For now, respectful attitudes continue but slowly a wind of change can be felt.

"All the main intellectuals were always left-wing," Galeno said. "Now there is a culture of right-wing intellectualism emerging, which is inspired by ideas formed in the United States."

A change in the air, perhaps? Or maybe the old ideas are simply running out of gas.

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