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Thursday, April 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:28 A.M.
By Gary Marx
CARACAS, Venezuela In a cinder-block home tucked on a hillside, Dr. Radames Sierra treated a stream of patients suffering from respiratory diseases, hypertension, diabetes and other aliments.
He checked the blood pressure of two elderly women before Marina Mejias brought in her elementary school-age son, who had been feverish and dizzy.
"This is really necessary," Mejias said as she watched Sierra, 31, examine her son with a stethoscope in the western Caracas slum of Nueva Tacagua. "Before we'd have to go a long way to see a doctor."
To residents such as Mejias, it makes no difference that Sierra is not Venezuelan but one of about 10,000 Cubans providing free medical care in slums across this oil-rich but impoverished South American country.
Sierra and his colleagues have joined scores of Cuban sports coaches, literacy trainers and others in Venezuela to help President Hugo Chávez implement social programs crucial to carrying out his self-styled populist revolution.
But critics of the combative and charismatic Venezuelan leader see the growing ties with Cuba through a different lens, charging that Sierra and other Cubans are indoctrinating Venezuelans with communist ideology and are helping Chávez establish a radical, authoritarian regime.
Venezuela's ties to Cuba entered the U.S. presidential campaign last week as John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said Chávez's "close relationship with Fidel Castro has raised serious questions about his commitment to leading a truly democratic government."
Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, also has taken aim at the Venezuela-Cuba alliance, intimating earlier this year that the two countries were attempting to "destabilize" pro-U.S. elected governments in the region. Cuba and Venezuela rejected the charges.
Experts say there is scant evidence either Cuba or Venezuela is meddling in other nations' affairs. Yet disagreement remains about how serious a threat an alliance between Latin America's two most controversial leaders poses to U.S. interests and to Venezuela's struggling democracy.
The two leaders share an antipathy toward the Bush administration's free-market policies, which are increasingly unpopular across Latin America, and oppose creation of the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the U.S., also is selling Cuba 53,000 barrels of oil a day on favorable terms, helping to keep Cuba's economy afloat.
Yet while denouncing U.S. imperialism and "savage capitalism," Chávez says he is a committed democrat who has no intention of turning Venezuela into a one-party state. A poll taken last month showed only 4 percent of Venezuelans support a Cuban-style system for their country.
Chávez has respected private enterprise since taking office in 1999, and he is aggressively courting U.S. and other foreign corporations to invest in Venezuela's oil and natural gas sector.
In addition, opposition leaders and local news media openly attack Chávez's policies, something unheard of in Cuba, where anti-government demonstrations are nonexistent and Castro's decisions never are questioned publicly.
"It's one thing that Chávez loves and admires Fidel and has close relations with Fidel," said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily Tal Cual and one of the few independent voices in Venezuela. "It's another thing (to believe) that this is another Cuba. It's not Cuba."
But Chávez's critics say the president's sustained efforts to resist a recall referendum on his presidency reflect a broader campaign to cast aside Venezuelan democracy and "Cubanize" the country.
Even observers such as Petkoff say the Venezuelan leader is acting increasingly like a classic Latin American caudillo a strongman intolerant of anyone who does not share his often divisive views.
In recent months Chávez has turned his attacks on the Bush administration, charging that it is trying to topple his government by funding opposition groups and supporting the recall effort. Chávez said the recall move is riddled with fraud and is an attempt by the "oligarchy" to derail his revolution.
"Chávez wants power no matter the cost," said Rafael Alfonzo, an opposition activist who is a leader in the recall campaign. "This is the completion of a totalitarian military regime, and Castro is telling him what to do to not have an election.
"Elections and revolution are not possible together."
Cuba has long been influential in Venezuela and throughout Latin America because of its place as one of the region's cultural centers. The 1959 triumph of the Castro-led Cuban Revolution also inspired a generation of leftists who hoped, through armed struggle, to reshape their societies.
Cuba trained and financed guerrilla movements throughout the continent, including in Venezuela, where Petkoff and Rodriguez were among a group of rebel fighters.
But the armed struggle in Venezuela ended decades ago, and the relationship between Chávez and Castro is based as much on what they can get from each other as on advancing a broader strategic goal, experts say.
In addition to the oil bounty, Castro's alliance with Chávez has given the aging Cuban leader a powerful ally on the continent and accelerated Cuba's campaign to break out of its diplomatic isolation.
In return, Castro has embraced Chávez as a fellow revolutionary and boosted the Venezuelan leader's credentials as a spokesman for leftist causes in Latin America and elsewhere.
"He wants to inherit the mantle of Castro," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank.
Experts say the Cuban-supported programs including the medical campaign known as Inside the Barrio also are popular among the poor and have improved Chávez's poll numbers during his political battle.
Recall could be Aug. 8
CARACAS, Venezuela A recall referendum against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could be held Aug. 8 if enough disputed pro-vote signatures are validated in nationwide checks next month, electoral authorities said yesterday.
Following intense negotiations over the troubled referendum initiative, National Electoral Council President Francisco Carrasquero announced a process from May 27 to 31 to verify nearly 1.2 million disputed pro-referendum signatures.
The checking process will be the last opportunity for Venezuela's divided opposition to secure a recall vote this year against Chávez. The council has so far approved as valid just over 1.9 million of more than 3 million signatures the opposition says it handed in last December. The valid total falls short of the 2.4 million signatures required to trigger a referendum.
Voters whose signatures had been questioned by electoral officials were being asked to come forward and confirm them personally at 2,659 election centers across the country.
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