BUENOS AIRES — While the 81-year-old Fidel Castro announced Tuesday he would not seek reelection as Cuba's president — officially ending nearly five decades in power — the Cuban leader remains a hero for a political class that in many cases came of age during the tumultuous years of Cold War intrigue.
Even if few defend the totalitarian, old-line communist bent of his government — and many criticize him as a dictator — Castro still wins praise around the region for championing social justice and national pride and sovereignty.
Many of South America's heads of state started their political careers as activists denouncing military dictatorships intent on stamping out Cuba-style communism in the hemisphere.
"There was always a closeness between the Cuban Communist Party and the Workers' Party'' of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said Valter Pomar, the party's secretary for international relations. "We have a very sympathetic position regarding the government of Cuba and the people of Cuba.''
As a young activist, Lula da Silva was jailed for his opposition to Brazil's military dictatorship, and many of the country's leftist guerrillas found refuge from government persecution in Cuba.
The Brazilian president acknowledged that history last month by paying a fawning visit to the ailing Castro. The two countries agreed to cooperate on energy exploration in Cuban waters and jointly train Brazilian doctors in Cuba.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has done by far the most to ally himself with Castro, including selling the island nation discounted petroleum and providing other financial aid estimated by the U.S. government at a net $1 billion subsidy.
Such political affinities, however, don't reflect what common Latin Americans think of Castro, according to the influential Latinobarometro poll, which surveys tens of thousands of people around the region every year — but not in Cuba.
Last year's poll ranked Castro last among 12 of the hemisphere's leaders in popular approval, with Chavez, President Bush and Peruvian President Alan Garcia, tying for second to last. About a decade ago, the same poll ranked Castro among the most popular leaders in the region.
Marta Lagos, who heads the Chile-based poll, said Latin Americans have grown cold to Castro's authoritarian legacy as democracies in the region mature two decades after the region's last dictatorships folded.
"People are looking for democratic leaders and not caudillos,'' said Lagos, referring to the region's traditional political bosses. "On the one hand, Castro is a legend and is seen as someone who fought against discrimination and injustice. But the new democracies here have undermined his legitimacy.''
And while Lula da Silva may honor Castro, his government, like those of other leftist leaders, has championed free-market policies and unabashed capitalism, Bolivian opposition legislator Fernando Messner noted.
"The connection is rhetorical,'' Messner said. "We have a left that sees trade and business as the solution now.''
The notable exceptions have been leaders from the region's more radical left: Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Morales has called Castro his "wise grandfather'' and invited some 2,000 Cubans into his impoverished country to provide free medical aid and fight illiteracy. Bolivian officials regularly praise the Cuban leader for what they say is his brave fight against U.S. imperialism and his success in raising Cuba's health and education standards.
"It's a moral inheritance that Fidel gives us,'' said Hugo Salvatierra, a former Bolivian agriculture minister and a spokesman for Morales' Movement to Socialism Party. "The example of Fidel is an example of dignity.''
When asked about human rights and democracy in Cuba, Salvatierra said such matters were the domestic affairs of Cubans but defended the country as being as democratic as any other. He stopped short, however, of endorsing the Cuban system for Bolivia.
"It's a democracy, but it's not like what you have in the United States,'' Salvatierra said. "Every population has to find its own system that meets its own needs.''
For many in Latin America's far right, Castro, along with Chavez, remains a potent threat that still fires up decades-old passions.
That burst into public view when former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died in 2006. His supporters quickly filled the streets around the country's main military academy, chanting slogans against both the late Socialist President Salvador Allende and Castro.
"For the Pinochet right, Castro is still the devil,'' Lagos said. "If anything has even a slightly socialist look, they say, 'Beware, Castro is behind this.'''
In Brazil, opposition legislators have long alleged secret ties between Lula da Silva's government and the Cuban regime, although they've been unable to prove them. For federal legislator Jair Bolsonaro, one of Brazil's most outspoken conservatives, Lula da Silva's January visit to Castro was proof enough.
"This history isn't finished,'' Bolsonaro said. "The Workers' Party sees Castro as the main inspiration, which means its goal is building an authoritarian state.''
Victoria Donda, Argentina"s youngest legislator, is literally a product of the ideological battles that the Cuban revolution helped spark. She was born to leftist militants in a prison camp and then raised, without her knowledge, by friends of the Argentine military rulers who had imprisoned and disappeared her parents.
As for many others in the region, that history remains electric for Donda and has fueled her political life.
"Fidel Castro has committed many errors, but he still represents the fight for sovereignty in Latin America and the fight for dignity,'' Donda said. "I still look to him for guidance.''
McClatchy Newspapers 2008