Washington loves a good charismatic caudillo to anoint as its foil in Latin America. Over the last decade, Fidel Castro deftly, albeit unofficially, turned over that job to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Though the Cuban revolution's ties to Venezuela stretch back over half a century, Fidel didn't invent Chavez -- the former army paratrooper emerged from his own country's history. As Chavez struggles for his own life in a Havana hospital, it's worth considering the legacy he's built.
Early in his presidency, Chavez remarked that he saw himself as a transitional figure in Venezuelan history -- a claim that may be as true regionally as it is nationally. The 14 years of his tenure coincided with a consensus across the continent favoring socially inclusive economic growth, democratic representation, and independence from the U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities of the previous century. Chavez embraced each of these features of the new Latin America to the extreme. Though his taste for the stage, for inflammatory rhetoric, and for provocation was out of sync with the region's preference for practical problem-solving, his claim to have been a transitional leader might not be far off.