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The accidental coincidences of Fidel Castro's demise and Felipe Calderón's ascendance have the potential to reshape the political geography of Latin America.


It does not matter whether Fidel is actually alive or dead: in the Soviet system, political power was only transferred once the death march was fairly certain. When his obituary is finally published it will say that, on the one hand, he transformed Cuba; on the other hand, he prevented his country from modernizing. In economic terms, his country could have been Puerto Rico or even Florida, but is more like the Dominican Republic or one of the other semi-poor economies of the region.

Fidel's real significance is that he put Cuba, a speck of a country with no natural resources, onto the global geopolitical map and kept it there for five decades with nothing more than the strength of his own will. No one else has accomplished anything remotely similar in the modern era.

It does not matter if Raul Castro holds onto power, is succeeded by a junta or even — eventually — by a democratically elected government. Cuba's significance in global and regional politics will die with Fidel.

Of course, that should benefit the millions of Cubans whose underdevelopment was the cost of Fidel's sustaining himself on the global stage long after his allies in the Soviet Union and Communism had collapsed. If Cubans in Florida can achieve first world lifestyles, why not Cubans in Cuba?

But Castro's departure, like his life, is likely to have consequences well beyond his small island. The most immediate victim will be Hugo Chavez. Without Castro's gravitas, Chavez will be dramatically diminished. While hysterically high oil prices will keep him from fading away, Chavez without Castro will become just another oil sheik with more money than sense. If Castro ever had Venezuela's riches, he could have changed the course of Latin America. But Chavez lacks the history, the vision, and the charisma to sustain such a project on his own. While Venezuelans are likely to end up suffering from Chavez' delusions for many years, his broader impact will be buried with Fidel.

In contrast, Felipe Calderón's victory in Mexico's presidential election could herald the beginning of a new era, in Mexico and in the region. Against all odds, he defeated the leftist populist, Andres Manuel López Obrador, who seemed to be riding the same tide of history that swept Lula, Chavez, Kirchner, Morales, Vázquez, and even Garcia and Bachelet into office.

The smart money had been on López Obrador from the start. Not only was he a charismatic politician who genuinely moved people, but he positioned himself as the champion of all those Mexicans who are poor and who had been passed over by the on-again, off-again economic modernizations of Salinas, Zedillo, and Fox. He told them he would get them a better deal, as he had done for the economically marginalized residents of Mexico City when he was their Mayor, using class warfare rhetoric to mobilize his supporters. He insisted that the neo-liberal economic model had increased social degradation while benefiting only a few corrupt businessmen, and proposed to return Mexico to an economic strategy that relied on oil redistribution to stimulate growth.

Felipe Calderón, on the other hand, first unseated Fox's preferred successor in his party's primary and then ran a centrist campaign based on rule of law, job creation, and clean government. What his campaign lacked in charisma, it made up for with a coherent message that Mexico's only realistic future was to embrace and to find its own place in the global economy. In less than a year, he went from being a virtual political unknown to the winner on July 2.

Why did Calderón win? Because, contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of Mexicans are not poor and angry, but see themselves as middle class or as having realistic aspirations of entering the middle class. Two-thirds of the 42 million people who voted in the election rejected López Obrador’s rhetoric, instead choosing candidates who proposals were rooted in making the system work, not in rejecting it. And Calderón’s fundamentally optimistic message found resonance with a broad enough range of voters for him to win.

Of course, López Obrador has rejected his rejection, refusing to believe that he could so badly have misjudged his countrymen. But, as his protests become louder and more disruptive, his support among Mexicans — even in the streets that he claims as his own — is clearly declining.

The notion that Mexico is on the verge of becoming a middle class country is a profoundly radical idea in Latin America, with dramatic implications. Calderón is certainly no Castro — that was López Obrador's self-cast role — but, if he succeeds in leading his country to a new level of wealth and prosperity, then he could have the kind of transformative impact that El Comandante sought, but never found.

Alan Stoga is president of Zemi Communications. This article originally appeared in AmericaEconomia magazine. Republished with permission from the author.

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