The united socialist bloc that Fidel Castro envisioned for Latin America, and tried in many ways to construct, never came to pass, but his influence is nevertheless visible across the region today, 60 years after the Cuban revolution. It is seen in left-leaning governments that champion welfare programs and borrow his rhetoric of anti-imperialism, and also in battered economies and efforts to shrink democratic space.

In death, Mr. Castro remained the continent’s most polarizing figure. He was mourned in some quarters here as “the greatest Latin American,” condemned in others as a dictator.

In Brazil, former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff both saluted him as an inspiration and companheiro; the country’s main newspapers, owned by conservative wealthy families, flared headlines on the death of a “tyrant” and “oppressor.”

In Chile, leftist President Michelle Bachelet called him “a leader for dignity and social justice” in Latin America. The right-wing former president (and lead candidate to replace her), Sebastian Pinera, said Mr. Castro’s legacy was “60 years of assault on liberty and democracy.”

“Fidel Castro was the most important political leader in the contemporary history of Latin America,” said Gonzalo Serrano, professor of history at Adolfo Ibanez University in Santiago de Chile. Mr. Castro’s support for other revolutionary movements, his efforts to undermine dictatorship, his failure to transition to democracy – all were influential, he said.

It has been decades since Mr. Castro offered training and shelter to guerrillas from Argentina and Brazil – yet even today, Cuba continues to exert an outsize influence for a tiny island of 11 million people with a minuscule economy.

Cuba helped to broker the new peace between the government of Colombia and the main Marxist rebel movement, the FARC, playing host to the talks and giving the guerrillas a place they trusted to step out of the shadows.

Cuba sent 11,000 doctors to Brazil, to work in the slums and remote rural areas the country’s own doctors spurned, in a program that bolstered the popularity of the left-wing Workers’ Party whose 12 years in power ended a few months ago.

The continent has tilted right of late, with left-leaning governments in Argentina and Peru also pushed out in the past year. But the shift is not comprehensive: in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, who once headed a guerrilla movement supported by Mr. Castro, was just re-elected to a third term. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has overseen both a Cuban-style push on social welfare targeted to the poorest citizens and also attempted to reshape the political system to safeguard his own power. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has echoed Mr. Castro’s language about U.S. imperialism and sought new allies.

Mr. Castro’s influence is most visible in Venezuela, the oil-rich country whose tight relationship with Cuba has been critical to sustaining the regimes of both countries in the past decade. There, the government of Nicolas Maduro has declared three days of mourning – but many hungry, weary Venezuelans, worn ragged by the economic crisis, quietly celebrated Mr. Castro’s death.

Mr. Castro cultivated the young Venezuelan political leader Hugo Chavez, summoning him to Havana when he was released from jail after his first, failed attempt to take power in a coup; the Cuban leader schooled Mr. Chavez in Communist ideology and in the tactics of revolution. Mr. Chavez called him “my father.” Through his 14 years as president, Mr. Chavez funnelled cheap oil to Cuba, keeping the state running in the teeth of a U.S. embargo.

In exchange, said Maria Teresa Romero, a retired professor of international relations at Caracas’s Central University of Venezuela, Mr. Castro sent doctors and teachers to deliver services to the poor, making Mr. Chavez hugely popular for a time. Cuba also dispatched intelligence agents and security specialists, who helped suppress the opposition and keep the Chavez regime in power.

Mr. Chavez died of cancer in Cuba in 2013, and his successor, Mr. Maduro, was anointed by the Castros. The extent of Cuban involvement in the running of Venezuela’s government today remains murky and hotly debated in the country, but Mr. Maduro has managed to hold on to power even as annual inflation is reportedly running at almost 500 per cent and the country is critically short of food and medical supplies.

Mr. Castro influenced more than one generation of politicians. “In the 1960s and 70s, he represented a different way of doing politics, taking up arms, carrying out revolution,” said Marina Chiaramonte, a historian at the National University of San Martin in Buenos Aires. “Young people loved what they saw when they looked at Cuba, a free country, a sovereign country. And the way he confronted the Americans – he was not intimidated by them.”

“In our worst moments, when dictatorships dominated the principal nations of the region, the courage of Fidel Castro and the example of the Cuban revolution inspired those who resisted tyranny,” Mr. da Silva said in a statement on Saturday. Mr. Castro’s efforts to undermine those dictatorships yielded little.

But he had a resurgence of popularity in the late 1990s, when leftist parties were elected across the region. The new leftists were neopopulist governments that mixed their ambitions for social welfare with open economies. They have not fared well of late. Brazil is in its deepest recession in nearly a century and impeached Ms. Rousseff in September; Argentines ended the rule of the populist Kirchners a year ago, with the country’s economy in tatters. Polls suggest frustrated Chileans will not return Ms. Bachelet’s party to office in Chile next year.

Nevertheless, Mr. Castro’s image was rehabilitated, says Joaquin Fermandois, a historian at the Catholic University of Santiago. “He has been forgiven – he did not share the fate of Pinochet,” he said, comparing Mr. Castro with Chile’s late military dictator, who died a regional pariah even though he led a transition to democracy, something Mr. Castro resisted to the end.

Published Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 7:34PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 9:43PM EST