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   Review of

  REINALDO ARENAS

  Singing From The Well

 “Son of a bitch! I told you not to climb on the roof of the house – it stops raining faster on the outside than it does inside these days, with you climbing all over the thatch and shinnying down the rain gutters all the time and punching holes in the roof.  You goose! Get to work!”
 

 So goes the hateful relationship between grandfather and grandson in Arenas’s fictional cum biographical novel Singing From The Well about his childhood in pre-Castro Cuba.

The novel was the first in a series called Pentagonia which sketches life in Cuba before and during Castro’s regime.

 “Singing From The Well’ is rich in magical realism mingled with spurts of poignant realism that narrates a child’s impoverished upbringing in rural Cuba.  The author’s powerful use of fantasy to describe feelings of longing for love or the cruelty of growing up in grinding, hopeless poverty is at times enigmatic, yet through the haze of all the abstractions emerges a portrayal that surrounds the reader with emotionally poetic images and heartrending feelings of what it must be like to begin life with everything stacked against you.

The number of narrators in the novel is few, being confined mostly to Celestino’s cousin, his mother, the grandparents and Celestino. The last chapter is entirely composed of strikingly transcendent dialogue.   The cruelty inflicted by the grandparents and the intermittent expressions of love the boy receives from his mother brings to mind the reality that kindness and love does not always prosper under the roof of hopeless poverty.  In the book, the name of the boy narrator, the cousin to Celestino, is undisclosed, leaving the assumption that he is none other than Reinaldo Arenas himself, thus making the book autobiographical in nature.  With its complex style of writing, it can by no means be considered a work of typical Latin American literature, rather, a powerful literary excursion into a world of surrealistic fantasy that brilliantly camouflages the tragic and difficult childhood of the author.

Arenas homosexuality is intimated early in the book, when his cousin Celestino comes to live with the family after his mother’s suicide.  The two cousins are bullied in school and chided as being “queers”, an allusion to the fact that they sleep in the same bed.   The grandfather’s incestuous relationship with Celestino’s mother, his daughter, Carmelina, whom he called a whore and his “doing something behind the mule” while the grandson held the reigns, paints a dramatic picture of the kind of decadence and immorality the boy grew up with.  In spite of his thorny childhood, an image of tender moments and of a child that tries to survive by hiding in a world of imagination reaffirms the concept that children find means of surviving under even the most adverse circumstances. 

 Cousin Celestino is constantly writing poems with and awl on all the trees surrounding the house and on anything else he can find to write on.  It is hard to imagine that he is anything but Arenas’s alter ego.  His grandfather cuts down the trees because he says: “It is filth that is written on them” even though neither he nor the other adults in the family can read.  Is this not perhaps Arenas’s way of saying that his early childhood writing ambitions were met with much antagonism, born out of ignorance? The alter ego theory is contradicted when one day he sees Celestino come out of a thicket of burnt wild pineapples with a stake through his heart.

           “What have they done to you?”

I asked Celestino that as I tried to pull the stake out of his heart.

          “Leave it there.” He smiled at me. “Just leave it there, it’ll come out of it’s own accord.”

 This is Arenas’ profoundly poetic way of saying that Celestino’s sorrow over the loss of his mother will pass with time.  

 The Bautista regime under which Arenas grew up was brutal to the extreme and the constant references to death and punishment found throughout the book reflects the cruelty and indifference perpetrated on the poor by Bautista’s evil government.

 His aunt ‘Adolfino’ sings with her mouth closed, a veiled reference to the silencing of any opposition to the government and his imaginary dead cousins, who are only visible in the fog, may be construed as the invisible opposition to Bautista, the early Castro guerilla forces hiding in the jungle.

Arena has given the reader an excellent depiction of the area of Cuba where he grew up. Local names to many plants and trees are offered and both climate and geography is described so as to give a feeling of the prevailing ambiance.  Scattered references to things that he eats, which by any standard is meager, and the family’s hunger amplifies the perception of poverty, yet the family’s “hunger” is readily perceived as an allusion to a longing for freedom from the oppressive yoke of wretchedness and despair caused by   Bautista’s vile regime. 

 Arenas was born in 1943 in Holguín in the province of Oriente, Cuba.  His first brush with literary fame came in 1963, when he won a storytelling contest.  His early works suggest an influence by such authors as Virgilio Piñera, especially his playElectra Garrigó, which deals with family relationships and José Lezama Lima’s novel “Paradizo which is a novel about a homosexual relationship.   Footprints of the surrealistic abstractions and magical realism in Garcia Marquez’ novel “100 Years of Solitude” are evident in his style of writing, yet it is able to stand alone and apart from this novel in that Arenas used fantasy and surrealism in his own unique and tantalizing way, rather than rendering ideas from Marques’ highly publicized novel.

In 1980 Arenas departed Cuba for good, joining the thousands who left on the Mariel Boatlift for The United States.  He lived and continued to publish in New York City.  After contracting AIDS and some years of considerable suffering, he committed suicide on December 7, 1990.  It is perhaps apposite to include in this review his distressing suicide note as a testament to his intense feelings for his beloved Cuba and the tragedy of his short life.

Dear friends: Owing to the precarious state of my health and the terrible sentimental depression I feel at being unable to continue writing and fighting for the freedom of Cuba, I am ending my life. In the last few years, even though I have been very ill, I have been able to finish my literary work, with which I have worked diligently for almost thirty years. I leave as a legacy all of my terrors, but also the hope that soon Cuba will be free. I am satisfied with having contributed, although modestly, to the triumph of this liberty. I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue to work. None of the people around me were involved in this decision. There is only one man responsible: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of expatriation, the pain of exile, the loneliness and illnesses that I have contracted in exile, I would never have suffered these things if I had lived freely in my own country.

To the Cuban people, those in exile as well as those still on the island, I beg that you continue to fight for freedom. My message is not one of failure, but one of fight and hope.

Cuba will be free. I already am.

Reviewed by:

Kenny Beachmount

All rights reserved.

 

Creative Commons Licence
This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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A travel log of Edification and Condescension from

Mid-nineteenth century Cuba

This essay in essence is an expose of some surprising aspects of Joseph Dimock’s[1] travel diary: Impressions of Cuba in the Nineteenth Century,, with inclusive commentary on some of his frequently derogatory remarks and arrogant opinions.  While the critique of his writings is based on 21st century opinions, it is important to bear in mind that Dimock’s political and racial views were considered ordinary in some parts of society in the United States during the mid to late 1850s, and as such, not subject to substantial negative critique.  Some aspects of these political views remain nonetheless, and much to the exasperation and vexation of many countries, unchanged to this date.  In further defense of his strongly derogatory remarks, it is also necessary to reflect upon the likelihood that it was not his intention to publish his travel diary on his return to the US, but rather retain it as a private reminder of his journey.

Joseph Dimock’s journey to Cuba took place between February 2 and March 28, 1859, beginning and ending in New York City. For someone not familiar with the history of Cuba or the United States during the 1850’s and the lush tropical beauty of the Caribbean Islands, his journal will be found revealing and full of both pleasant and unpleasant surprises.   Dimock’s powers of observation rivals that of a seasoned travel writer and his remarkable ability to describe the flora, fauna and physiography of the landscapes must be applauded, especially given that he had no training as a naturalist.  His perceptive assessment of the culture, customs and daily lives of both the Spanish and non-Spanish inhabitants is a clear indication of his significant ability to observe the environment and people around him and pen his observations in a highly readable style.  Some of the information and impressions of the island’s beauty could have been obtained from other travel journeys available at the time, covering roughly the same time period and indeed, Dimock made use of some of these during his journey. 

A surprising and unusual aspect of his travel dairy, however, is the kind of unrestrained,contemptuous criticism of the extant political, racial and social conditions and his unabashed, radical and arrogant opinions of what is best for Cuba.  In defense of these, however, it must be said that not all of them were completely groundless. Equally surprising is perhaps Dimock’s conceited attitude and his persistent conviction that everything American was superior and the only requirement to solve Cuba’s problems was American intervention or better still, complete annexation of the island and incorporation into The United States.  This sentiment no doubt reflects the general expansionist views held by many in the US, following the war with Mexico (1846-1848) and the subsequent annexation of Upper California, New Mexico and Texas under the treaty with Mexico, February 2, 1818.

Dimock arrived in Cuba on February 9, 1859 and his first debasing comments are made on February 11, when he remarks on the labouring people of Cuba:

The Negroes are most of them pictures of ugliness, frightful to behold, of the true baboon class, projecting muzzle and retreating chin and forehead. They are rarely more than half clothed and their general appearance is very repulsive. They are of inky blackness and would probably rejoice in the heart of any true amalgamationist.” (JJD: 12)

Dimock is no doubt comparing the slaves’ attire in Cuba with those of the US, where modesty and climate dictated that they be better dressed.  The climate in Cuba is completely comparable to many African countries, where both men and women, at that time, wore a simple loincloth.  The Spanish and Creole slave owners in Cuba apparently did not consider the sight of a scantly dressed Negro slave offensive.  His comments however, clearly reveal his unabashed racist attitude, no doubt a reflection of his birth and early upbringing in Virginia, where slaves were extensively utilized.  He also shows a clear contempt for the view held by the so-called ‘amalgamationist’ in the US, who advocated interracial marriage and were against slavery.

The same day, on passing by some sugar warehouses, he noted a great number of Chinese coolies, dressed in only straw hats and pantaloons or cloth wrapped around their loins and hips. He is obviously repulsed by the site and writes:

“They are apparently little better than idiots in point of intellect and it is said that even niggers feel above    them.” (JJD 14)

The import of Chinese labour to Cuba began in June of 1847, when the first boatload arrived.  This was in response to the growing problem with African slaves and the fear that, due to their huge number, they might rebel.  The Chinese were not treated any better than the Negroes and although theoretically working under eight-year renewable contracts for pay, they often didn’t get paid.  In 1860, all coolies were forced to sign a new eight-year contract when the first expired or leave Cuba.  Suicide was very common amongst them.  The last shipload of Chinese coolies arrived in Cuba in 1874.

On February 14th, he discusses with his friends the idea of annexation and ‘how much better Cuba would be if belonging to the States’ thus exhibiting his American superiority complex.  There was never any doubt that the States viewed Cuba with envious eyes.  In 1848, President James K. Polk[2] and his administration had offered Spain 100 million dollars for the island, but to no avail.  Narciso López[3] a military freebooter or filibuster, tried unsuccessfully three times (1848, 1849 and 1851) to invade Cuba from the States and, also to no avail, President Franklin Pierce[4] offered Spain $130 million for Cuba in 1854, which was $30 million more than the previous offer from President Polk.  This offer became known as “The thirty million dollar bill”.

On February 18, he describes the work done by Negro slaves during the sugar cane grinding season and comments:

 “They are constitutionally indolent and have no more judgment than an animal, consequently, there are always some in the hospital.” (JJD: 45)

Treatment of the slaves in Cuba ranked as the worst there was.  They were often worked 18 hours a day and their diet was insufficient to maintain them, giving rise to their frequently emancipated appearance.  It is difficult to comprehend why Dimock opines that they are indolent, assuming that he means they are lazy.  Four hours of sleep per day combined with a poor diet is hardly conducive of great vigor or ambition, quite aside from the fact that an unwillingness to work hard must, for obvious reasons, be an inherent trait in any slave.  Apparently, the only place they were treated on an equal footing with others was in the hospitals, an enigma in a society that had no other care for slaves than to maximize the amount of labour and profit they could achieve from them.

Dimock seem to hold the impression that they (the slaves) are well fed and treated, but much evidence point to the contrary as indicated by Louis A. Perez, 1995.

“Those who worked at night in the boiling-house worked also next day in the field. The treatment of the slaves was terrible.  Dimock contradicts himself on the point of the slaves being “well fed” in his entry for March the 13th:

 “The prevailing sickness among the Negroes is diseases of the bowels, and for this reason, their food is regularly rationed out to them, but they eat fruit immoderately, where it grows in such profusion, and the consequence is, there are always more or less in the hospital.” (JJD: 99)

 The fact the slaves ate a great deal of fruit is probably an indication that the planters did not feed them sufficiently.  The additional diet of fruit is unlikely to cause diseases of the bowels. Contaminated water and unsanitary conditions are more probable causes.

Some of the more justifiable critique in his travel dairy is well illustrated in his journal entry for February 28, where he discusses funeral rights and burials:

The burial grounds are most disgusting spectacles, being full of bones and parts of decayed bodies, but very few graves remain untouched more than three month, and it is considered by that time the body has gone to dust again (or ought to), and the ground is dug over again for another occupant.”(JJD: 70)  

Even the most hardened soul would find the vision of such a scene repulsive in the extreme and it is incredibly surprising that the Catholic Church would condone this practice.  It is completely out of character when considering the religious piety that existed in Spain at the time. Even in the most primitive societies, respect for the dead far exceeds the contemptible comportment shown them by the Spanish and so graphically described by Dimock.

His contempt for the Spanish was not confined to the people alone. On March 20th, he wrote: “I see from the balcony of our hotel the flags of nearly every maritime nation.  Conspicuous are the stars and stripes, and the red cross of St. George, the sickly looking flag of Spain, with its broad yellow stripes, reminding one of a quarantine and yellow fever.” JJD: 120)

On the day of his departure for the US, March 24, 1859, he expressed his desire to see Cuba annexed by the States in the following, somewhat elegiac manner:

 “May I live to see this favoured island represented by one of the galaxy of stars, which glisten in the blue field of the flag of the free.” (JJD: 140)

There is little doubt that Dimock became genuinely fond of Cuba during his short visit, thus his desire to see the island become part of the United States may have been as much a personal wish as a reflection of the US pursuing its policy of Manifest Destiny.  It should be noted that “the free” did not include the millions of slaves residing there against their will[5], and whose destiny within two short years would be the cause of the Civil War in the states. John L. O’Sullivan, an editor and apparently influential democrat in 1845, coined the phrase “manifest destiny”.  In his attempt to justify American territorial ambitions, he wrote the following: 

The right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth. (Brinkley: 352) quoted from Michael T. Lubragge: Manifest Destiny, 1/6 The Philosophy That Created A Nation.

The use of the words: “Providence has given us” is rather arrogant, since most of it was taken by force, rather than given to them.  In the United States’ constitution, a special provision for uniting Canada with the US is still present, perhaps an ominous reminder that the US philosophy of manifest destiny is still on the books.

Sidestepping for a moment, it is interesting to note that “The right of our manifest destiny” has unequivocal parallels in Hitler’s philosophy of “Lebensraum”

For it is not in colonial acquisitions that we must see the solution of this problem, but exclusively in the acquisition of a territory for settlement, which will enhance the area of the mother country, and hence not only keep the new settlers in the most intimate community with the land of their origin, but secure for the total area those advantages which lie in its unified magnitude. (Hitler, Mein Kampf, 653); 

It is ironic that Dimock chose to fight for the north, considering his racial opinions. Destiny, however, did not allow him to witness the outcome of the war, nor later events that nearly brought Cuba into the bosom of the US, whose citizens, to this date, still so tenaciously refer to as “The Land of The Free”, and which, to an uninitiated foreigner, invokes the idea that freedom is the exclusive reserve of the United States. 

For those intrested in Cuba as it was in the 19th century, click on the following link to see a large collection of photos from that period.

http://merrick.library.miami.edu/cdm4/results.php?CISOOP1=exact&CISOFIELD1=CISOSEARCHALL&CISOROOT=/cubanphotos&CISOBOX1=Cuban+Photograph+Collection&CISOSTART=1,101

There is also an interesting website about slavery in Cuba in the mid 1800’s

http://www.melfisher.org/exhibitions/lastslaveships/cuba.htm

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Not published due to copy rights of this essay


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FREEDOM AND JUSTICE

A BRIEF EXAMINATION OF CHE GUEVARA

  
 
 
 
 
 
 
Heroes are not ordinary humans; they are persons of great courage, endowed with mythical abilities as if God-like beings, who are worshipped without rational judgment of their actual humanity.
 (Beachmount)

INTRODUCTION

In every century, a few individuals rise above the horizon of human commonplace and through a circumstance of extraordinary events, manage to change the course of history and achieve either distinction or notoriety through their deeds. During the last century, a number of such persons comes to mind; Mao Tse-Tung, Gandhi, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Einstein, Khrushchev, Roosevelt, Kennedy and others, but the list would not be complete without two people, whose lives and actions made a lasting impact on the world, and especially the Americas; Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the two most prominent participants in the Cuban revolution.

To analyse the life of Che requires a post-mortem examination of gargantuan quantities of literature dedicated to it; volumes of which have judged him in the light of the pro or con beams that focused on communism in general and on his particular revolutionary ideology especially. To understand Guevara, it is necessary not only to comprehend his formative years in Argentina and the events that shaped his thoughts and actions later in his life, but also the sweeping and far-reaching changes in the political climate of the world during 20th century. The regal masters had at last conceded to give freedom and independence to their former colonies. Dictatorships in the Americas and corruption on inconceivable scales had become the acceptable standard in many of its countries. The Second World War, the communist revolutions in China and earlier in Russia had changed the coherence of the world’s political fabric and caused cataclysmic upheavals in global security. It was in these times that Che Guevara entered adulthood. It was into this turbulent and raging current of political changes, intolerance and US neo-colonialism that he launched the raft that was to carry him into a sea of human fortitude and project him into a sphere of fame that reached far beyond the realm of the reality of his life.

He became a product of his time; promulgating and idealizing what some, at that time, considered the road to a utopian life of equality, which in the end, however, proved to be a less than egalitarian solution to the age-old problem of inequity between the wealthy and the poor, between the rulers and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed. It is through the reality of this time period that we must seek to understand Che Guevara as a person who became obsessed with the idea of revolution to free the poor and the oppressed in the world. Any attempt to understand him from a present day perspective of communism and Cuba would be synonymous to illuminating his personality and his life through the vestiges of something that the passage of 50 years has transformed into a different actuality.

Ernesto Guevara did not achieve distinction as a respected leader nor, in some circles, notoriety as a ruthless guerrilla fighter, by means of inflated rumours or exaggerated reporting on his achievements. The two most essential characteristics of his personality were a complete belief in himself and the ideology of the cause he was advocating and a conviction that faithfulness and honesty were imperative functions in the realm of human interaction. It was these two qualities that propelled him to prominence and gained him respect as well as trepidation, not just in Cuba, but also in many parts of the world, especially where poverty, misery and injustice cried out for help. It is ironic, however, that these same virtues also in part were responsible for his failure to achieve his revolutionary goals and his early demise.

ARGENTINA AND HIS YOUTH

Much biographical material has been written about Che’s childhood; being home schooled, his asthma and studies in his father’s library as a teenager, that may have given him his first introduction to socialism through reading the works of leftist writers such as Karl Marx, Engels and Lenin. It is doubtful, however, that anything particular in his earliest childhood impacted appreciatively on his developing personality. Later, however, in the third school he attended, Colegio Nacional Dean Funes, his passion for reading expanded, as did his intellectual horizon through studies of philosophy and a broad range of fiction and poetry by such authors such as Nerudo, Faulkner, Kafka, Camus, Sartre and many others. (The Biography Project: popsubculture.com)

By the time he graduated from high school, he was quite well read, yet, there is no real suggestion that he had developed any adversarial attitude toward the extant political system in Argentina. He had not yet been smitten by the contagion of communism and leftist ideologies that had spread through Russia and China and become a fashionable subject of discussion and experimentation amongst artists, students and the educated bourgeois in the west, a trend that continued through the fifties and sixties. His family’s economic misfortunes, however, does appear to have made some impact on his attitude toward the upper crust of society and an impending sense of the injustices and inequities that existed within it.

He chose to study medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, rather than following his initially planned engineering career, because of a loving relationship with his grandmother that had endured all his life. She died from ill health shortly before he entered the University. The following quote illuminates this:

“Sin embargo, el estado de salud de la anciana se agrava, por lo que el joven Ernesto decide dejar el trabajo y viajar junto a su querida abuela que fallece unos días después de su llegada. Cuentan que durante los últimos días de su abuela, no se separó de su lecho. Según su hermana Celia, jamás lo había visto tan triste. Después de este suceso comunicó a sus padres que estudiaría Medicina en lugar de Ingeniería. A los pocos días solicitó su ingreso en la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Buenos Aires.” (El Archivo Personal del Che: che.cubasi.cu/cronología)

It is paramount to mention that Che was rejected for military service due to his asthma. The critical issue deriving from this is if military service would have changed his outlook on life. Most people who have served in the military admit it changed their lives and it must be considered a possibility that Che’s philosophy or psyche could have undergone some form of transformation by experiencing the harshness of military discipline early in his life, the result of which might have propelled his destiny in a different direction and thus another conclusion.

In 1949, he makes a 4000-mile long journey through Northern Argentina alone on a moped. During this journey, his encounter with many indigenous tribes and his first-hand experience with extreme poverty made perhaps the first real impact on his feelings toward the inequities that existed in his country.

Two years later, in 1951, he goes on a motorcycle journey with his friend, Alberto Granado. They travel from Buenos Aires most of the way to Venezuela on an old motorcycle. Che kept a diary, describing events and experiences from the trip, which later was published as: The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America, which in 2004 was made into a movie by the same name.

This second journey made a significant impact on him. Again he was exposed to the extensive poverty existing throughout rural South America and he became conscious of its widespread communality. He witnessed mistreatment and exploitation of the indigenous people and the working class, which galvanized his opinion on oppression of the poor. The movie has been subjected to a great deal of criticism, much of which views Che through a mirror, reflecting awareness of his later image as a revolutionary. The movie attempts to portray Che’s experiences on the journey, including the apparent compassionate human side he shows during the weeks he spends in a leper colony in Peru, rather than the later radical, single-minded, revolutionary side of him. Paul Berman an author, journalist and writer critiqued the movie from an interesting point of view and states:

“These weeks at the leper colony constitute the dramatic core of the movie. The colony is tyrannized by nuns, who maintain a cruel social hierarchy between the staff and the patients. The nuns refuse to feed people who fail to attend mass. Young Che, in his insistent honesty, rebels against these strictures, and his rebellion is bracing to witness. You think you are observing a noble protest against the oppressive customs and authoritarian habits of an obscurantist Catholic Church at its most reactionary. Yet the entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America’s Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences.” (Berman: The Cult of Che, sep. 2004)

Berman dredges up some other interesting points about Che, undressing the cultic mysticism that surrounds him in a distinct US anti-Cuba tunnel vision style that fails to se the whole man, yet his devastating critique can not be completely ignored. The movie may well be a hagiographic portrait of Guevara but it shows with lucid clarity Che’s predilection for rebellion during his encounter with the authoritarian nuns, and later on the journey, by stating that he was determined to stamp out this injustice of exploitation perpetrated against the indigenous people, which reiterates the old Arab proverb that idealism belongs to the youth, politics to the aged.

Anthony Daniels, a writer and doctor has a similar negative critique of the movie. He writes:

“In presenting Guevara as a romantic figure, generous and compassionate rather than ruthlessly priggish and self-centered, and by suggesting that he has anything to teach us other than negativity, the director is guilty of mendacity of a very high order. The film is an exercise in moral frivolity and exhibitionism, self-congratulation, of course, opportunism. It should sell as well as Guevara T-shirts.” (Anthony Daniels: The Real Che)

Daniels has compared the film to the book and clearly shows a permissive attitude by the film director in that the ‘facts’ in several scenes in the movie have been changed to create a more romantic and idealistic portrait of Che Guevara.

JEAN PAUL SARTRE AND HIS INFLUENCE ON CHE GUEVARA.

Che’s passion for reading exposed his intellect to many political theories and philosophies, both historic and recent. Jean Paul Sartre , the well-known French novelist, became prominent in the mid forties. He was a politically engaged intellectual who saw Communism as an ideology whose time had come. Sartre’s existentialism, the view that our liberty is our freedom to fight to be free, that nothing is right or wrong until we make a choice, and the individual struggle against isolation in a hostile world, no doubt had a major influence in Che Guevara’s thinking. In 1960, Sartre visited Cuba with his wife, Simone de Beauvoir and on his return to France called Guevara “the most complete human being of our age.” His reason for thinking Che was such a person warrants no further comments than to say it was the way Sartre perceived his humanity and personality. Someone else, with different political persuasions, may have viewed him as a rebellious, idealistic individual, suffering from hallucinatory visions of what constitutes a just society. In 1952, Sartre wrote “The Communists and Peace” (Hamilton, 1969), in which he enthused about communist “mass democracy” — which achieved unanimity constantly renewed by the liquidation of opponents. His point is well taken. The conservative British political philosopher Maurice Cranston captured Sartre’s argument in the line “Terror is the guarantee that my neighbour will stay my brother; it binds my neighbour to me by the threat of the violence it will use against him if he dares to be ‘un-brotherly.’” Forget such niceties as the rule of law. (The Absolute Intellectual, 2004) This is clearly the method adapted by Che Guevara and used to obtain the cooperation of the peasants in the countryside. Those who didn’t “Join the cause” would be ostracised or eliminated. This became a classic guerrilla tactic, used in many later revolutions or uprisings (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala).

Sartre’s visit to Cuba underlines his proclivity toward socialism, but also tend to underscore that admiration between Guevara and Sartre was mutual. It is important, however, to note that Sartre eventually broke with the communists.

GUATEMALA AND CHE, THE BEGINNING OF THE END

In 1963, Che wrote a letter to Guillermo Lorentzen in which he stated, “I was born in Argentina, I fought in Cuba, and I began to be a revolutionary in Guatemala” (Che Guevara Reader, 370).

Che was in Guatemala touring the Maya ruins, when the government under Jacobo Arbenz endeavoured to nationalise the huge landholdings of the United Fruit Company .

The US government (CIA) together with two executive directors of United Fruit Company organised an armed Coup, which overthrew Arbenz . The most visible head of this pejorative aggression was the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, lawyer for and stockholder in the company. (ibid 20)  This was Che’s first experience with the dirty tricks department of the US government and it became the determining factor in his decision to fight these injustices by whatever means possible. He became:” A child of my environment.” (ibid 113) That it was The United Fruit Company that instigated this coup is no surprise. The record of misery, rebellion and exploitation left (and still being left) by this company is so mindless as to surpass even the most vivid imagination. “They (The Company’s management) were told to squeeze every cent possible out of the operations.”5

MEXICO: ALEA YACTA EST

After Castro was released from prison in Cuba, following the unsuccessful attack on the Moncada military garrison, he headed for Mexico, (ibid 21) where with the help of a small team of intimate collaborators he began the task of organizing the armed fighters that would invade Cuba. Che, through a friend of his, was introduced to Fidel Castro, who shortly thereafter invited him to join the team. Skipping the details of planning the “invasion” of Cuba-, jail time in Mexico, the near disastrous beginning of the Cuban revolution, it is paramount to reflect on the fact that none of the participants, who had different social persuasions (ibid 87) considered that the revolution should be communist in nature. Their goal was to overthrow Batista and create a more just society in Cuba, with no particular detailed foresight on just what this should constitute. It is interesting to note that both the Chinese and the Russian revolutions began as citizen revolutions, only later to become mass communist movements.

CASTRO, CHE, CUBA AND THE MAKING OF A REVOLUCIONARY.

During the fight for Cuba’s independence, Che’s admiration and respect for Fidel Castro grew and was clearly reciprocated by Castro, who promoted him to the rank of commander before the fighting was over. Che showed his ability as a leader and fighter early on, but demonstrated a developing degree of ruthlessness, something that is hardly surprising when you are fighting for your life, seeing death and destruction on a daily basis. It forged his character into an entity that perhaps had lain dormant in the deepest recesses of his psyche. This is well understood by the following statement he supposedly wrote before he went to Bolivia:

Hate as a factor in the struggle, intransigent hatred for the enemy that takes one beyond the natural limitations of a human being and converts one into an effective, violent, selective, cold, killing machine – our soldiers must be like that; a people without hate cannot triumph over a brutal enemy. (ibid 360)

After the revolution was over and the time came to deal with the oppressors, Che was charged with signing the death warrants and overseeing the execution of condemned men from the Batista regime. His role in this inevitable phase of the revolution has been much criticized, but those who, in the light of this, attempted to paint him as a brutal executioner, failed to consider similar revenge-driven events that took place during other revolutions. The French revolution is but a single example.

His perception of economic independence is illustrated very well by the following:

“If a country does not have its own economy, if it is penetrated by foreign capital, then it cannot be free from the tutelage of the country it is dependent on. Much less can a country make its will prevail if it clashes with powerful interest in the country that dominates it economically “(ibid 99)

Few people, including many Canadians, realize that the very essence of this statement applies to almost every country in the Americas. No country in the western hemisphere is without some degree of US economic domination.

How Che viewed his inner self is to some extend illustrated by the following two statements he made:

“I had thought it quite doubtful when I first enrolled with the rebel commander, to whom I was linked from the beginning by a liking for romantic adventure and the thought that it would be well worth dying on a foreign beach for such a pure ideal. “(ibid 21)

In the Motorcycle Diaries, he describes the character of Pedro de Valdivia, the conquistador of Chile:

“Valdivia’s actions symbolize man’s indefatigable thirst to take control of a place where he can exercise total control. He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural”.

Both statements illuminate aspects of the inner sanctum of a young man, whose personality was inclined toward romanticism, but with the gloomy, self-sacrificial idealism of someone awakened and provoked by the reality of the inequities that have existed in the realm of humanity since time immortal.

Che did not heed Karl Marx’s elemental warning that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (Marx cited in Feuer, 1969, p. 360) (Matt Tilling: The University In Times Of Revolution.)

He failed when he attempted to create revolutions in areas and under circumstances that was of his choosing, using his revolutionary ideology, rather than adapting it to some existing historic precedence.

Freedom, in the truest sense of the meaning, does not exist in a structured society,there is only liberty to live within the rules established by the same

All rights reserved

Kenny Beachmount

NOTA BENE: Alberto Granado died in Cuba at the age of 88, on March 5, 2011. May his next journey be as happy as the previous.

Bibliography.

Not published due to copy rights of this essay.

Creative Commons Licence
This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Cuba-1900-1930


Some time ago, I made a little vignette about Cuba during the period 1900-1930.  This was a time when USA controlled the island, brought numerous settlers there and eventually owned everything that was worth owning.  They built large stately houses, gained control of agricultural production, railroads, industry and supported the brutal dictators that governed Cuba.  It was this unbridled greed that eventually led to the revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.  The vignette was uploaded to YouTube. Click on the link below to watch it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBhdclLhiSU

 

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