Ideas about Cuba and Che

Che appeals to revolutionary fantasists who like the poetry of violence.

By Phil Hall

When we watched a film about the Mexican revolution starring Pedro Infante in 1997 my wife explained a little about what was going on.

‘Unfortunately, during the Mexican revolution, our family was on the wrong side. They had land and haciendas and property and the poor people, especially the peasants, were terribly exploited. The poor decided to fight for their rights to the land and to a decent life.

‘The revolutionaries were not saints; they were rough and ready, uncultured people. They regarded refinement and books as the mark of the bourgeoisie. My great grandfather was a headmaster, but lived on the hacienda my great-grandmother inherited. When the revolutionaries came they didn’t kill him. They left him weeping, surrounded by his burned books.

‘Of course our family were Mexicans, like everyone else, but they thought they were apart – that they were special. They should have identified with the majority, but didn’t.’

In Mexico I was the side-kick to the vice-rector of a new university which had been set up in one of the roughest parts of Guadalajara. At that time the road the ‘pesero’ travelled on wasn’t even tarred.

The vice-rector went to Cuba and when she came back she was full of praise for Cuban postgraduate education:

‘In Cuba, she said, you can’t do a PhD in any old subject that interests you. There aren’t enough resources for that sort of indulgence. What they do is match a problem to a student. This extreme pragmatism, forced on them by necessity, is partly why their health system has progressed so much.

‘Take agriculture, for example,’ said Sagrario: ‘Let’s say there is a beetle causing damage to the sugar cane crop. The postgraduate student will be told. This is the subject of your doctorate. Tell us how we need to deal with this beetle. That’s what we should do in Mexico.’

Eve and Tony, feeling great affection for Cuba and its revolution, were finally coming to see it’s fruits.

A month or two later, in December 1997, my wife and I visited Cuba with Tony and Eve Hall, my parents. This was on the eve of the first visit of the Pope to Cuba since the revolution:

‘He’s [Fidel] a well brought up Catholic boy. Now that he’s getting old he’s a little worried about the fate of his soul. What’s he going to say to the Pope?’ said Teresa, laughing.

Of course the struggle for democracy in Poland was manipulated. But it was against a regime that had been imposed on the Poles. There were parallels with Mexico; perhaps even with Cuba.

Naturally, Mom and Dad had very little time for Karol Woytila, because Woytila berated the Nicaraguan liberation theologians, singling out Father Ernesto Cardenal. Woytila was the patron saint of anti-communism and Reagan and Thatcher’s darling. Later on, however, he mellowed. He became a critic of laissez fair capitalism.

Tony Hall, Dad, during our visit to Cuba

Eve and Tony, feeling great affection for Cuba and its revolution, were finally coming to see it’s fruits.

There was the connection with Africa. Dad had sent a reporter to interview Che at the Nation. Che Guevara had tried to ‘export revolution’ to Africa in the 60s.

On the one hand, I would be keeping Mom and Dad company, and sharing in their abiding respect for Cuban development achieved in the teeth of imperialism. On the other hand, I would be going with a progressive Catholic Latin American, with her deep conviction that the democratic process was sacrosanct. Tere much better understood the culture, texture, psychology and reality of Fidel.

It was a holiday and not a fact-finding trip. The conclusions we drew were reached in museums, from behind Daiquiris in tourist bars, while walking along the streets, and in hotel dining rooms.

Tere much better understood the culture, texture, psychology and reality of Fidel.

In the museum of the city there was a large and impressive display of furniture and other household objects: broad plates made from Mexican silver, chandeliers, chairs and tables made from mesquite wood and cedar, red and green fluted wine glasses, cutlery, salvers and goblets from the 15th century and household items from the 19th century:

Mom and Dad were underwhelmed. Yes, these were beautiful and interesting objects, perhaps, but they had not come to Cuba to admire its Spanish colonial heritage, or make connections with the background story of the newly formed Mexican family of their son and his wife.

‘These are the sort of things my family probably used in the times of the Virreinato.’ Teresa said. ‘They are familiar. In Mexico the presidents and functionaries of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional treated these objects as their own property. They stole what they wanted, but here they have managed to preserve them from the looters in public museums.’ She seemed envious.

At the entrance to the Museum there was a seminarian who chatted about the forthcoming visit of the Pope and the difficult situation for Catholics on the island. It was improving, but that there was still low level of constant persecution. As he was talking I wondered what his views were on the persecution of homosexuals by the Cuban state. He was probably quite OK with that. Dad and Mom were polite, but dismissive.

When we went to the museum of the Cuban revolution, the situation was reversed. Teresa was interested, but sceptical. My parents were completely absorbed. Here was the evidence for a successful revolution. The museum, carefully curated, brought it all to life: the terrible conditions the Cuban people had lived in; the long years of organised resistance to oppression; the intelligent and brave actions of the revolutionaries; the response of the Batista regime and their imperialist backers and, finally, the victory of the Cuban revolution.

There were displays of peasants’ clothing, agricultural instruments, old bolt action Mausers, uniforms and the iconic caps and badges of the revolutionary brigades. You could read the diaries of revolutionaries, and the smell of martyrdom was penetrating.

Mom and Dad were entranced and now it was Tere’s turn to be dismissive. ‘Yes, but look at the situation now.’ She commented to me indignantly in an undertone. ‘Look at the conditions people live in. Look at how run down everything is. They don’t have democracy and freedom, do they?’

Being in the middle was like seeing things in Cuba in different dimensions. I saw things from everyone’s point of view. I had my own point of view.

Marcelino dos Santos on Che Guevara

Marcelino dos Santos with Eve Hall in Matumi, Mpumalanga

I saw a copy of Che’s African diaries about 12 years ago and was asked to translate them, but the offer quickly faded away. I still have them in the original Spanish and intend to read them through in their unedited form.

At the time I said I would be honoured to translate the diaries. I am not so sure now. Che’s language was dense; circular and confusing in its references, alluding to conversations and events that he didn’t specify fully or detail. If Che was writing for posterity, there was absolutely no sign of it in the diaries; it was stodge.

And then, at my mother’s funeral, I was talking to one of the former senior leaders of the African revolutionary and anti-colonial movements, Marcelino dos Santos. How the subject arose, I don’t know. I think he felt he could speak freely to me because I was an outsider. He was clever enough to see my cold, observant eye.

Marcelino said that he had respected Che’s ideas to some extent, but didn’t like Che as a person.

According to him, Che had been a latecomer to the Cuban revolution, and without much of a background in Cuban politics. His view was that Che, an Argentinian trained as a doctor, just got onto the boat with Fidel in order to help swell the numbers.

After the success of the Cuban revolution Che, according to Marcelino, was under the impression that all you had to do to start a revolution anywhere in the world was to jump off a boat and start shooting. Everyone would rally to your standard. This was the philosophy that would lead to Che’s death in Bolivia on October 9th, 1967.

Marcelino explained, when the Granma arrived on the coast of Cuba in July, Cubans rallied to the revolutionary cause and what Che did not understand is that this was the result of 30 years of political agitation and preparation by the trade unions and the opposition. Che was under the false impression that the people supported Fidel because they had been swept away by the romance of bullets and uniforms and that, on seeing brave revolutionaries, their indignation at the injustices they faced would suddenly find a true revolutionary outlet.

‘Che drew the wrong conclusions.’ said Marcelino.

Marcelino told me that Che, and Che’s group in Africa, were arrogant and dismissive about the tactics used by the African freedom fighters. Once, after the African revolutionaries announced that a Portuguese plane had been shot down, the Cubans refused to believe them. They refused to believe the Africans were capable of such military feats: “Impossible” they said. Marcelino was quoting.

Che and his grouping ordered African revolutionary leaders to go and lead revolutions and anti-colonial struggles in countries that were not their own. They were politely ignored. Che appeals to revolutionary fantasists who like the poetry of violent revolution.

On the other hand, according to Dominic Tweedie, the Cuban intervention in Angola was partly inspired by Che’s romantic internationalism* and so there was a silver lining to his dark romance of bullets turning into flowers. The Cubans played a crucial part in rolling the South Africans out of Angola and Namibia and, finally, in helping to tumble the regime out of power in South Africa.

State Funeral of Marcelino dos Santos

*Dominic asked me to translate Jorge Risquet’s account of the Cuban fighters in Africa, and I started it, to my shame I didn’t finish it. I turned it over to Dominic’s son James, who speaks good Spanish and is married to a Guatemalan doctor, Renata. Perhaps James has translated Risquet for Dominic.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

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