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02 Dec 2016 00:00
Divided loyalties: A customer in an American flag T-shirt at a Cuban newsstand dominated by images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. (Yamil Lage, AFP)
Patria o muerte! Homeland or death.
Venceremos! We will win.
Those two rallying calls were Castro’s characteristic sign-off to speeches. Among the most memorable times he uttered them was at the massive gathering in Matanzas, Cuba, on July 26 1991, to mark the 38th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban revolution.
What made the occasion doubly significant was that preceding Castro on the podium was Nelson Mandela.
A day earlier, the Cuban Council of State had conferred the country’s highest honour, the José Marti medal, on Mandela.
Shortly after, the radical and robustly independent Pathfinder Press in the United States published both leaders’ speeches in a slim volume titled How Far We Slaves Have Come, derived from Castro’s ringing refrain in his speech. One instance goes thus: “We who come from way back, who were conquered, who were exploited, and who were enslaved throughout history, what marvellous ideas we can defend today; what just ideas we can uphold! And we can think in Latin American and even world terms. How far we slaves have come!”
In May this year, South African imprint Kwela Books republished the Pathfinder book, so it’s readily available in this country. On my wishlist would be another reprint from Pathfinder, this time of Socialism and Man in Cuba by Che Guevara and Castro (1989).
I have my copy still: 20 pages of Guevara’s eponymous title essay followed by 31 pages of Che’s ideas are absolutely relevant today, Castro’s address on October 8 1987 — 20 years after Che’s murder.
Guevara “fell in battle” and was gunned down, a wounded and unarmed prisoner, the next day. Cuban tradition has always been to mark his death as the day he was captured on the battlefield.
Castro ended his encomium with: “We might add that there are men who carry inside them the dignity of the world, and one of those men is Che!
“Patria o muerte!
Guevara and Castro are almost inseparable, as were their Communist predecessors Engels and Marx and Trotsky and Lenin. Three great partnerships of the mind taking on the small matter of capitalism.
Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Friendship (Sceptre, 2009) concludes with its author Simon Reid-Henry writing: “... that both men’s stars seemed to dim when they parted suggests one thing: they may be two of the most iconic individuals of the twentieth century, but it is this common bond that underpins their individual acclaim. It seems right that it is so, for they achieved more together than they ever did apart.”
Fidel had much to say about Che in the comprehensive, possibly definitive My Life (Allen Lane, 2007), for which Castro spent 100 hours between January 2003 and December 2005 being interviewed by Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and one of the prime movers behind the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.
Ramonet edited their conversations, which were published first in a Spanish-language edition in 2006, followed by Andrew Hurley’s English version.
In the penultimate chapter, Summing up a Life and a Revolution, Castro says of Guevara: “Che — I always remember him as one of the most extraordinary personalities I’ve ever known. One of the noblest, most extraordinary, most disinterested men I’ve ever known.”
Asked how history would judge him, Castro replies: “That’s something it’s not worthwhile worrying about ... I’m sure that if I asked teenagers of practically any country who Napoleon was, they’d know the name Napoleon more because of the cognac of that name than for all the things he did on the battlefield. So I say, why worry?”
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