It’s easy in Cuba to find critics of the ageing but authoritarian Castro brothers, but Che Guevara is still revered, writes CONOR POPE
THE HOWLS of outrage that have greeted tentative proposals to erect a memorial to Che Guevara in Galway have been both predictable and misplaced. It is entirely fitting that a sculpture honouring the most instantly recognisable, socially aware revolutionary of the 20th century be given a little space in the city.
The family of Che’s grandmother, Ana Lynch y Ortiz, fled Galway in search of a better life in South America in the mid-18th century. By the time their most famous son was born in 1928, the Lynches of Argentina had become comfortably middle class.
It is not simply because of loose family ties to the west of Ireland that a memorial to “El Che” would sit comfortably there.
Galway has long welcomed radicals. Noel Browne settled there after he was ostracised by the establishment for swimming against the tide, and through four decades the city repeatedly chose Michael D Higgins as its representative and watched with some satisfaction as he spent his pre-Áras career tormenting the right wing, challenging orthodoxies and supporting oppressed peoples at home and abroad.
There were furious protests against the visit to the city of US president Ronald Regan in the mid-1980s because of the US role in toppling democratically elected left-wing governments and propping up right-wing dictatorships across Central America. Galway has always been a haven for idealists, poets and dreamers.
Che, despite his flaws, was all three.
He was radicalised in his 20s by exposure to widespread poverty and corruption on a post-university road trip across Central America and quickly recognised that such inequities were a consequence of capitalism at its most crass and cruel.
He joined Guatemala’s social reform movement, but it was crushed in its infancy by the CIA, an organisation that developed a pathological fear and loathing of him. One former agent, Philip Agee, famously said there was “no person more feared by the Company [CIA] than Che Guevara because he had the capacity and charisma necessary to direct the struggle against the political repression of the traditional hierarchies in power in the countries of Latin America”.
Nearly 45 years after his death at the hands of the Company, he is still hated by some, and there have been dire warnings that the Guevara monument, if erected, would do untold damage to Galway’s reputation in the US. It won’t. Most Americans have far more important things on their minds and couldn’t care less if the city honours, in a low-key way, a long-dead revolutionary.
That does not stop the hysteria, however. It was turned up a notch this week on RTÉ’s Liveline programme. In the red corner was artist Jim Fitzpatrick, who was calm and lucid, while in the blue corner stood Declan Ganley, who labelled the revolutionary a “murdering psychopath”. Not to be outdone, Yale history professor and Cuban emigrant Carlos Eire compared him to Adolf Hitler.
A caller by the name of Eleanor, meanwhile, told Joe Duffy she had visited Cuba on six occasions and she suggested it was a utopian paradise.
Her comments were risible and utterly wrong. Cuba is by no means a socialist paradise – far from it. Political oppression and censorship are rife, travel is restricted, the regime spies on its citizens with an amateurish zeal that would be comical were it not so criminally repressive. State-sanctioned homophobia is rampant and a burgeoning sex trade sees wealthy tourists prey on those impoverished by a fatally wounded system.
But Ganley and Eire were wrong, too. For an Ivy League history professor to compare Guevara to Hitler is, frankly, ridiculous. Ridiculous but unsurprising. The far right in the US, particularly Cuban-Americans living in Florida, have long viewed Guevara as a monster and they rarely let facts get in the way of a good rant.
Nelson Mandela does not see him that way. He has described him as “an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom” and few people living in Cuba today will hear a word against him. It is easy to find critics of the ageing but still authoritarian Castro brothers – as long as the spies are out of earshot – but Guevara remains revered.
And so he should be. Cuba in the 1950s was bloated, corrupt and becoming a playground for wealthy US gangsters. There were huge disparities between rich and poor, and Guevara sought to end such inequities.
He tried and, while he did not succeed, and Castro’s Cuba never worked as it might have, things did improve significantly for its most oppressed people. It is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that the country was never allowed to fulfil its great potential because of internal paranoia brought on, at least in part, by an unjust and malicious US blockade that has been widely condemned by governments of all hues across the world.
The longer the Castros have clung to power and the longer the US embargo has been in place, the more its people have suffered and the more desperate many have been to flee.
Cuba is a long way from where it should be, but that is not Che Guevara’s fault. He dreamed an entirely different dream for countries in the western hemisphere – and he should be remembered in Galway as its most famous and most influential son.