A ubiquitous Che Guevera in his one-starred beret stares down from the countless walls on which he’s been painted. He serves as an “ejemplo” for the common Cuban. He is the ideal, this guerrilla soldier who once earned the nickname “Butcher of La Cabana” in the “service” of his adopted people.
Lining political enemies up for execution, this hero of the Left once famously declared, “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail.”
There is such irony in the T-shirts plastered with his face — this man mired in Marxist ideology — that are peddled today on every corner of Havana. Then again, perhaps it’s a fitting legacy for this leader of the proletariat who died in Bolivia wearing a Rolex.
Regardless, after time in Cuba as part of a study abroad program, I feel as if I have witnessed some of the inarguable failings of Che’s vision.
Whilst fire trees flame Cuban streets with brilliant color, and there is a constitutional “right” in this worker’s paradise to health care and housing, poverty is gut-wrenching and glaring. Buildings in which people live are literally falling down, as many as two a day in the capital city. Starving dogs roam the neighborhoods. Old people beg for soap from park benches.
Whose fault is this misery?
Our guide blamed the United States and the Cuban exile community in Miami for his country’s financial distresses. Of course, he also blamed the Bay of Pigs on Dwight Eisenhower and said the Cuban government never expropriated private property from any citizens unless they had chosen of their own free will to leave the island.
That’s a perspective, I guess.
Yet I concede it is true the long American embargo supported by many Cuban exiles has never fulfilled its purpose of removing the Castro brothers from power. In fact, in some ways, American policies have kept them breathing — sucking all the freedom off the island — because they can point to the “imperialists” up north who are perpetually blamed for policy failings.
For this reason alone it is worthwhile to pragmatically debate whether or not economic sanctions against Cuba should be maintained. But it’s also worthwhile thinking long and hard on exactly what Cubans themselves have fostered without American intervention since the moment Castro’s 26th of July movement was proclaimed victorious.
Here I would point to a striking mural painted behind a university that shows the “ninety-nine percent” pulling down a giant monster whose various parts are tattooed with the stock prices of the world’s most important companies.
When I saw this image so graphically proclaiming the anti-capitalism principles of this tiny nation, I immediately thought it would please Che Guevara. It would certainly inspire those Occupy Wall Street folks who once took over American parks to promote the same leveling tenants of Marxism that were the hallmark of Che’s Cuban Revolution — the message his face still carries when plastered onto billboards and clothing.
The problem is that once the “monster” has been pulled down — as happened in a very real way in Cuba — prosperity doesn’t rise up to replace it. Rather, there is simply a country of “equals” milling about in the rubble of glories past. And then there are the new monsters that lurk in the economically egalitarian shadows, the gnashing teeth of real repression that devour dissidents.
Richest — and most ironic of all, of course — is the fact that Raul Castro is now cautiously looking to markets, private property, and future corporate development to sustain Cuba’s future. He is widening the harbor with hopes of welcoming American cruise ships.
Perhaps this version of perestroika in the Caribbean will result in something better for those Cuban people who yearn for something more, who wouldn’t wear the Che T-shirt even if they had the money to buy it.
I truly hope so.
Barbara Donnelly Lane, formerly of east Cobb, is working on a master’s degree in political science at Georgia State University.