As I mentioned in my introductory post, I’m currently hunkered down in chilly Ireland, so indulge me in a recounting story that’s percolating in the Irish media. Yesterday, the London Times reported on a Galway City Council’s proposal to erect a statue celebrating the Argentina freelance revolutionary Che Guevara. According to The Times, “The city has decided to build the statue as Guevara's Irish links have been traced to Galway, and Patricio Lynch, the founder of the Argentine branch of his family, was said to have been born there in 1715.”
Well, not really.
Besides his interest in Guevara’s genealogy, the Galway councilman behind the plan, Billy Cameron, is rather outspoken supporter of the Cuban dictatorship, and his website states that he has been “coordinator of the Cuba Support Group since 1996,” a pro-regime organization that delivers “up to date information on Cuba through the media, public meetings, and a newsletter.” (Cameron claims to have stopped participating in the group eleven years ago). In other words, Guevara’s tenuous connection to the Irish diaspora is an implausible cover for a celebration of his politics.
All of this has naturally enraged Cuban Americans, including Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who on Saturday penned a thundering opinion piece for NJvoices.com denouncing Guevara as a “mass murderer and a bigot.” And seeing as I’m in Ireland, I figured I would give Cameron a call a discuss his affection for Cuba, Guevara, and the brothers Castro. We spoke for a rather awkward 30 minutes, a debate punctuated by Cameron’s long, awkward pauses when quizzed on Cuba’s grim human rights record.
Some highlights from our chat, condensed for readability:
Right Turn: You are a sympathizer with the government in Cuba.
Cameron: [pause] I respect the sovereignty of Cuba and whatever political changes will happen in Cuba, will come from the Cuban people.
Right Turn: How does it come from the Cuban people if the Cuban people aren’t allowed to vote?
Cameron: The Cuban people vote in elections, my dear man.
Right Turn: And how many parties do they have to choose from?
Cameron: They have one party.
Right Turn: You say there are elections but only one party. Is that something you support?
Cameron: [long pause] Anyone can stand once they are a member of the party. I’ve watched TV in Cuba and there is an awful lot of discussion, an awful lot of politics.
Right Turn: So why don’t they allow the formation of competing parties?
Cameron: Well, eventually they will, I presume…It will be up to the Cuban people to decide that, really.
Right Turn: You mean, it’s up to the Cuban government.
Cameron: Eventually there will be political change in Cuba. I take that for granted.
When asked about Che Guevara’s role as revolutionary executioner—he famously oversaw the meting out of death sentences at the infamous La Cabaña prison—Cameron cited Guevara biographer Jon Lee Anderson, arguing that there isn’t “a single credible source that says that Che executed an innocent.” Such is the nature of war, Cameron says, but “this was a popular revolution and people were bound to be killed.”
Right Turn: So you support the death penalty in [revolutionary] situations like this.
Cameron: [Pause] I believe a suppressed [sic] people have a right to take up arms.
Right Turn: And do you believe they have a right to shoot people who oppose them?
Cameron: [Pause] In a war situation, yes.
When I asked if he was “satisfied that the judicial process was transparent and people were treated fairly” by the Cuban regime, Cameron, sounding slightly exasperated, replied, “I would hope that they were, yeah.”
Right Turn: You think that’s enough—to hope—if you are going to erect a memorial to someone who was involved in this type of violence?
Cameron: [Pause] All historical figure create controversy…Do we deny history? Or is it a case of imperialist murder can be commemorated, whereas the rebel who takes on imperialism will not be commemorated?
Cameron claims that Cuba represents a “beacon of hope for other Third World countries, what you can do as a Third World country” and that his admiration for the revolution stems from “what they had done in the 50s”—presumably this means unseating dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But when I asked if he still admired the regime, he admitted that he did, because “anyone who stands up to the beast should be admired.” I’ll let readers work out who “the beast” is.
It’s an odd thing about those who support totalitarian regimes like the one in Cuba: They’re rarely full throated about it, eliding the lack of free speech and a free press, the political prisoners, and the crushing poverty. Cameron says that he has previously condemned the restrictions on speech in Cuba (though I can find no evidence of this online), but when pressed on this point he lapses effortlessly back into propaganda: “Well, everyone I knew in Cuba spoke out. I had some friends who weren’t afraid to share their views with me.” But could they do it publically? “Probably in a minor way. But they wouldn’t be taking to a podium in central Havana.” And while he says that he “can totally understand” the position of Cuban exiles, he nevertheless blames those forced out of the country for the lack of “dialogue” with the regime because they are too “set in their far-right values.”
Cameron’s platitudes about “denying history” are, in this case, rather appropriate. But before one can deny history, one must understand it. We both agreed that the dictatorship of Chilean putschist Augusto Pinochet was beastly (a historical event that invariably comes up when debating Cuba apologists), though every crime committed by the Cuban regime needed contextualizing, to be seen in the context of the “beast.”
And some news for you New York Times readers: expect a column on the Guevara mess from Maureen Dowd. Cameron told me that he had “a good chat with a journalist who was over here getting an honorary degree this morning, from the New York Times, Maureen Dowd. And we had the best…ummm…a chat for about an hour and a half. And we laughed and joked about it.”
A hilarious conversation, I’m sure. If Dowd needs a book for her flight home, I heartily recommend Martin Amis’s “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million”. (“It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting.”)
And for Cameron and Dowd, I offer the following extract from Guevara’s private diary, which remains unpublished in Cuba, in which he describes the killing of a supposed traitor to the revolutionary case:
“I ended the problem giving him a shot with a 32 (caliber) pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal. He gasped for a little while and was dead. Upon proceeding to remove his belongings I couldn’t get off the watch tied by a chain to his belt, and then he told me in a steady voice farther away than fear: ‘Yank it off, boy, what does it matter….’ I did so and his possessions were now mine.”
There is, though, some good news to report: The debate precipitated by exile Cubans seems to have had the desired effect. Cameron tells me that, with all of the negative attention the statue has attracted, it’s unlikely that the Guevara statue will ever be built.
Bonus: For a smart takedown of the Guevara myth, be sure to read Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s 2005 piece in The New Republic.