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Home Editorial Che in Guatemala 1954; Che in Cuba in 1959

Che in Guatemala 1954; Che in Cuba in 1959

“What a small place in history is given to the rebelling African slaves who established a free republic by routing Napoleon’s best generals!” Fidel Castro wrote, back in his cell on the Isle of Pines. “I am always thinking about these things because I would honestly love to revolutionize this country from one end to the other! I am sure this would bring happiness to the Cuban people. I would not be stopped by the hatred and ill will of a few thousand people, including some of my relatives, half the people I know, two-thirds of my fellow professionals, and four-fifths of my ex-schoolmates.”

– pgs. 12, 13, RED HEAT: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, by Alex von Tunzelmann, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011

The right wing in Guatemala, like Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, had learned how to exploit American fears of communism. During the 1930s, under Jorge Ubico, anyone who spoke out against the interests of the landed elite in Guatemala was in danger of being labeled a communist. At one point, Ubico even described Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as “communistic activities.” In fact, Arbenz’s land redistribution was not communist by Moscow’s definition, nor Marx’s. A communist would have nationalized the land. Arbenz did not. He transferred it from large and often foreign private landowners to small domestic private landowners. This was democratization of stakeholding, a centrist policy that would a decade later be supported by the State Department in other parts of Latin America.

– 54, 55, ibid.

On Tuesday morning this week on Plus TV, Pastor Louis Wade made some harsh criticisms of the late Comandante Fidel Castro of Cuba. We suspect that during his scholarly lifetime, Pastor Wade has concentrated more on Biblical studies than on the history of the Central American and Caribbean region in which Belize is located.

Whether we are Christians or communists, we all condemn slavery unconditionally. Or do we? If we condemn slavery, and its corollary of brutal human oppression, unconditionally, then we should condone any means that are necessary to remove slavery and brutal human oppression. Or do we? Pat Robertson does not. But this is a story for another time.

As the United States Declaration of Independence points out, there comes a time in the history of a people when they must take up arms in the pursuit of freedom. The United States comprised thirteen colonies ruled by the kingdom of Great Britain in 1776 when those colonies declared their independence. This is called the American Revolution, which involved warfare against the British colonizers.

Thirteen years later, in 1789, the French Revolution involved the overthrow of the French monarchy and noble class by the brutally oppressed masses of the French people. Because that revolution was not consolidated, and because the revolutionaries became embroiled in bloody struggles amongst themselves, Napoleon Bonaparte was able to seize power by force of arms around 1796 and establish imperial rule in France.

In 1791, the half million black slaves in the French colony of Haiti, seizing opportunity provided by the confusion amongst the Haitian white and mulatto classes occasioned by the “liberty, equality, and fraternity” battle cry of the French Revolution two years earlier, had begun a fight for freedom which is known as the Haitian Revolution. Even though the slaves triumphed, under the direction of a brilliant Maximum Leader, Toussaint L’Overture, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 decided to reverse the victory of the slaves. He sent a French army under the command of his brother-in-law to return Haiti to French rule. Toussaint hesitated, and was captured by the French and sent to France in chains. Under the leadership of Dessalines, however, Haitian the slaves defeated the French and consolidated their revolution. By 1825, nevertheless, a new regime in France used gunboat diplomacy to demand “financial reparations” from Haiti for the freed slaves. This crippled Haiti, seemingly permanently.

The lesson for oppressed people is that revolutions have to be consolidated, and even when they are, the counter-revolutionaries can attack again. The world is a dynamic place: tomorrow holds no guarantees.

After the overthrow of the right wing military dictator Jorge Ubico in Guatemala, there was a period from 1944 to 1954 which scholars describe as a democratic revolution. This period was such an enlightened one in Guatemala that leaders of the anti-colonial struggle in British Honduras, such as Leigh Richardson and Philip Goldson, visited Guatemala and were impressed.

Jacobo Arbenz, a former Guatemalan Army general, was democratically elected President of Guatemala in 1951. He began some land reforms which enraged the American corporate octopus, United Fruit Company, which appealed to the Dwight Eisenhower/Richard Nixon administration in Washington. Historians later described Arbenz’s land reforms as similar to the Alliance for Progress proposals of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. The Eisenhower/Nixon American government, however, branded Arbenz a communist and organized the overthrow of his government by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

As the CIA plot unfolded and destabilization increased in Guatemala, Arbenz essentially did not fight back. He did not defend his revolution. He did not arm the Guatemalan people. To avoid bloodshed, he went into exile. The subsequent return of right wing military dictatorships to Guatemala in the persons of the next two presidents, Carlos Castillo Armas (1954-1957) and Ydigoras Fuentes (1958-1963), led, however, to the blood Arbenz had tried to avoid. Between 1960 and 1996, a bloody civil war claimed 200,000 lives in Guatemala.

It so happened that the young Argentine physician, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, had been in Guatemala during Arbenz’s final days in 1954. He saw what happened when Arbenz refused to fight to consolidate his revolution. Moving on to Mexico, he ran into Fidel Castro and his fellow Cubans who were organizing an invasion of Cuba to initiate armed revolution.

Arguably, it was primarily because of Che that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was consolidated and proved historically successful, whereas Arbenz’s revolution was destroyed in 1954. Che was uncompromising in the punishments and executions of those Cubans who had been the enemies of the Cuban people during the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. Having seen the revolutionary tragedy in Guatemala in 1954, Che warned Fidel that if he was soft, the counter-revolutionaries would return, and with a vengeance.

And, of course, they did so return, in April of 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban people were ready. Unlike Arbenz in Guatemala, Fidel had armed his people.

The world is a very cruel place, Pastor Wade. Remember, it was the Europeans who invaded Asia, Africa, and America. These were very desperate people. There are reasons why it was not the reverse that took place, why it was not Asians, Africans, and Americans who went exploring in Europe. It is for you to investigate those reasons. So, it was the Europeans who came aggressively after our ancestors, and they conquered. Attempting to reverse that conquest in order to establish freedom, justice, and equality for our invaded, enslaved, and colonized brethren and sistren is a task for a specific breed of men. Fidel Castro was such a man, such a freedom fighter, and we from the Third World will honor him as long as our people trod the face of planet earth.

Power to the people.

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