Martin Guevara: Leftist, Rightist or Centrist?

May 27, 2014 | Print Print |

Yusumi Rodriguez

Martin Guevara in Frankfurt (2010).

HAVANA TIMES – I love reading things when I find ideas that I can identify with, or reflections that could have come from me. I enjoy even more reading pieces whose contents force me to pause and consider arguments that I hadn’t thought about before, that “prod” me and leave me thinking.

I include in this latter group the writing of Martin Guevara, who prefers to “show rather than judge” when he writes. The irony of his writing lies in the events that he describes more than in the words itself, without rendering the writing any less intelligent and elegant.

Like many of his readers, his relationship to Ernesto Guevara aroused my curiosity, especially given the incisive nature of his articles. Who is this man? To what extent has his position as Che’s nephew weighed on his life and view of reality? Is he on the left, the right or the center?

Over a period or months I asked myself these questions and many others. The opportunity to find some answers arrived when Martin Guevara agreed to an interview for the Havana Times. Our e-mail exchange began about a month ago, but his responses have only served to fan my curiosity still more. Nevertheless, the interview had to end at some point, and I can only hope that his upcoming book In the Shadow of a Myth to be published in both Spanish and English, will finally satisfy my curiosity.

Martin was born in Argentina in 1963 and lived in Cuba for twelve years. He left permanently in 1988, but he has returned several times to visit his son, his mother and other family members, although he no longer had permission to live here. For the last 17 years he has resided in Spain with his wife and a younger son. This man who defines himself as self-taught in everything writes for his own blogs and a few other places.

In Cuba he enjoyed special privileges, “like all the family members of those we colloquially refer to as the ‘in-group’. Money is only a means towards power. When we’re offered everything we normally pursue with money, then power becomes the element that differentiates the social classes and castes. In the countries of the Second World, the purchasing power of money was exchanged for an absolute power. That’s why having two Lada automobiles, a beach house, ham hocks in the kitchen, and a pair of servants disguised as members of the military is comparable in an egalitarian society to having millions in a class society.

HT: At what moment and for what reason did you stop being a supporter of the Cuban regime (assuming that at some point you were one)?

Martin in his room at the Habana Libre Hotel.

MG: I never was a supporter of the Cuban regime nor of any other. I belong to the critical sector, not out of political dissidence but because I insist on individual freedom for people living under that regime and all others that repress them. But as a child I was a Pioneer and the revolutionary ideas entered into my adventurous and dreamy spirit with incredible force. My lack of daring, and what I saw of my father’s exile and that of his friends from the time that I was very young, led me to a belief that violence is never good.

My disenchantment was gradual; in addition, the mechanism of self-censorship implemented in the socialist countries is much more profound than what is imaginable for other societies. I’ve had friends [living outside of Cuba] who needed several years before they could speak of the Cuban leaders without worrying about keeping their voices low, or using aliases instead of the names, or by gesturing with their hands to indicate a beard. Years before understanding what it means to have the right to think as you please, as long as this doesn’t impact others’ rights and freedom.

As a result, I find it difficult to answer that question. In any case, I had problems in school from the time I was a teenager; I was one of those undisciplined types, growing up in the direction of what’s called “lumpen” there. That was the rebellious terrain that I defended, and which in one way or another I still believe in, considering myself a child of the rock generation.

HT: You stated in an interview that you had to escape from the shadow of Ernesto Guevara among other things in order to recapture the affection that you had for him for his Quijote-like aspect. How do you view the executions by firing squad that he carried out?

MG: This has to do with each person’s spirit. Others of my cousins didn’t feel the weight of this on their shoulders: objectively speaking, when you have a Myth of this size, a person who on top of everything else died for the poor of the earth before he was forty, so similar to other universal myths, certainly one can never be more than a “nephew of”, a “son of” a “grandchild of” etc. And you’ll perish if faced with any possible comparison.

In my case, with my father already emulating his brother as a political prisoner in Argentina, the process of growing up and offering something new as a socially useful being was doubly complicated in light of what was expected of me. It meant that my road was thornier, but easier to reach a certain level of success by becoming the anti-hero: dirty, disheveled and undisciplined; to differentiate myself by doing things that were politically incorrect, which doesn’t mean “negative” since in many things I still consider them positive.

In the pool at the Habana Libre.

This was the first method that I utilized to distance myself in my own mind from his shadow. Over time I moved far away from everything related to the left or the right, so that no one would know that I was related to that icon, a positive figure for many and negative for others. When I learned at ten years old that I had had an uncle like that and that he had died years ago, the effect on me was a mixture of pride and distress. As I grew up that fascination became a wrangle.

Regarding the firing squads and all the violence used as a means to eliminate violence; the repression as a means to better the World, the damages and pain meant to bring into bloom a world of happiness, I’ve meditated a lot. My conclusions take me far from what those revolutionaries of 1959 – many of whom had very good intentions – believed.

I believe that this type of execution is counter-productive in both the short and the long term. I won’t enter into the topic of the guilt of those who were condemned; I know that many were torturers. But, I don’t believe that this makes it a good idea to do the very things that we say we have to change. In my uncle I see a quantity of rare and complex virtues that don’t take away his errors and miscalculations, but I would let these latter be criticized and exposed by those who suffered from them.

I believe that he had the uncommon quality of always putting his own skin on the line for what he thought, of not lying even about this, when he said in the United Nations, “We have shot, we continue to shoot and we will shoot more,” in a very harsh declaration. Today in this world where hundreds of millions are dead because of avarice and violence, I’d like to hear at least similar words from those responsible: “We have caused hunger, we still cause hunger and we will continue to cause hunger in Africa to obtain diamonds;” or “We have bombed, we bomb and we will bomb further to reap the benefits for ourselves,” etc.

I ended up having my own way of thinking unconditioned by the generation of my father or the influence of my uncle. I’m convinced that only from a platform of love for humanity and respect for those like and unlike us, the search for a better society in every sense, total liberty and cultural and economic growth will we arrive at peace and happiness in the world. We can break that artificial vicious circle of War – Peace – War that they have made us think of as natural, in accordance with their own interests.

HT: What makes you affirm that Ernesto Guevara was a disaster as a minister?

MG: Essentially, my affection for him. That search for who he definitively was and what he ended up being – a Quijote or Sandokán [fictional pirate from the late 19th century, and hero of a television series] who ended up alone in a jungle, as the Great can end up, with a vision of Utopia, calling his horse Rocinante. In the end, I base myself on the results of his economic policies, although I believe that his idea of self-management for the state enterprises was better than the centralized economic policies that ended up being imposed in total line with the USSR. But for me being a bad politician is a virtue, not a defect.

HT: Would you retain anything of Fidel Castro?

MG: Personally, those astonishing facets of his personality. But, for the common good of a country, I wouldn’t hold onto much. If you ask me about the Revolution, I have many other things to answer. Fidel will surely be an object of study, because he has certainly not passed through life undetected, neither by his followers in the world nor by his detractors. I never saw anyone who was able to approach a level of control over everything, as Fidel was capable of doing.

Portrait of the young Martin Guevara.

Clearly, his confidence in himself, the demonstration that, contrary to the academic view, one can get where they want, the example of how far an ego can in fact take you, are aspects of Fidel that I would study, if one day I were ever interested in delving into them.

We need to change that tendency in the world of having caudillos govern us, exchange the absolute leaders for those who merely oversee the administration.

HT: The response to my next question can only be speculation and we’ll never know the reality, but – What do you believe your uncle would think about the changes taking place in Cuba?

MG: I would respond with a phrase that my teachers, principals and those of the neighborhood defense committees in Cuba would often use on me when they believed that I had done something wrong: “Ay yi yi, if Che woke up from his grave and saw you, he’d go right back in.”

So, I say to those who are taking apart the same things that they had us give up so much for: “Ay, if Che woke up from his grave and saw you, he’d go right back in. But first he’d surely give you a good spanking!”

HT: Reading your posts you get the sensation that the Revolutionary government with Fidel at the head had nothing more than miscalculations and brought no benefit to the people. Is that what you think?

MG: No one can assert with seriousness that in fifty years nothing in a country has been good, or no policies correct. But I think that when your contrast the (many) correct decisions with the excesses, the errors and their consequences, only to end by assisting in the negation of the enormous effort made by the Cuban people (let’s not forget that behind every experiment of that caliber there is and was a people), and the return of capitalism on the part of those who denied it, the balance is a negative one.

Cuba is the first country where this happened, in Vietnam, it wasn’t Ho Chi Minh, nor Mao in China, nor Lenin in the USSR, nor Ulan Bator in Mongolia, nor Bem Bella, nor Neto nor Marian, nor Machel in in Mozambique who let loose the process of a return to capitalism. It’s not for me to judge; I prefer to write and to demonstrate, but I believe that it will be up to the Cubans to analyze this, taking into account the joke that circulated in Germany when socialism fell: “Everything they had told us about socialism was a lie. … but, all the warnings they gave us about capitalism were true.”

HT: In your post “Helms Castro” about the North American blockade of Cuba, you affirm that for the United States government, which has continued to increment these policies over a period of fifty years, it’s obvious that they are betting on their effectiveness in overthrowing a tyrant who maintains himself in power by force of repression. Do you think that the Cuban system has only been maintained by force of repression, do you reject the idea that there are Cubans who genuinely support their leaders and see this system as the best option for the country?

At the Cueva de los Portales with my friend Olguita Suárez who worked at the La Tribuna newspaper. It was here that my uncle was in charge of an outpost when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred.

MG: I wanted to emphasize how useful this policy has been for the extremist politicians, and how anything that relaxed the rope would be unwelcome to those who wanted to maintain that tension for different reasons: some in their exile to achieve greater government attention and others in their throne of power, because the call for unity behind patriotic slogans in the face of any menace has a maximum effectiveness.

In terms of just the question of whether 55 years of government has been maintained by repression alone: of course not. I already responded to that in the previous question. But, yes, I do believe that the ingredients of repression, authoritarianism, a mixture of the voluntary with the obligatory, have been present on every plate.

The way in which self-censorship was inculcated in those countries wrongly called “Socialist” should be studied. In almost all of them, with few exceptions, people preferred to face a frozen woods or a wall guarded by guards ready to shoot, rather than stand up to the situation or even consider seriously the possibility of becoming a leading force for change.

In Cuba there were very concrete problems at the time of the Revolution. Many sectors of society participated in it – it wasn’t a monolithic movement or anything like that. Yet, for more than a half century under one sole government, all kinds of things have been done – some spectacularly good and others incredibly bad.

There are countries where in one three month period there are more people killed through crime than there have been during 55 years in Cuba. That’s no small accomplishment. There are countries where in 55 years there have been more than twenty distinct governments chosen by the people: that’s no small hindrance.

HT: Do you recognize any right of the United States governments to propose the overthrow of the Cuban regime?

MG: No government anywhere has the right to overthrow anybody. They don’t even have a right to intervene in the issues of others except in the case of a calamity which brings humanitarian needs, especially since each one of us has so much to set right in our own houses.

It’s difficult to draw the line, but in the Second World War the participation of the Allies against Hitler yes, was a good thing and at the same time a tremendous intervention. When the Rwandan genocide occurred, intervention from other nations was completely lacking; no one anywhere on any the political spectrum cared a pickle. There were no diamonds, or strategic positions or gold or opium.

In the same way, I don’t even recognize the nomenclature of the CCP [Cuban Communist Party] or the right of any authoritarian force to block the people from different forms of government.

HT: From the same post called “Helms Castro” we can deduce that it would be a disaster for the Cuban government if the blockade were to disappear tomorrow. So why then doesn’t the United States government lift it, since their objective is to “overthrow the tyrant that maintains itself by force of repression”?

MG: I was referring to years past. The situation now is very different. Raul is working hard and has involved himself deeply in the changes. Certainly there’ll be errors and things that are badly done, but the right choices can be made only by those who try, and Raul is moving the pieces in a very conservative but also a risky way. I prefer this to immobility. In this new situation, with the conversations that are probably happening at every level between the US and Cuba, with the trips Cubans make to Miami, it’s a different panorama than the Cuba that I knew where the mere mention of a desire to go to Miami could bring forth grave consequences. Within this panorama, I don’t believe that the blockade still serves the Cuban government because it is no longer sunk in a diehard position, or better said in the “public representation” of such inflexibility. I believe that both are moving forward with solid criteria towards an end to the blockade.

But, yes, I feel that both extremes meet in the middle. Although they apparently present different objectives, their tactics are the same.

At the Cueva de Girón.

HT: What’s your opinion of the recent revelations regarding the Zunzuneo program? [USAID program to build a Cuban twitter program to stir unrest]

MG: No one holds the exclusive right to bad behavior, much less the Cuban government. If people were able to learn from their own trials and errors, we would have been freed centuries ago from being governed by knaves, rogues, con artists, the bloodthirsty and the subjugators. But it seems that we don’t learn as fast as we would like. The USSR was devoured by an invading force that streamed forth from Levi’s, McDonald’s hamburgers and MTV; they would never have been able to defeat them at war.

In the end, what everyone wants, I think, is to live in peace. So the issue is how to fulfill once and for all the initial promises of that revolution now far off in time – not in terms of affirming the continuing truth of their reasoning but in terms of the necessity of changing the world for something better, where there is a guarantee of rights and liberties. Nothing more, nothing less.

HT: Do you think of yourself as Argentinian or Cuban?

MG: Well, now I’d have to include Spanish in that list. It’s a curious triangle of identification. Spain was the Metropolis, and Cuba and Argentina are the two countries with the strongest Spanish roots oversees. In the case of Cuba, for two strong reasons – because it’s the second place they originally landed and because they were receiving Spanish immigrants up until the time that the Revolution triumphed. In Argentina the roots come from being the last country in the American conquest, but also due to an influx of Spanish immigrants right up through the present. I’m a part of all three of them. I learned to eat in Argentina, to drink and dance the guaracha in Cuba, to form a family and pay taxes in Spain.

HT: My last question might sound a little hostile, but given your affirmation that “when you have a Myth of that size who in addition died for the poor of the earth before turning forty, with a beard and thin, so similar to other universal myths, you have to take into account that you’ll only be a ‘nephew of’ a ‘son of’ a ‘grandson of’ etc.” Nonetheless, don’t you feel that it’s an advantage in the end: isn’t the readers’ interest in your blog, the publication of your book in Spanish and English and the recognition that derives from these things due to your family ties to Ernesto Guevara?

In the countryside with my wife.

MG: The question is interesting, but it brings me to a reply so lengthy that it would form nearly a book of reflections and revelations. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

During the years I lived in Cuba of course one of the visible faces of this relationship was that I lived better than others, or that they tolerated things in me that they didn’t in others. However, there was another side to that coin: everyone is the way they are, and I wasn’t up to facing that challenge to my development as a child growing towards adulthood as naturally as I could have. There was a process of fascination and at the same time of rejection of that myth, of that totem that threw off such a powerful shadow, of course in spite of himself. None of this is meant to define my uncle or my parents, but only myself. Outside of the island that weight didn’t diminish, but grew.

The greatest example that I have in this life in the sense of honoring his memory is my aunt Celia, who has never taken any kind of advantage from being Ernesto’s sister, and the living person who knew him best at close range. She has the highest respect and affection for her brother and perhaps for that reason has never accepted any favors. She’s given a lot to others – as an architect when her brother invited her to work in Cuba in the sixties; as my father’s sister, looking out for him during the time that he was a prisoner when Cuba, of course, didn’t lift a finger since the USSR was friendly with the Argentinian military government who sold them wheat breaking the US blockade on selling wheat to the Soviets.

For many years, I kept myself apart from that shadow. Now, I speak of these things and many others that I think can do people good, first of all towards more harmony in Cuba, but really for anyone who can build on them. In doing so, I’m utilized the same tiles that previously held me prisoner.

The difference between myself and the great majority is perhaps that I never used that family relationship to speak condescendingly of things, but to bring up uncomfortable topics: it has brought me inconveniences, arguments and a good share of enmity.

Very probably Ernesto would feel annoyed if he saw me using my relationship with him to say some things of my own, but you can be sure that he wouldn’t feel at all comfortable with those many adulators who use his name to live off of him, and on top of that to hide, cover up and become accomplices to injustice. It’s very important to remember this and repeat it; in the letter of farewell to his children he left very clear guidelines to his followers regarding what he considered essential when he said: “Above all, always be capable of feeling in your deepest self any injustice committed anywhere in the world.”

With my youngest son in London.

Note that he didn’t say anywhere “except Cuba”; he told them clearly that you should denounce injustice anywhere in the world because it was, as his letter continued, “the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary.”

We only live one life, and it’s important to live it so that we can recognize ourselves in each act. And later if we happen to have the good luck that reincarnation exists, then so much the better; but if not, we won’t have lost anything. It’s for that reason that I don’t consider myself a follower of either the left or the right in any monolithic path, especially given the manipulations in terminology that exist in the world of politics. When faced with certain things I have one opinion and faced with others, another. I prefer the terrain of intimate friendship.

That, maybe, by saying that I’m Che’s black sheep nephew I can get more attention? It could be, but that “black sheep” has cost me a lot of effort to reconcile.

If the name of Che were being used to make explicit propaganda for an interested party: to travel, attend receptions, suppers, parties, congresses, gatherings, fairs, presentations, to offer praises to the Cuban government, holding up the figure of Fidel, to roundly negate every version of him that isn’t in line with the “revolutionary” process, even knowing that I’m lying through my teeth, in that case would “using my relationship with Che” become something that was looked well upon?

In any case, I write in an eclectic way and I’m not interested in putting my writing into a box. My literary tastes go deeper than just rebellious works; and my enjoyment of a good vibe, or for mere peace and serenity are even more eclectic than my literary preferences.

If I can contribute something with a tale or a reflection, if anything of what I say reaches someone and they can use it for their benefit, or if it gives them five minutes of cheer, or they can use it as I’ve used others ideas, that in the end are a whole, come from our same species, then, it will all have been worthwhile. Like everyone, I aspire to universal and eternal peace, but I would feel good beginning with that.


What's your opinion?

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    A great and very revealing interview. Perhaps the most significant response is when asked about the Revolutionary government under Fidel, Martin Guevera responded:
    “the balance is a negative one.”

  • Griffin

    Che contradicted himself when ever necessary or convenient. As noted above he left a letter to his family saying, “Note that he didn’t say anywhere “except Cuba”; he told them clearly that you should denounce injustice anywhere in the world…”

    And yet earlier, in justifying the Revolutionary tribunals Che also said:

    “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”

    “Youth should learn to think and act as a mass. It is criminal to think as individuals!”

    “We must do away with all newspapers. A revolution cannot be accomplished with freedom of the press.”

    So which was the real Che Guevara? The man who held power in his hands and justified violent repression? Or the man on his way out of power, anxious to leave a burnished image for posterity?