Written in Blood and Dreams – Poetry and Latin American Revolution
The world is once again in turmoil. Several Arab nations are clearly in a state of mayhem, rebelling against decades of injustice. But their struggle is not always based on ideology, and it is not well defined. The West is taking full advantage of the confusion, pushing its own agenda, destabilizing countries like Syria or attacking them directly, as was the case with Libya.
Africa is bleeding, destroyed by the new wave and breed of European and North American colonialism. About 10 million people in the Congo have died in the last few years during the slaughter encouraged by the economic and geo-political interests of former and present colonial powers.
The West is hailing both India and Indonesia for their high economic growth, but both countries are squarely failing to deliver social justice, both clinging to the appalling ogre of feudalism.
“Possibly the Arab countries are now where Latin American nations were ten years ago”, suggested Noam Chomsky during our encounter, in June 2012 at MIT in Boston.
Possibly, but there also appear to be so many differences, both historical and cultural.
The South American continent is winning its struggle for independence and for real freedom. There are some setbacks, like the Western-backed coup in Paraguay and the state in which hopelessly divided Colombia exists. But on the whole, the South American continent has won its long and epic battle against imperialism, or at least for now it has.
The question is – could Latin America share its experience with the rest of the world? Would it be able to inspire the Arab people, Indians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, or Africans?
I don’t know the answer, but I think we have to try. It is our responsibility, our duty. Our goal, our struggle, our people are not petty. Our revolutions have been based on brightness, internationalism and solidarity.
Let us be naïve if sharing and spreading hope is the proof of naiveté; let us fight the negativism and defeatism that are helping to throw billions of lives into permanent state of misery – let us fight them with our good will and with our big hearts, as we fought for so long in the mountains, plains and jungles of Latin America itself.
If the official Western press laughs at us, so be it. Today Latin America has plenty to share with the world: it is building tens of millions of dwellings for the poor, it is immunizing children, feeds those who are hungry and educating those who were for centuries confined to the darkness of ignorance. It votes at the United Nations against neo-colonialist designs. And it is increasingly supportive of the countries that are threatened by the Empire.
But let us not lecture; let us just share.
I am inviting my Latin American comrades and colleagues to produce an inspiring series of analyses of our struggle, our revolutions. I invite them to explain the decades of determined fight for social justice, and for freedom as we (not the West) see it.
Let those reports be written by us – by Latin Americans and by those (like myself), who lived in Latin America for years, decades, until we got Latinized and gained a new identity.
And I am appealing to our comrades and colleagues in the Arab countries, Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan and India to translate our reports into their local languages, and distribute them widely in their countries. Then, let us engage in a direct discussion.
Let us see if the South American success can be duplicated; if Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil might inspire the men and women of Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, India, Uganda, DR Congo, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
* * *
I am writing this essay in order to talk about the poetry, and about the songs, that have had such a decisive influence on the changes and revolutions in South America. We did not win because of our brains only; we won because of our hearts, and because of the great talent of our creative men and women, their ability to move others, to inspire and often to enrage the people all over the continent.
I am not sure whether the cultural differences are too big or whether our songs are too distinct. I don’t know whether the same things that had touched us and brought us onto the streets and at the barricades, would manage to touch the people in Karachi or Cairo. I swear I don’t know. But let us try. Our songs and poems are good and they helped us to win. Sharing them would cause no damage!
What I can testify, is that whenever I go to India, to North or sub-Saharan Africa or to the Middle East, I am being relentlessly questioned about Venezuela and Bolivia, Cuba and Brazil.
Many people have ‘heard something’, but they instinctively distrust the Western sources. Let there be no go-betweens; let them receive the information from us directly.
And instead of just talking, let us write. Let us share our victories and the complexities of our struggle. Let us explain what it took for our beloved Latin America to raise, and to stand tall, as it is standing now.
POETRY AND REVOLUTION
There are three houses, three dwellings, that used to belong to one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, to ‘Don Pablo’ as he was known in Chile, or Pablo Neruda as he has been known all over the world. All three houses are stunning, all three he helped to build with his own hands.
One house is attached to a hill, in a bohemian neighborhood of Bellavista, in Santiago de Chile. The second one is in the port city of Valparaiso, commanding a stunning view of the bay, the port and the open ocean, spreading towards the horizon. The last one stands in what used to be a humble coastal village, called Isla Negra, ‘Black Island’, which is actually not an island at all but a cluster of houses, near a marvelous rocky coast. This is where Pablo Neruda wrote some of his most powerful poems, in a tiny wooden shack facing the enormous waves of the Pacific.
Many of Neruda’s poems were full of outrage; they were like a passionate call to arms. Don Pablo was a Communist, and he believed in the Latin American struggle for true independence, he believed in revolution and above all –in the unity of this continent. His, arguably the greatest and the most monumental poem, is called “The Heights of Machu Picchu”. It ends in spectacular rebelliousness and solidarity:
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.
Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.
Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.
But despite its power, this was not the poem that had been chosen to be engraved on the columns in front of La Sebastiana, and it is not the poem that, during the long years of fascist darkness, inspired young men and women to fight the horrible dictatorship installed from abroad. It is not the poem that made them risk their lives, to die for Chile and for its freedom.
Surprisingly, some of the most simple and the most humble verses written to a woman he loved, actually became that symbol; one of the battle cries of the resistance:
…The fifth thing is your eyes,
my Matilda, my beloved,
I do not want to sleep without your eyes,
I do not want to live without you looking at me:
I will give the spring
for that you’ll keep watching me.
And here exactly lies the secret! The Latin American Revolution and its recent victories have not been constructed solely on the ideals related to the struggle for social justice. Those who think that it is only the Left Wing rationale, dialectics, and well-defined pragmatic goals or principles, that brought the recent success and the victories to almost the entire continent, are fully misunderstanding The Process.
The revolutions in this part of the world have been equally about the pathos, about the poetry, about sentimental outbursts, about the arts: they were, and were expected to be essentially quixotic, emotional and beautiful.
* * *
The arts and the world of dreams play an essential role in the Latin American struggle for justice, an egalitarian society, and even in the armed struggle.
Here, the rebellion often ferments from the lines of the poems, from songs, from canvases. The Theatres of Buenos Aires and of Santiago de Chile, can be as explosive as car trunks packed with semtex.
Often there is no borderline between the revolution and poetry; they blend together.
“In the novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ a man, Florentino Ariza, had all his dreams shattered when the love of his life refused him”, a theatre actor in a Chilean port city of Valparaiso once told me.
He was supposed to act in my play and we met to discuss his role, but instead the meeting turned out to be philosophical.
“Fermina Daza married someone else, and Florentino had only two options: to give up his love for her or to fight… and to wait… No matter how long it would take, just wait. He decided to fight and to wait. He waited for fifty-one years, nine months and four days… But in the end he won. The woman he loved became his… at the age of seventy something, but his. Do you understand?”
“He was obsessed…” I began to analyze.
“No!” shouted the actor in desperation. How could I be so thick? He ordered another round of white wine witch cherimoya juice “Don’t you see? It is like with the revolution! We waited; we fought. We sacrificed so much… But it is here. The victory is finally ours.”
Of course Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a great Communist novelist. And of course his ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is a tremendous literary achievement, powerful and complex. But I never thought about the parallel – Fermina Daza and the revolution. ‘But why not?’ I thought, downing the wine, as the accordionist began playing another desperate tango right behind my back, ‘Why not? Waiting for Fermina Daza is like waiting for the revolution…’
* * *
Stories, books, poetry, music, dance, and theatre – they are all very essential here. No revolution in Latin America could happen without them.
Before deciding to go to the barricades, the people of this continent have to be touched, moved, not just ‘convinced’.
A few years ago, while visiting my Australian friend Tamara Pierson, in the Venezuelan city of Merida in the middle of Andes (Tamara is a person who gave plenty to Venezuela and to the revolution), my visit coincided with a government campaign of giving away millions of books to the poor, to the masses. Classics like Don Quixote were literally handed out by the tons and all for free, all over the country. This was in addition to almost complimentary editions, of poetry and the masterpieces of world literature, available in all the government run bookshops.
The gesture was a great one, but it was not just a gesture! It was a very logical and strategic move, because what Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and other countries were fighting for were actually very basic principles of humanism. One did not have to go all the way to Karl Marx, Chairman Mao, or Lenin or Chavez; the essence was all there – in the classics of Victor Hugo, Cervantes, Maxim Gorki, Tolstoy and Tagore.
Under the pretext that working class people and peasants were simply brainless beasts who could never understand intellectual peaks like poetry and novels, elites in much of the world ‘reserved’ the rights for philosophical thought and ‘noble emotions’ strictly for themselves. In direct contrast, in some of the countries in Latin America, we said that everyone could and should have right to think, and to feel, as we began distributing the great books to everybody. By defying all the elitist theories, even the most humble people actually began to read the great classics, enjoying and easily understanding them.
Then more they understood, the more they supported those who treated them as equals. They came to the revolution not through ideology, but through natural human instincts. They simply embraced those who respected them, were sharing with them and treated them with kindness.
Exposing society to the arts also began to have a very positive and deep influence on the many trends in progressive Latin American societies. What is the point, for instance, of ‘fighting’ against domestic violence, if people are only exposed from their early age to brutal, vulgar videos, and standardized, mostly soulless and commercially driven entertainment? Isn’t it clear that a man who reads Marti, Neruda or Tagore will less likely beat and terrorize his wife and children?
People accustomed to comparing good and evil, not superficially, or because they are obliged to by their religion or ideology, but voluntarily and in depth, would logically also refuse to observe idly, as marginalized people are rotting alive in the slums or directly on the streets, in front of their eyes.
* * *
“Tamara, have you liked my theatre play ‘Ghosts of Valparaiso’?” I asked my friend before departing from Merida.
“My boyfriend and I read it aloud, twice, for two nights in a row”, explained with an absolutely serious face this tough activist with revolutionary spirit. “And we cried for two nights straight”. There was nothing more to add and I was happy; by South American standards she gave me some of the highest marks of appreciation, pure and sincere.
I knew men in Peru and Colombia and in other places of the continent who would cry when reading the poems of Marti or Cesar Vallejo at night, then wake up in the morning, and go without any hesitation into the most beastly battles, with absolutely no fear. I knew men who would write poems to their wives or girlfriends in the trenches. Here, in Latin America, to feel, to be emotional is not something that is considered shameful or ridiculous, as long as a person is strong and tough when the strength and toughness are truly essential and necessary.
* * *
Arts teach people how to dream, and in turn the dreams are pushing societies forward.
Poetry is not only about the passionate outbursts; it is often about compassion, kindness and pensiveness. The emotional, melancholic cushion wrapped around many poems, can habitually absorb the most piercing pain, and encourage forgiveness.
But it is not only poetry that shapes the Latin psyche and helps to form complex and fascinating national and continental identity; it is entire wide scale of artistic expressions: from cinema and theatre to literature and music.
It is also a lifestyle – those endless Friday and Saturday nights when big groups of friends gather, staying up till the morning, exchanging ideas, information, dreams and sorrows, migrating from one theatre to another, from one cinema to another, moving between the exhibitions and galleries, sometimes dancing and sometimes drinking, but always talking.
No social networking, no Skype or Internet communication can replace those direct exchanges and stormy debates, as no electronic media can replace the warmth of human hands, or expression of a friend’s eyes, or movement of the lips.
Many great social and political concepts of Latin America were created during the nights, around the café tables, after watching with friends some great works of art either on the stage or on the screen.
The arts not only educate, they encourage people to think and to feel, helping them to make essential distinctions between good and evil. Any revolution stripped of these qualities can simply lead to carnage, as it already has in so many unfortunate places.
Not surprisingly, almost all Latin American revolutions, and almost all of them were based on poetry and longing for love and beauty, were extremely ‘decent’ and ‘moderate’. It was the Western-backed fascist backlash that employed beastliness, slaughter and rape.
* * *
It is a small wonder, that, in almost all the countries that had fallen under Western neo-colonial rule, the arts were immediately marginalized or destroyed, artists and many great intellectuals imprisoned or directly liquidated. It is logical, as the last thing that the fascist rulers want, is to have cultured and well informed passionate masses.
But even more destructive and effective than the gallows and executioner’s noose had been relentless campaigns aimed at discrediting the arts as something irrelevant, on par with ‘entertainment’. This was extremely successful in Southeast Asia, but I also believe, in many countries of the Arab world.
Thinking had been described as tiring and outdated, ‘serious topics’ (read: everything that could improve the country or fate of its people) as boring, and pure feelings as negatively ‘sentimental’.
To be ‘hip’ and ‘cool’, one has to be ‘light’. And it means accepting the dogma by watching Hollywood and Disney, listening to pre-selected tunes, eating pre-fabricated food.
Latin America resisted. It turned serious topics into beautiful masterpieces. Poets and bards kept packing the stadiums, while cinemas on the main streets of Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile were routinely and stubbornly showing the Iranian or Chinese art releases. The continent continued producing long poems and long books, as well as over-sized essays. To be frivolously ‘light’ commanded no respect here. ‘Live to the fullest, but keep thinking and creating’ could easily pass as a local motto.
* * *
Before the Argentinean military dictatorship went to the dogs in 1982, one of the greatest singers of all time – Mercedes Sosa – returned home from the exile. Loved by the entire continent, admired for her powerful, prophetic voice, she was a striking opposite to what the mass media all over the world had been promoting for decades as the ‘perfect female’. Ms Sosa was plump, and she was indigenous. But this was not some Sunset Boulevard; this was El Puerto.
In the evening she entered, determinately, the supreme temple of ‘European culture’ in Argentina – and one of the greatest opera houses in the world: Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
The theater was packed. Some of the songs she was going to sing were still banned. But her appearance was, in a way, a promise that the horrors of fascism were going to be over soon. Those who attended the concert later recalled that the atmosphere in the theatre was electrifying. She was expected to challenge Videla and the other rapists and murderers from the ranks of ruling military junta, to challenge them with her powerful but bare voice. She was expected to sing all those tunes that kept men, women and children alive, emotionally and spiritually, during the long years of darkness. And she did. She sang as no one else in the world could have done.
She sang a song about the burning sun and about a girl called Maria, Maria va; ‘Maria is going’. And then other songs, and it was all there, entire resistance, passion, love, revolution – in one single night, in one single voice of this exceptional lady.
The recording of the concert became one of the greatest classics of all times. The audience cried and it roared. It was over – the suffering was over. The songs, for years sung in the cellars and backyards, hummed in prisons and torture chambers, whistled at night – those beloved songs were now purring like tears and like blood, freely, from the stage of the Buenos Aires opera house.
But what is it, in what she sang, that challenged the entire system? Was it a call for battle, an insult to the system; was it politics?
She sang a ballad composed by Violetta Parra, the Chilean founder of the Nueva Cancion movement, a great musician and poet who committed suicide in 1967.
Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros, que cuando los abro,
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco
Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado
Y en las multitudes el hombre que yo amo
(Thanks to the life that has given me so much
It gave me two bright stars and when I open them
I distinguish perfectly the black from the white
And in the high sky its starred bottom
And in the crowd the man I love)
She sang a stunning and melancholic song, about an Argentinean poet Alfonsina Storni, “Alfonsina and The Sea”, who threw herself in desperation into the sea at Mar de Plata:
You are leaving Alfonsina
With your loneliness
Which new poems
Did you go find?
An ancient voice
Made of wind and salt
Breaks your soul
And takes it away
And you float away
As in dreams
Dressed by the sea
“So where is the revolution?” an impatient young reformer in Cairo or Casablanca may ask. “All that sadness, and longing for love, and melancholy and beauty… all that parting… despair… but where is the call to barricades, where is the rebellion?”
‘But it is there… it is present… in all those love poems, don’t you hear?’ the Latin Americans would argue.
All of a sudden things get more direct.
As if hearing this discussion in Colon, Mercedes Sosa suddenly changes the rhythm. She begins singing an old beautiful melonga from Uruguay:
I have so many brothers,
I can’t even count
The audience stops breathing. It knows what is coming. The night is approaching its climax.
Sosa sings about the warm hands of the poor people, and then suddenly about death, about ‘our death, the death of our people that is following us’ no matter where we go.
There is absolute silence, which gradually changes to a deafening roar. Mercedes Sosa makes one single strike, short, perfect and deadly, like the most refined move of the samurai’s sword:
I have so many brothers,
I can’t even count
And I have one sister
The most beautiful one
Whose name is freedom!
Several months later military junta is forced to step down.
Mercedes Sosa passed away in 2009, but the Latin American revolution survived. Before Ms Sosa’s final journey, Cristina Kirchner – her greatest admirer and by then the President of Argentina – parted with her on behalf of the nation, and the entire Latin America, in a symbolic and highly emotional ceremony. In many ways these two powerful women transformed, and became the symbol of modern Argentina. It is likely that in their youth, Mercedes Sosa transformed Cristina Kirchner.
* * *
Without the emotional outbursts, without poetry and the powerful lyrical songs, without desperation and the exposed emotions, without the ability to dream… There would never be a victorious struggle for true freedom and justice in Latin America.
We are sentimental, yes. And we are dreamers. But we are also tough. And our world is mostly abstract. We are… so many things; so many diverse things.
Even in Cuba, one of the most talented and popular of the musicians and bards, Sylvio Rodriguez, sings very rarely about the revolution in direct terms. Even he is predominantly abstract. Almost all his great songs are philosophical, and very few are openly calling to arms, although somehow after listening to them, one would go and die defending Cuba, with no regrets. In La Maza he is asking what it would be like:
If I didn’t believe in the toughest
If I didn’t believe in the desire
If I didn’t believe in what I believe
If I didn’t believe in something pure
If I didn’t believe in every wound
If I didn’t believe in what comes around
If I didn’t believe in what hides behind
Making oneself brother with life
If I didn’t believe in whoever listens to me
If I didn’t believe in what hurts
If I didn’t believe in what stays
If I didn’t believe in what fights!
We learned that the dreams, the emotional education; are all necessary, even essential preparatory work for the revolution. How could one go into battle without the words of poetry on his lips, without the person he loves in his heart, and with total dedication to the country he wants to defend and reshape? It is the Latin American way. And it is working here. Whatever the world thinks, it is working here!
For years we had better poems and we had better songs than our opponents. For years our goals and the humanism were like two inseparable twins. For years we were fighting and losing, because they had more tanks and more money to corrupt our military and our ‘elites’.
And then, suddenly, things began to change.
You see; it is all about values. One steals from the nation, because expensive cars and villas bring more ‘respect’ than honesty, knowledge, kindness, or beauty. There is simply no way one could fight corruption without making a determined attempt to change the value system.
To bring this thesis to its extreme: if one well-written poem would evoke more admiration from the people, from the nation, than a bright-red Ferrari, people would stop stealing and begin writing. In Cuba, the majority would opt for a poem. In countries like Venezuela, there is an entire generation of people growing up on the same principles.
* * *
One of the most iconic poems of the Latin American revolution is, “The Parrots” by the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal:
My friend Michel is an army officer
In Somoto up near the Honduran border,
And he told me he had found some contraband parrots
Waiting to be smuggled to the United States
To learn to speak English there.
There were 186 parrots
With 47 already dead in their cages.
He drove them back where they’d been taken from
And as the lorry approached a place known as The Plains
Near the mountains which were these parrot’s home
(behind those plains the mountains stand huge)
the parrots got excited, started beating their wings
and shoving against their cage-sides.
When the cages were let open
They all shot out like an arrow shower
Straight for their mountains.
The Revolution did the same for us I think:
It freed us from the cages
Where they trapped us to talk English,
It gave us back the country
From which we were uprooted,
Their green mountains restored to the parrots
By parrot-green comrades.
But there were 47 that died.
I met Ernesto Cardenal only once. I was very young then, the Chilean dictatorship had only recently collapsed, and I was taking a break in Santiago, after spending several terrible months covering the brutal civil war in neighboring Peru, for several European publications.
Cardenal came to read at a prominent book fair at the magnificently restored train station, turned into one of the major cultural centers of the city: Estacion Mapocho.
There wasn’t really a stampede – Chilean crowds are too polite for that – but one had to use elbows to secure entry. The enormous space was packed, mostly with young people.
This author was one of the icons of the Latin American Left –a poet, later a revolutionary, later a Minister of Culture of Nicaragua during the first Sandinista government, later a priest but still a revolutionary, still a poet… he spoke very little. He lifted his huge book – his then latest and monumental ‘Cosmic Chants’ – and began to read.
Each poem evoked a similar reaction, as that to goals scored by the ‘revolutionary footballer,’ Diego Maradona. This was sheer madness. People were screaming, hugging each other, and crying.
Cardenal’s voice was like that of a prophet, of a prosecutor, and a bard – all in one.
I had to speak to him; I had to understand where all this strength, this magic, was coming from. After his appearance I ran backstage. There were girls; there were middle-aged women, journalists, and photographers. All of them pushing, all of them desperately besieging the poet.
From the first moment it appeared that I had no chance. But I was not ready to give up.
“Don Ernesto!” I screamed. “Don Ernesto, I have to talk to you!”
He noticed me. “Then talk if you have to!” He shouted over the head of the crowd.
“But…” I pointed at the people. “Could we set up a meeting; an appointment?”
“Kid! “ He screamed in despair. “Kid, did I hear you say appointment? The planet is burning, and people are suffering everywhere. There is no time for appointments! Speak up now or get lost!”
I spoke. And after that I virtually have never asked for any appointment again, usually losing all my interest if someone suggested setting up one for me. I concluded that Cardenal was essentially correct: If something is either urgent and it can’t wait then one should speak and act immediately, or it is not urgent and dealing with it is a waste of time.
* * *
Latin America is full of legends, fairytales and supernatural beings, and stories. Just go to the old Chilean port city of Valparaiso, go to the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, to the Brazilian and Venezuelan jungles. Go there and listen.
As with those love poems, on the surface of it the stories and fairytales have nothing in common with the revolution, but that is only on the surface. Look and listen much closer and you will realize that the imaginary universe of many thinkers and revolutionaries, their world of dreams, is often made up of similar stuff, such as the ideas for a better world; a better society.
In South America, there are legendary creatures, ghosts, and fantastic past events, all in multitude, and all over the continent. There are many people living ‘in their own world’ here, or more precisely in two distinct worlds: one that belongs in reality, and one that belongs to their dreams.
‘And why not?’ many would say. It is not that the world that we, humans, created is always so precious, so wonderful. Each man, each woman and each child should not feel guilty or ashamed for searching for inspiration in their own imagination; in a secret universe made to accommodate their desires and sensitivities.
While what I am describing now is absolutely the same in North Asia – in China, Japan and Korea – I am often misunderstood in North Africa, in the Middle East, and even in the Sub-Continent. I don’t know why.
But back to Latin America: people here are, as we have determined earlier, passionate dreamers.
And their inner universe, their universe of dreams often opens, dreams overflow, and try to improve the reality of this world.
Arguably the greatest living South American writer is Eduardo Galeano, the author of two monumental works on the conquest and plunder of the continent: “Open Veins of Latin America” and the trilogy called “Memory of Fire”.
Once, as we were sitting in his Café Brazilero in Montevideo, I asked him, sarcastically, whether “The Veins of Latin America were still open, after all those years after his book was first published?”
But Galeano, an author of dreams, has a tendency not to answer the question in a concrete manner: “The other day I was walking through the streets of Buenos Aires and I bumped into Count Dracula,” he explained with a stone-serious face, which made me think that in his own way he was actually not joking. “Dracula looked very thin, undernourished, destroyed. I asked him what happened and he replied: ’Times are tough’. With the US and UK on the loose, plundering and sucking blood from the world, a decent vampire has no chance. The competition is too stiff.”
That is how many man and women speak here; often some of the greatest of them; and the majority of the people have no difficulty in understanding them. The language of dreams and imagination is one of the main idioms of this vast continent – language that is understood and spoken in all of its corners!
Unless it has escaped some of my readers – all, or at least the great majority of those great men who are leading the continent in the revolutionary direction – Fidel Castro, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez – are incurable dreamers or what could be described as determined ‘romantics’. Listen to their speeches, read their essays; it is so obvious.
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was clearly a quixotic figure. Cuba in general is a quixotic state. That is one of the main reasons why they, both ‘Che’ and Cuba, are loved and respected to such a great extent, in so many parts of the world.
Wasn’t it the supreme expression of idealism, the great and powerful poem of its own style, for a small Caribbean nation under siege and under attack from the mightiest empire on the earth, to send its best sons to fight and to die for the freedom of the far away African nations of Angola, Namibia and Congo; or to send some of the most talented men and women – the doctors – to serve the poorest nations of the world without expecting anything in return?
* * *
It is all intertwined here, the poetry and the struggle, the pathos, the music and the revolution.
Poems are written with ink and with blood, while verses and the strings of guitars carry on the revolution.
Imagination of the continent is limitless, creativity astonishing. But there are limits, too; there are limits to the art.
One of the greatest Argentinean painters, Alberto Bruzzone, once said: “I cannot paint flowers or motherhood, when they are killing my students on the street!”
Bruzzone was so much ahead of his times – especially ahead of most of the artists in the West. How many artists in California or in London could exclaim: “I refuse to produce frivolous, brainless films, while my empire is keeping half of the world in virtual servitude and misery!”
But back to the poetry: some men and women here wrote enormous verses with their own lives. Be it Che or Hugo Chavez, Sub-Commandant Marcos, Fidel or now the young leader of the student revolt in Chile – Camila Vallejo.
And of course, Pablo Neruda, Jose Marti, President Salvador Allende.
President Allende died in the flames of the old baroque palace – La Moneda – as the Chilean air force bombed the place, and busily committed the treason on 9-11-1973, serving the interests of the United States and its corporations.
They say Allende committed suicide. But I am much too Latino by now, and I have my own interpretation of events, my own imaginary world, and I am determined to stick to it.
Allende knew about the coup. Many in Chile that were close to him, told me that he was well informed… But being a real democrat, he refused to arrest anyone just based on suspicion. So far these are the facts.
Now comes my own interpretation of the history, which I am freely implementing in all my fiction work: When the fighter jets began bombing The Presidential Palace, Allende stood up and began walking towards the huge baroque windows, towards the jets and towards his certain death. He was still the President of Chile; he was the democratically elected President of one of the oldest democracies on earth, until that day, of one of the most decent countries under the sun. He walked towards those pilots who betrayed him; who betrayed Chile, because no matter what they were doing, they were citizens of the country that he was entrusted to govern. He was walking towards them because he was not going to run away – he saw no point of running. He died walking proudly, undefeated, towards the roaring jets, towards the muzzles of their guns, towards the rockets attached under their wings. A man wearing thick-framed glasses, a very kind man, a true humanist.
As Allende made his first steps, Pablo Neruda was dying not far from La Moneda, from cancer. During the elections, Don Pablo was supposed to run as the candidate of the Communist Party of Chile, but he instead endorsed Allende, who represented La Unidad Popular.
Two great men, two towering personalities of Chile and the world were then, dying at the same time, not far from each other, although not exactly side-by-side. Their country, their most beautiful country on earth, was being ravished and was going to be raped for almost two decades, by hideous forces consisting of Western neo-colonialists and a local gang of spiteful and mediocre servants of the North.
Don Pablo already wrote his final poem. He parted with Matilda; he parted with his friends and with his nation. Allende was still writing his poem with his own body, his own flesh, and his blood.
This is one good example of how some of our best poems are written. This is where poetry and revolution merge; this is how they become one single and solid entity.
* * *
After the coup, the military packed the National Stadium in Santiago de Chile with thousands of prisoners. One of the greatest bards of Latin America – Victor Jarra – had his ribs and both of his hands broken. Soldiers threw a guitar at him: “Now sing for us”, they laughed. He did. He sang Venceremos straight to their faces. They machine-gunned him down. The way this great and proud life ended – that was another poem that inspired us, and finally led us to victory. You don’t cry for mercy when confronted by Fascism. You spit in its face and die, if you cannot win. Full stop.
And almost 30 years later, there was another beautiful ‘poem’ written by General Raúl Baduel, who headed Chávez’s old paratrooper division in Maracay, as he and others defeated, against all odds, the US-sponsored coup in Caracas, in 2002. Some poems are, and have to be written with steel.
* * *
So now we know what role poetry plays in Latin American revolutions. And of what the poetry consists of, here.
And how it merges with this continent that had been waiting for those long decades and centuries to be truly liberated. The continent that kept fighting and losing, fighting again and again, and saw its legitimate leaders murdered or overthrown by the North: in Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, and in so many other places.
It is all history now. The unity, solidarity, and tremendous force of creativity – all is alive and boiling, all is suddenly possible, reachable, and achievable.
But there are no celebrations yet, no fireworks, and there are tears and sadness all around, a melancholy. Both hopeful smiles and tears can be seen, often on the same face.
The revolution won, finally, on most of the continent.
But there were tens of millions that died.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu . His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
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