Open our ears
gives ear to the convictions and recollections of Aleida Guevara
Aleida Guevara, Marxist paediatrician and the eldest of four siblings born to Argentinean-born revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and his second wife Aleida March, a Cuban national, visited Egypt last month at the invitation of the Chairman of the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Committee Ahmed Hamroush. This was her first visit to Egypt, and she left with fond memories of the country. She follows in the footsteps of her late father who visited Egypt twice in 1959 and 1965. She is currently a medical consultant with the William Soler Cardio-Centre Children's Hospital in the Cuban capital Havana. Aleida, who also had a sister Hilda Beatriz Guevara -- now deceased and was born to Guevara's first wife Hilda Gadea, was born on 24 November 1960.
In Cairo, she met with the Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and a coterie of distinguished characters who have long held her father in high esteem.
Cuba's Ambassador to Egypt Angel Dalmau graciously provided a concise simultaneous interpretation of Aleida Guevara's words. Dalmau, posted to Cairo at the tender age of 23 at the beginning of a long diplomatic career and a former Cuban deputy foreign minister, accompanied Guevara throughout her tour of Egypt.
"No better time than now to become a revolutionary socialist," she turns to me with what might have been an expression of quizzical jocundity. People around the world are looking beyond the dire scenarios of the global financial crisis. Hunger and economic hardship stalks the land. She shakes my hand warmly and opens her mouth and out gushes an unstoppable train of rhapsodic Spanish sentences, interrupted with punctual congruity by Ambassador Dalmau's illuminating interpretations.
She talks a good deal more and then abruptly she came to a brusque halt. "First, let me tell you a little about my father," and off she goes again in animated Spanish. And, I have to marvel at how time has just flown by. It is more than four decades since her illustrious father was assassinated in the backwaters of Bolivia. End of an era, screamed most of the newspapers back then.
It seemed to me then that events unfolded by the hour. I was, after all, an impressionistic adolescent. And, so was she.
Her parents got married in 1959, and her father was assassinated in 1967. "She wanted to be with him all the time, by his side," the daughter panegyrises her mother. Perhaps for one minute she showed a glimpse of her secret self, a self that she much prefers to keep private.
"It was a very special love story," she shrugs, barely suppressing a smile. "She understood my father's need to go to the places where he did. She understood the dangerous nature of his endeavours. Sometimes, she didn't want him to go. She feared for his life, she wanted his well- being."
By this time halfway through the interview Aleida Guevara looks utterly engaged. "She understood that it was more important for the Revolution for her to support him from afar," she hesitated and asks if I would like her to continue. Yes, please do, I say.
"He asked her to help him. She desperately wanted to follow him to the ends of the Earth, but she had four children to look after, his children."
Life is, after all, about choices, and we are talking about a woman with good political connections not only in a small Caribbean island-nation, but throughout Latin America. "It is not difficult to understand the dynamic of their relationship," she muses.
"She sacrificed her own personal hopes for the Cause," she says somewhat bafflingly. Her mother is today the director of the Che Guevara Research Centre in the Cuban capital Havana. "Mother has just written a book entitled Evocation." The work, of course, centres on the towering figure of Guevara and his legacy.
"Mother taught us that we were the sons and daughters of a very special man, but that we were not entitled to enjoy special privileges," Guevara says brimming with pride. "She was very strict about this."
Discounting the over-excited anti-socialist rhetoric, for most people Guevara was an impossibly iconic courageous figure. However, what is the relevance of his revolution to the youngsters of today?
"I think these concerns are not completely unfounded," she ventured. Perhaps we are at a watershed. In these uncertain economic times, people ironically yearn for paradise on Earth. Socialism, if it can be embodied in revolutionary socialists, is enjoying something of a popularity boom.
If the downturn is deep, then so is the conviction of those who would like to see a return to the basics -- the very certainties of yesteryear. Only social justice can ensure that the expectations of the masses may be met.
In Cairo, Guevara spoke at various forums and both young and old flocked to hear what she had to say.
Packed with inquisitive beady-eyed youngsters intent on seeing how this hallowed brand of yesteryear would relate to and interpret the challenges of today, Guevara is unperturbed. She is used to such inquisitiveness. She comes across this kind of curiosity wherever she travels around the world. She has a different voice, a different phrasing for each of the challenges they face. And yet they respond warmly to her genuine concern.
So does the daughter of an iconic figure occupy an odd position in Cuban life? "Our childhood was a very normal one. We were raised like other kids in Havana. As a child, I enjoyed the intensity of life that characterises my people," she chuckles.
At once on a pedestal and under the microscope, Aleida Guevara is an easy-going, down- to-earth person.
Bringing together work, family and politics has not always been easy for Guevara. She is capable of delivering a powerful political message but is also passionate about personal memories.
Her father's appeal is universal. Her invocations of her father as a model are, not surprisingly, constant.
A hard-working, high-achieving professional woman Guevara is also very much a creature of her family and her country.
She reflects on the evening that she learnt of her father's assassination. "That night I slept in my mother's bed. My mother didn't know that Fidel had prepared me for the news the night before."
"Fidel told my elder sister, Hilda, and myself that my father would not want to see us cry when he is dead," she remembers.
"If men die the way they want to die, you must not cry over their death, because that is their choice. This is what Fidel told me by way of consolation."
They read the moving letter addressed to his family that Che had written. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she refused to cry. "I remembered what Fidel had told us the night before and told my mother that we cannot, will not cry."
The spectre of revolution may well make a palpable return. "When I worked as a medical volunteer in Angola, I was horrified at the abject poverty of my patients, the utter destitution of the people. It was an affront to their intrinsic dignity," Aleida Guevara recollected the poignant memories of her sojourn in Angola.
The streaming tears down the contorted face of the daughter of one of the world's most venerated iconic figures suggest that this was an experience full of meaning. It touched a raw nerve. It touched her heart.
There is a compelling aspect to Aleida Guevara's emotional attachment to the children of poverty-striken and war-ravaged Angola. To see this woman of a sunny disposition and with genuine huge smiles break down and sob when remembering the unfortunate children of Angola is heart wrenching. It is at once both astounding in its monumental emphasis and humbling in its simplicity. She pays tribute to the "Mandingo, Congo and Carabali blood that runs through my veins."
There is, in hindsight, a nostalgic glow evident in her detailed description of the conflicts and crises confronting the children and women of Angola.
She leans across the table, her enormous frame giving a curiously fragile quiver. "In Angola I learnt the true value of socialism. Why social justice matters and why the flame of revolutionary struggle must be kept alive."
Her struggle is neither poetic nor quixotic, though. Africa might not have been the epicentre of Che's revolutionary struggle, though it featured prominently. Indeed, Che's life has upset the whole global political balance. Her affection can be easily shared among the masses. The very image of the Cuban medical practitioner and paramedic is widely revered throughout the African continent. They are posted in the remotest corners of the continent.
Before she left Cuba for Angola, she was almost insane with anticipation. The shock of the deplorable realities of war, malnutrition and deprivation came as a shock to Guevara. Cuba is by no means the world's wealthiest nation, but it has unparalleled social welfare provision, education and above all one of the most meritorious healthcare systems in the world.
This revolutionary philosophy rings true for many committed socialists in Latin America and Africa and beyond the two continents where Guevara worked tirelessly to realise his socialist ideals.
While reluctant to be described as politically ambitious, Guevara is happy to be labelled as a fighter for a worthy political cause.
Our story today is very simple -- leftist thought is spreading like wildfire in South America and the Caribbean -- except that the socialism of today might differ somewhat from that of yesteryear.
Sporadic efforts to advance socialism and improve its application are heartwarming, she suggested. Dramatic changes are underway. These changes explain the renewed confidence and purpose of Latin American politicians. So what makes a revolution sustainable?
Forget the semantics. There is the theory and there is its application. At some stage the revolutionaries inevitably would have to revisit this dichotomy.
The bigger political story lies elsewhere. People want a more decent lifestyle, higher living standards and have aspirations that must be met.
It would be churlish not to welcome the tireless efforts of dedicated individuals and organised groups that orchestrate changes that impact the lives of people and improve living standards.
Yet imperialist forces are at work, notes Guevara. Even as it becomes apparent that capitalism has its grave flaws, the vicious attacks on socialist experiments in Latin America such as in Bolivia and Venezuela and elsewhere are intensified.
This comprehensive assault on communism and socialism only strengthens the resolve of those committed to a more equitable and just society, Guevara insists.
The omens are a bit more encouraging than they were two decades ago, not least because of the emergence of charismatic figures such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia who have their people's interests at heart.
Crises define politicians. The challenges facing Latin America are deepening. Capitalism has failed the people. This is a process that is at best dysfunctional.
Under the circumstances, the outcome of recent developments seems promising. Guevara thinks Cuba may hold the key.
The timing of the global financial crisis is provocative. It prompts leftists to prove their mettle.
But conversely, there are many pitfalls. Such an admission is a surprise from someone who has otherwise been talking about the inevitable triumph of socialism. How can our leftist feelings be resensitised?
"We cannot merely stand back and shrug," Guevara says. Many today are putting themselves on the line -- not just in Latin America, but throughout the world. And, they are right to do so.
From that perspective, the Revolution is bound to triumph. The process of evaluating the current trends in Latin America is typically subjective.
At a time when Third World solidarity has looked a little tattered, Aleida Guevara's visit to Egypt has offered a lot of reasons for optimism.
Why has Guevara received so disproportionately little attention in the Arab world? Perhaps there are cultural barriers and other stumbling blocks. But the language barrier is not insurmountable. The Latin American-Egyptian Friendship Association is proof of such close and durable links between Arab and Latin Americans.
"Neo-liberal policies are destroying my continent," she expounds. Guevara believes that the same Machiavellian forces are at work in Africa and the Arab world. "We need to figure out how to fight furiously for the rights of the underdog."
Guevara also points to the need for reforms. She spoke about the resilience of the Cuban people in resisting 50 years of the United States economic blockade imposed on their Caribbean island-nation.
Cuba's change in emphasis may transform the entire course of socialist history. For one thing, the argument goes, socialism is not a static affair. The basics, however, must be retained. The very foundations of socialism cannot be altered without prompting a collapse of the entire system.
Latin American politics has periodically been a business replete with powerful personalities. The same goes for the Arab world. The bottom line is that a Marxist medical practitioner is not an anachronism. These are all cheering signs that socialism is alive and well.
As it happens, the Latin American landscape is littered with the debris of failed attempts to mimic Uncle Sam. The United States must respect the humanity of other cultures, the value systems of other peoples and other political entities even though they might not have the same economic clout, industrial prowess or military might that the West has.
"Respecting others' rights is the way to peace," Aleida Guevara quotes the Mexican Benito Juàrez.
"It is extremely dangerous for humanity that the president of the mightiest power on the planet publicly says that he speaks with and acts on behalf of God," she told Britain's The Guardian in October 2004.
Maybe there is a lesson about modesty and diversity to be learnt.
As we give each other goodbye hugs, not a word more will be spoken for the time being about our respective fathers' legacies.