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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / KELLY CANDAELE

John Paul and Che Guevara: True Brothers

The reverence Cubans show for both men illuminates their devotion to the poor.

January 18, 1998|KELLY CANDAELE | Kelly Candaele is a teacher and writer specializing in labor history and is a member of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees. He was in Cuba last week doing research on a book

HAVANA — In the small village of San Miguel del Padron on the outskirts of Havana, posters of John Paul II have hung on the doors of homes for weeks in anticipation of his visit. Flanking the pope's picture on the walls of many of the houses is the portrait of another man revered by Cubans: Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The Argentine-born revolutionary who helped lead Fidel Castro's rag-tag guerrilla army to victory is a secular saint. His image is everywhere--in cigar factories and kindergartens and on T-shirts and cigarette lighters. For $40, a visitor can bring home a Che watch. The Museum of the Revolution near Old Havana even displays locks of Che's hair and beard.

In many ways, associating Che and John Paul is an odd affinity. Living most of his life in Poland, the pope witnessed the incompatibility of Christianity and Soviet-inspired communism. He has consistently condemned the Marxist socialism that Che advocated, calling it a remedy for capitalism's ills worse than the disease. And while the pope has rejected "class struggle" as based on a misplaced politics of envy, Che, in contrast, embraced violent revolutionary struggle on behalf of the peasants and the poor.

But in Cuba this week, the images of Che and John Paul stand side by side. And many Catholic Cubans do not see it as a contradiction. "I'm a religious person," said Lucille Munoz, a hotel worker, explaining that she was looking forward to the pope's visit. "Che," she added, "was a model of a man and we love him. The others who fought beside him are just in our memories, but Che is with us still."

Che could be classified as a spiritual-materialist. He argued for the necessity of building the "new man" with a "new scale of values" that would conquer the soulless and competitive values of capitalist materialism. As head of the National Bank and the Ministry of Industries, he constantly attempted to make "moral incentives" the touchstone for economic development. His partial break with both Fidel and the Soviet Union occurred partly because he regarded Soviet economic and trade policy as guided by the same market principles as the capitalist West.

While Pope John Paul's attitudes toward state socialism are well known--he was a major ally of the Polish union movement Solidarity in its successful revolt against Communist domination--few people know that he has also been a consistent critic of corporate capitalism. In his encyclical "On Human Work," he emphasized the "priority of labor over capital" as a critical component of Catholic social teaching and described the Catholic Church as the "church of the poor." He called trade unions an "indispensable element of social life." And in a gesture of Third World solidarity that Che himself could have written, he directed attention to the "world question of inequality and injustice," which could be transformed only by "radical and urgent changes" on behalf of the rural peasantry.

John Paul II even has a guerrilla background of his own. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, he participated in what the Vatican describes as an "underground theater" and he began his study for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary in Krakow.

The pope is scheduled to celebrate Mass in Revolution Plaza in Havana, the same spot where Fidel, a week after Che's death in 1967, admonished the nation to teach the children of Cuba to "be like Che." Around him will be a sea of Catholics who know that while Che wanted to bring them closer to the state, John Paul's message is to come closer to God. He will speak to the poor of Havana--for there are few in Cuba with wealth--of the transcendent dignity of men and women who reach out and embrace God's word.

Directly across from the plaza, Che's image in metal is permanently attached to the outside wall of the 15-story former Havana Hilton, a red star standing out in the middle of his signature black beret. When John Paul II speaks at the Mass, he will be looking straight into Che's defiant face.

Che died fighting for the poor. He renounced power, prestige and family for an ill-conceived revolutionary wager in the mountains of Bolivia. While history has judged Che's dogmatic communism as a cruel failure, in Havana, when the pope touches on the crucial economic and social issues of our time, the faithful will recognize more than a bit of Che Guevara's spirit in the papal message.

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