Monday, March 05, 2007

Mario Chanes de Armas

The founding father of Soviet communism Vladimir Lenin may or may not have coined the term "useful idiots" to describe Western reporters and travellers who endorsed the Soviet Union and its policies in the West.

The ailing leader of Cuba Fidel Castro, has similar admirers who conveniently downplay the dark side of his rule

Mario Chanes de Armas, who died last week at the age of 80, was one of Fidel Castro's earliest and closest companions. He fought alongside Castro in the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks and helped launch Cuba's guerrilla war in 1956.

Castro won power in 1959 and Mario Chanes de Armas could have had a key position in the new regime but opted to return to his job in a family brewery. For two years he watched Castro restrict liberties and human rights while increasingly embracing communism. Chanes was tried as a "counterrevolutionary," and on July 17, 1961, was imprisoned for 30 years. He spent six years of those years in solitary confinement in a windowless room.

Chanes de Armas' son was born while he was in prison and died at 24 without his father being able to attend his funeral.

On his decades in jail Chanes said: “I watched men get shot, point blank, beaten with bayonets, arbitrarily pulled out and punished. But we were alone. The world didn’t know.”

Even after his release in 1991, aged 64, Castro refused his former comrade permission to leave the country.

Chanes never showed bitterness about his years in Castro’s jails, saying they had never crushed his spirit. “After my release, during my two years in Cuba, I realized that no-one on the island was free anyway. I don’t have feelings of hatred or vengeance. Vengeance is for cowards.”

Mario Chanes de Armas arrived in Miami on July 21, 1993. He wrote an article for The Miami Herald's "Hemispheric Dialogue," an occasional series in which heads of state and other principal figures in the hemisphere discussed issues from their own perspective.

I BARELY remember youth and tranquillity. A brief part of my adolescence was spent in the waning years of Cuba's last democratic government, on the eve of general elections that never took place because the coup d'etat of March 10, 1952 abruptly interrupted the electoral process. The nation then fell under a dictatorial regime that soon became tyranny.

I belonged to a generation of young people who rebelled against the usurpers of power. We had no alternative but to confront dictatorship head on, to act to give back to our nation the freedom and the democratic institutions that Gen. Fulgencio Batista's coup had abrogated.

Getting acquainted and getting together were not difficult. Young people with patriotic sensibilities recognize each other by a simple exchange of opinions. I found my colleagues in the work place, the school room, the trades hall. Soon we formed a nucleus of people cognizant of what we condemned and what we fought for.

Standing out from all the rest, a young lawyer, Fidel Castro, was the man who most clearly expressed our ideas and harmonized our differing opinions.

Against the frustration and impotence that shrouded Cuba's society, we brought confidence and a fighting spirit. We founded a modest but effective publication, The Accuser, which we distributed secretly among the population.

I don't want to rewrite a novel that has more than enough protagonists and that I've lived intensely until today. If I left my youth behind the bars of a political prison constructed by my own companions; if I endured imprisonment under two political tyrannies; if I never accepted the birth of an authoritarian regime that -- far from installing the righteous government we had fought for -- hastened to bar the return of our institutions and freedoms from the very moment it seized power; if I did all this, it's not because I'm an exceptional man.

That, I am not. I consider myself the simplest of persons. I did it because some of us react viscerally to the betrayal of principles that are a revolutionary movement's reason for existence. We had not struggled merely to exacerbate a class struggle that only led to hatred. We were not deposing a dictatorship merely to impose our ideas.

When Castro's campaign against the independent media began, I believed that our government was entitled to express its opinion -- but only if it respected others' opinions. In 1959, when I left prison -- where I had been sent for taking part in the Granma landing and for my overall revolutionary activities -- Fidel Castro was the supreme authority. His incendiary, nine- hour speeches had a vehement irrationality I wouldn't have expected from my former comrade-in-arms. The democratic nature of our discussions, which led to the raid on the Moncada barracks, was gone from his new harangues.

The young man who chose the 26th of July to break into the military fortress at Santiago de Cuba and seize the weapons to place in the hands of the people now addressed an abstract, invisible audience. He was only waiting for the masses' applause and support to activate a machinery of vengeance and terror. Discontent spread through the revolutionary rank-and-file as the Popular Socialist (Communist) Party expanded its participation in government. The party -- which had publicly condemned our objectives and our methods, and which had refused to participate in our acts of insurrection -- became, at Fidel Castro's behest, his sole and trusted ally.

For a while, anyway. At the end, its leaders suffered the same fate of all those whom Castro utilized while pursuing his monomaniac political agenda. Swiftly, the old communists who edged out our colleagues became themselves a thing of the past: members of "the first Marxist party of Cuba," a rhetorical entity. The "true" Marxist-Leninist party would be his creation alone. More

The Economist's Obituary