by Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka
A quarter of a century ago, the Summer of ’85. Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was at the Pugwash Conference, hosted by Senator Fernando Henrique Cardoso, famous ‘dependency theorist’, later to become President of Brazil. I was presenting a paper on the Nicaraguan Revolution and it lessons, on a panel with Francisco Lacayo, a Minister in the Sandinista Cabinet.
Lacayo excitedly excused himself from one session of the conference to visit Frei Betto who was just back from Havana with tapes of his interview with Fidel, to be published as the path-breaking book ‘Fidel on Religion’, a copy which I found four years later on Vijaya Kumaratunga’s bookshelf at his mother’s home when a few of us were doing the documentary on him which aired on Rupavahini in Feb ‘89; the annotated book’s presence itself evidence of the Pol Potist nature of Wijeweera’s JVP that shot him in the face.
Frei Betto was to be Lula’s Minister of Poverty Alleviation decades later. It was ‘Chico’ Lacayo who told me that the most authentic, intimate narrative of the Nicaraguan revolutionary struggle was a work by Commandante Omar Cabezas, guerrilla and Vice-Minister of the Interior under Tomas Borge, the iconic surviving founder of the Sandinistas.
Days later I was in London, crashing in a crummy apartment in Brixton I think, after the long transatlantic flight from Brazil which segued into a gruelling all-night political discussion/ debate with Dr. Rajini Tiranagama (comrade Dayapala’s wife). Ram was passing through from the USA, having graduated from the MIT and intending to join his cousin in the TELO. He had been present when I had a clash with A. Sivanandan at an editorial board meeting of Race & Class which I had just been invited to join and promptly been fired from because I took serious exception to the splendidly expressive yet marginally megalomaniacal Siva ‘dissing’ Antonio Gramsci.
I persuaded Ram to join our North-South revolutionary project with the Marxist EPRLF, instead of the TELO. He had a hardback copy of Omar Cabezas’ ‘Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista’, just published in English with a preface by Carlos Fuentes, which I consumed at a sitting. He brought it to Colombo where it circulated among our comrades, including in a Sinhala translation.
Weeks later, I was in Moscow, having returned briefly to Colombo on the way from Rome where I had been on a panel with Samir Amin, at the 50th anniversary conference of the Society International Development (SID). The World Festival of Youth and Students was in Moscow that year, and Vijaya, Ossie and I were among those attending. The Nicaraguan delegation in the march around the gigantic stadium was led by the son of Carlos Fonseca Amador, the late founder of the Frente Sandinista. Vijaya led the Sri Lankan contingent.
My account of the event appeared in The Island later that year. Not being a member of any party, but invited in my individual capacity I was accommodated separately, in the Hotel Moskva, a famous old Stalinist-chic hotel (since demolished) in the Red Square overlooking the Kremlin, almost close enough to touch one of its red stars from the window. Angela Davis was across the hall at breakfast but my attention was on the unmistakable curly haired and bandit moustachioed Commandante Cabezas. My long conversation with Cabezas was published in the Lanka Guardian that year, entitled ‘The Man, the Fire, the Mountain’. I ended the interview asking Cabezas what happened to Celia, the estranged lover the crack-up with whom almost drove him to suicide, from which he was saved by his commitment to the Frente.
He told me with a quick smile, to await the second volume. He never wrote it. Strangely I found that issue of the ’85 LG in ’06 among the papers of the Delhi and Boston educated mother (who had just died of surgical misadventure capping the delusional folly of others) of my wife Sanja.
In the early ‘90s I was set upon, stripped, stoned and sought to be beaten to death by a lynch mob at Kanatte after the funeral of Gen Denzil Kobbekaduwe. The mob was part of the opposition to Premadasa that hysterically alleged that Kobbekaduwe was killed by that President; a charge which divided society and the military and greatly assisted Prabhakaran; a charge that no one believes today.
While undergoing the experience with its distinct possibility of death in the manner of St Stephen, I didn’t once think of my parents, friends, places I’d been or things I’d done; I saw in my mind’s eye, a man who had irrupted into History like no other, sundering it in two, and I wondered about one other: I wondered whether I would or would not be around to commemorate Che Guevara’s 25th death anniversary in two months.
I was. In the special issue of the People’s Bank’s Economic Review (Oct-Dec ’92), I wrote ‘A Meditation on Che’ (in the aftermath of Kanatte) in which Omar Cabezas’ ‘Fire from the Mountain’ takes up a paragraph (p34).
Walter Benjamin interprets Paul Klee’s painting of the Angelus Novus as the angel of history who would wish to make whole the wreckage of humanity in the past but cannot as he finds his wings caught up in a stormy wind from Heaven. Out of the wreckage of 20th century socialism, Che made it into the 21th century and the new millennium, like some crucified Christ with a carbine instead of a corded whip to drive out the money lenders, black beret for a crown of thorns, the star of Bethlehem come to rest in silver on his brow.
When the 30th anniversary of Che’s death was commemorated this first decade of the new century and millennium, the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee’s paper Granma, which featured so much of Che during his lifetime, carried my essay, ‘Che’s Visage on the Shroud of Time’. The London based website Culture Wars reviewed Soderbergh’s Che movie (with Benecio Del Toro in the lead role) with a reference to my Fidel book and its point on the ethical use of violence by Fidel and Che which earned them permanent possession of the moral high ground.
2009, Geneva, Omar Cabezas walked into the Palais de Nation which houses the Human Rights Council, in an unbuttoned off- white trench-coat, like a world weary Latin American private eye. The commandante is now the Human rights ombudsman of the Nicaraguan parliament under President Daniel Ortega, and also the head of the inter-American parliamentary body on human rights. The Nicaraguan ambassador re-connected us, told him how delightedly his companero, the former foreign minister of the first Sandinista regime, Padre Miguel D’Escoto, President of the UN General assembly that year, regarded my book on Fidel.
We reminisced about our meeting in Moscow almost a quarter century before, caught up with the experiences of that intervening shift in world history, deploying the shorthand and shared semiotics of our generation worldwide. I briefly explained my struggle in Geneva-- and the Sri Lankan process in the global context and Tricontinental terms. Writing on ‘Marxism and The Millennium’ in The Hindustan Times (April 30th 1999), well before the tide of the discourse turned in Sri Lanka, I had warned against "....the aggressive policy of degrading the sovereignty of independent states", arguing that "the response should be a global alliance based on the defence of national sovereignty and territorial integrity...It is on the whetstone of anti-imperialism that Marxism can continue to be sharpened." What I told Cabezas was confirmed by the delegates at the UN in Geneva, of left-leaning (and overwhelmingly Catholic) Latin America.
A day or two later, Omar Cabezas was on his way out of Geneva and came into the Palais in his trench-coat, trailing his carry-on luggage. He had left something for me with my friend the ambassador, he said, giving me un abrazo, an embrace, while parting.
I was handed it the next day. It was an old copy of ‘Fire from the Mountain’ in the original Spanish, ‘La Montana es algo mas que una immense estepa verde’, bearing the imprint of Bibiloteca Popular Sandinista. The flyleaf has seven lines of inked inscription. It starts "Para nuestro hermano Dayan" ("to our brother Dayan") and ends with "Por los muestos, por los vivos, para todos nosotros este libro de tu hermano, Omar Cabezas" which means "For the dead, for the living, for us all, this book from your brother, Omar Cabezas".
And I had grown old believing I was an only child.