Che’s Poet Son Omar

Part 6 of Solidarity and Resistance: 50 Years with Che

After leaving Cuba, I took a break from world politics. I wrote a book about Cuba’s mixed economy, which was causing a loss of revolutionary expectations. Socialism was put on the back burner, in order for the nation simply to survive. The book, Cuba, A ‘Yankee’ Reports,1 was published by a small house in Germany and did not come out in English.

Grethe and I decided to separate and I moved to an ecological agricultural collective in northern Denmark called Svanholm. It was a totally new experience for me living with 100 people and working on a farm full time. For two of the three years I lived there, I was the chicken farmer raising 2000 at a time for their meat and eggs.

But I couldn’t stay away from the real world of politics for long. The United States and capitalist Western Europe decided to divide and conquer Yugoslavia. Serbia was invaded, and the terrorist drug dealers in Kosovo became the new heroes of a “humanitarian operation.” I initiated a local anti-war committee in a nearby city. No one at the collective wished to partake in “politics”.

My answer to those who refuse to partake in “politics” when their government attacks another people/nation without being attacked is that this is tantamount to aiding and abetting the killing. To fight against aggressive-making war is a moral obligation of all.

My raised index figure, however, only irritates people, so I grew more and more isolated from the collective and left it in 2000.

I worked at odd jobs, gave talks about “My America”, and took up writing on the Internet. I fell in love with another Danish woman, Charlotte Borup. Charlotte is a fine poet but does not struggle to get published, which is quite difficult in the little market there is for the Danish language.

I tried to find a place in the small solidarity/anti-war groups in Denmark, even in the Danish Communist party, but all efforts were unfulfilling and ineffectual. Ten years away from the fervor of Cuba was too long so I returned for a five-month exploratory visit in 2006-7. Cuba was playing a progressive role in creating and expanding the new coalition of several Latin American and Caribbean countries: ALBA.

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) is an international cooperation organization based on social, political, and economic integration between member countries, using barter trade as much as possible, endeavoring to lift all their peoples out of poverty and eliminating illiteracy and healing the sick. Another important goal is to gradually transform the economies into a socialist one.
Venezuela and Cuba started ALBA in December 2004. It currently has six other members: Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Conservative and rich, Manuel Zelaya took a left turn sometime after becoming president of Honduras, January 2006. Hugo Chavez and other ALBA leaders influenced him. Zelaya signed Honduras into ALBA, in 2008, which was a main reason why right-wing politicians and military generals conducted a coup d’ètat with United States political-economic support, naturally. The illegal government then withdrew from ALBA.

I was glad to be back in Cuba. I visited old friends and colleagues and worked some days at my favorite coop farm. There was greater efficiency than before yet the workers still did not have significant decision-making powers. The incentive for greater efficiency was money. Where it was possible to earn more by working harder there was more productivity, the same as under capitalism. In those areas where a normal peso wage was all one could expect production remained low.

When I returned to Denmark, I wrote a series of 22 articles for the Morning Star and collected them into a book, Cuba: Beyond the Crossroads. My description of Cuban society was supportive and constructively critical, I thought, yet many Cuba solidarity activists, especially leaders, took umbrage at my critiques.
Now a pensioner, I had ample time on my hands to fight against the capitalists’ wars. But, as the years of wars in the Middle East for oil and total global control dragged murderously on, protests in Denmark, the US and elsewhere, subsided to null. And this, despite the fact that international capitalism crashed to an all time low. Capitalists’ politicians steal more and more wage taxes and social benefits from the working classes around the world, in order to bail out their rich patrons, yet the people do not rise up. Passivity could hardly get lower. Time to return to Cuba, I thought. It would also be exciting to be there during their 50th victory anniversary on January 1, 2009. Maybe I could get Cuba at Sea published there as well.

Veronica, a former colleague at Editorial José Martí, had put me in touch with Omar Pérez López, whom I engaged to translate Cuba at Sea, hoping to finally get it published in Cuba. I owed it to the merchant marines I had sailed with so long ago.

Omar turned out to be a superb translator. He is fluent in Spanish, English, Italian, and nearly so in Dutch. Omar had graduated from the University of Havana, in 1987, in English language and literature. He wrote for the youth-oriented, social-literary magazines El Caíman Barbudo, and La Naranja Dulce. He spent a couple years in Holland, studied Italian in Italy, and traveled around Europe translating, writing, and reading poetry at literary gatherings. Back in Cuba, Omar was making his living mainly by translating. His language skills are so keen that he has translated Shakespeare and Dylan Tomas into Spanish. Some of the Shakespeare is a first translation into Spanish.

At midnight, November 20, 2008, a taxi cab left me off at Omar’s three-story apartment building, which faces the malecón, Havana’s tantalizing seawall coastline. No door bell and a locked gate led me to shout for Omar, nothing unusual in Cuba.

A tanned white man of medium height and shoulder-length black hair met me at the wrought iron gate. His dark eyes shone friendly into mine. His open expression and quiet voice put me at ease. There was something magnetic about this man, something familiar far away.

I followed the bare-chested, sinewy man up to the second floor past two apartments on the ground. His mother, Lily Rosa López, a nationally known radio announcer, lived on the top floor.

Omar’s apartment was huge, elongated. There were five or six large rooms, a small bathroom with shower, a narrow kitchen and, best of all, a balcony with a lovely sea view. The place was spartanly furnished. Paint and plaster were falling down here and there. One must not lean up against a wall as it might break apart into powder—typical of much housing here, especially central Havana where Omar lived.

Omar showed me to a room where I would be sleeping. He lived most of the time with his girl friend further out of town, in Miramar, where she had a large house. During our months-long correspondence, Omar had let me know that I could use his apartment and he insisted that I not pay anything. This was highly unusual. But I felt it was OK to accept the generous offer given that he didn’t need the apartment now and I had paid an adequate sum for his translation.

The bed was a board placed upon the tile floor. There were two sheets/blankets between the wood and my back. Omar was sleeping that night in the next room on a wooden bunk bed he had built close under the high ceiling. A wooden ladder was attached. It too was without mattress. There were no sofas or stuffed chairs, just a simple table and a few wooden chairs. Omar believed in living frugally, part of his Zen Buddhist philosophy.

I broke out a bottle of seven year-old Havana Club, which I had bought at the airport. The dark smooth spirit must only be drunk straight, which we proceeded to do standing on the balcony. For the rest of the night, we conversed without stop. Omar spoke slowly and clearly. My tempo even wound down from its normal fast pace when excited.

We hit it off immediately. This was a fascinating, unassuming man; and honest, unusually so! His humor ranged far and wide, from jesting to ironic but never snubbing. His wit made me laugh unabashedly. We exchanged political thoughts, too, of course. While he was not a Marxist, he thought like a revolutionary—gently urging humans he could reach to develop egalitarian and harmonious forms of living.

Omar—carpenter, poet, translator, musician, teacher—combined various philosophies, from Marxism to Buddhism, existentialism and atheism.
“The issue is to become aware. Facts and literacy is not the essential. But awareness! That can occur with anyone, literate or not, if you search,” he said. And he viewed laughter as a release from the foolishnesses man commits, from the absurdities of reality.

As the first rays of sun sparkled on the sea, we were exchanging personal information. I told him of my disunited background; the meaning his homeland had for me—a revolution for justice, the Bay of Pigs, Che Guevara. Omar spoke of his mother but did not mention his father. I asked about that.

“Now that you ask, I must tell you the truth. He was Che,” Omar replied straight away, his eyes dancing with mine aglow.

You’re kidding. No I’m not. It can’t be. Yes, it can. The smile, the eyes and brows! How on earth?

I had quickly grown to like and admire this man, and that was a big reward. I loved his father for his thoughts and actions without having ever met him, and I had taken his morality to me, too. And now, the wizard of coincidence had brought me to his son’s house. Yet another reward!

Later I realized that Omar was shy about speaking of his father. Veronica, for instance, who worked with him off and on for years, did not know. Omar wanted to be seen for him self, of course, yet it must have been difficult not to share his father with others, and not to have known him personally.

Lily was married when she met Che, as was he. They had an affair and Omar was born on March 19, 1964. It was not spoken about publicly. Che did not come to know his 6th child. He gave Lily a copy of Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat”, and she gave the poet’s name to her son. Omar came to poetry on his own without knowing this paternal background.
Lily’s husband gave Omar his surname and helped raise him as his own. Omar did not learn who his real father was until he was 25 years old, in 1989. Lily told me that the Mexican author, Jorge G. Castañeda, had written about this, but she was not interested in “publicity”.2 Nor was the government or Che’s widow. Aleida March was into denial. But Che’s daughter, Hilda, by his first wife—both now dead—embraced Lily and Omar as her brother.

One of the few writers to whom Omar has spoken about his father is Kristin Dykstra. He gave her permission to write about the connection in, “Omar Pérez and the Name of the Father”.

“Concluding a 2005 essay, Omar Pérez made his own remark on strange meetings between revolution and marketing: ‘Revolution: today they name you in advertisements at the four corners of the world: alleluia!’” Dykstra quoted Omar.

I gathered that this was Omar’s way of criticizing the commercialization of his father.

“The longest story I’ve been told featuring Omar Pérez” continued Dykstra, “also includes a command from the Revolutionary government to make oneself over in the image of the martyr, but this tale imagines the moment when Pérez learns his father’s name. The story begins in the late ‘80s when the son is in his twenties and knows nothing of his father. He works as a journalist and participates regularly in events of all kinds — music, poetry readings, theater, performance art. When he chooses to speak, he is charismatic. He works with an accomplished circle of writers and artists in Havana.

“Participants in a cultural and political movement known as Paideia, they are idealistic, given to experiment, and increasingly vocal in their dissidence. Representing a generation raised within the institutions of the revolutionary government, they demand active leadership roles in the nation’s social experiment — roles promised to them throughout their education. Pérez finally crosses a line in his public statements.
“Seen by authorities as a dangerous force, he is relieved of his job in journalism and assigned to work at a farm in the Cuban countryside. It is to be a lesson in revolutionary discipline….”

“Pérez … thought he was treated reasonably well there, as mandatory work camp situations go, since he was not in fear for his life; he understood the point of the exercise. He specifically stated that he did not think that his case was the sort of extreme example that merits the strictest condemnation of governments on the world stage.”

When colleagues in the “Paideida” suggested to Omar that his father might be el Che, Omar confronted his mother, who then told him the truth. I never did get to know exactly how Omar took this extremely unique fact; I did not want to probe too much nor give him the impression that I was mostly interested in him because of his father. I loved the man himself.

Back in 1989, Omar’s writings had been viewed as too rebellious especially by the head of the Communist Party ideological department, Carlos Aldana, who censored him. It was Aldana who, three years later, granted me permission to sail to Europe. Within weeks thereafter, Aldana was fired from his posts for advocating greater liberalization of the economy, which is now accepted and being codified at the 6th CP Congress.

Now, the sun was fully aflame and ecstatic or not, I had to sleep and so did Omar. In the following days, I got to know Lily. She lived alone upstairs and we helped each other out. She went to work daily, still announcing on the radio after half-a-century. Lily, like many others I knew, felt that she was still a revolutionary but did not wish to be a member of the Communist party, which she saw as responsible for stifling bureaucracy, general inefficiency, and increasing corruption.

Omar and I maintained regular contact as I went about comparing how Cuba was developing since my last visit. There was more greed for money; more real poverty, too, although begging for food was rare unlike the rest of Latin America. Worst of all was the escalating disinterest in revolutionary thought and values. One livid example for this old man is what I see as youths escaping into loud and meaningless reggaeton noise. This is definitely not the socially critical Jamaican reggae of my youth rather deafening escapism, which often blared through decaying walls into my very essence.

I flew with other foreign and national journalists on a government provided aircraft to Santiago de Cuba to attend the 50th anniversary of the revolution. No one expected Raúl Castro to hold a Fidel-like speech; that is not his forte. But I was unexpectedly disappointed at how low key he was. There was no honey to offer only belt-tightening warnings. There were no parities in the streets. Austerity was the sign of the times. It was understandable, somewhat, because Cuba had just suffered several harshly destructive hurricanes, and money was short.

“We have transformed dreams into realities…Our revolution is a permanent struggle, which continues today and will for the next 50 years…Today the revolution is stronger than ever,” Raul said. Then, he immediately referred to the famous speech that Fidel made to students on November 17, 2005. Fidel had said that the enemy cannot destroy the revolution but that Cubans can—because of lack of revolutionary morality and poor production—and it would be their fault.

To place these two views in proximity seemed an overt contradiction: stronger than ever yet on the brink of falling apart!

When I told Omar how distressed I was at what I had witnessed in Santiago de Cuba, and generally—the continual neglect of upkeep, the chronic waste of resources and utilities, the rampant attitude of despair and non-revolutionary feelings, the poor state of work—he said:
“You’re suffering it, living it. Digest it and write about it.” I did. I wrote several descriptive-analytic pieces that were published on many websites, but have not done another book, which Omar thought would be a good idea.

My take was: Cuba’s economy is falling apart yet the government-party will not take the giant necessary step to place the working class in power at job sites and in political policy-making. No government ever has, no matter what it has called itself. But one could expect that a self-declared Marxist-Leninist government could, after half-a-century, begin to bring the workers into real power.

I had tried to find a publisher for Cuba at Sea. None of the six I approached was either interested or felt there were enough potential sales to make it worth while. I needed a break from the hustle of the city, so I took to “my” coop farm but found no better revolutionary vibrations there either. Production for money without power was even more extant than two years before.

Then I visited the solemn mausoleum in Santa Clara for Che and the 29 other killed comrades whose remains had been sent from Bolivia. They had been laid to rest on October 17, 1997. An eternal flame burns beside them.

In the last days of my stay, I read some of Omar’s poetry. I found it oftentimes obscure and complex, almost always philosophical and challenging. Omar resists staid thinking.

Omar is Everyman. In that sense: like father like son. Omar inspires and enlivens. He urges us on to feel good, to think positively, to take steps we might be hesitant to take. He would ask me, “Ron, could you not wait a day or so to save humanity?” And, instead of criticizing me for my pointing finger, he would say, “Ron, you are a very good policeman of error…Do not eat the heart!”

Hasta la Victoria Siempre! Til Victory Always!

  • Read Part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
    1. “Kuba, Ein ‘Yankee’ Berichtet”, in German. Published by Pappyrosa, 1997. []
    2. Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, Knopf, N.Y., 1997. []

    Ron Ridenour is a veteran journalist and author of nine books, the latest is Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Ron, or visit Ron's website.