Special Men and Mother Earth

By Jheri St. James

Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.
– Che Guevara

A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.
– Fidel Castro

A map showing Che Guevara's movements between
1953 and 1956; including his trip north to Guatemala,
his stay in Mexico and his journey east by boat to
Cuba with Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries.

* * *

The Republic of Cuba consists of the island of Cuba, Isla de la Juventud, and several adjacent small islands. Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Cuba is south of the eastern United States and the Bahamas, west of the Turks and Caicos Islands and Haiti, and east of Mexico. The Cayman Islands and Jamaica are to the south.

The national flower is most often known as flor de mariposa (Butterfly Flower) and the national bird is Tocororo. The most populous insular nation in the Caribbean, Cuba’s people, culture and customs include influences from the aboriginal Taino and Ciboney peoples, Spanish invaders, African slaves, and its proximity to the United States. The name “Cuba” comes from the Taino language and may be translated either “where fertile land is abundant” (cubao) or “great place” (coabana).

“A revolution is not a bed of roses.”
– Fidel Castro

The recorded history of Cuba began on October 12, 1492, when Christopher Columbus sighted the island during his first voyage of discovery and claimed it for Spain. By 1511, the first Spanish settlement was founded and for the next 400 years Spain oppressed and enslaved the approximately 100,000 Taino and Ciboney indigenous people who resisted conversion to Christianity on the island. Within a century they had all but disappeared as a result of the combined effects of European-introduced disease, forced labor and other mistreatment. Large numbers of African slaves were imported to work coffee and sugar plantations and the capital, Havana, became the launching point for annual treasure fleets bound for Spain from Mexico and Peru. It was US intervention during the Spanish-American War in 1898 that finally overthrew Spanish rule. The subsequent Treaty of Paris established Cuban independence in 1902.

“Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.” – Che Guevara

In 1959, Fidel Castro led a rebel army to victory over Fulgencio Batista; his iron rule held the subsequent regime together for nearly five decades. He stepped down as president in February 2008 in favor of his younger brother Raul Castro. Cuba’s Communist revolution, with Soviet support, was exported throughout Latin America and Africa during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. The country is now slowly recovering from a severe economic downturn in 1990, following the withdrawal of former Soviet subsidies. “Cuba portrays its difficulties as the result of the US embargo in place since 1961. Illicit migration to the US—using homemade rafts, alien smugglers, air flights, or via the southwest border—is a continuing problem. The US Coast Guard intercepted 2,864 individuals attempting to cross the Straits of Florida in fiscal year 2006,” says the CIA World Factbook website.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara (6/14/28-10/9/67) was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, politician, author, physician, military theorist, and guerrilla leader. He met Fidel Castro in 1955. Castro was in self-imposed exile following his release from prison after his abortive attempt to overthrow the Batista regime on 26 July 1953. Guevara joined his guerrilla movement, and was soon promoted to comandante, playing a pivotal role in the successful guerrilla campaign that deposed Fulgencio Batista in 1956. Following the Cuban revolution, Guevara served as minister of industry and president of the national bank, before traversing the globe as a diplomat to meet an array of world leaders on behalf of Cuban socialism. He was also a prolific writer and diarist with one of his most influential works being a manual on the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to incite revolutions first in an unsuccessful attempt in Congo-Kinshasa and then in Bolivia, where he was captured and executed.

Notorious for both his harsh discipline and revered for his unwavering dedication to his revolutionary doctrines, Guevara remains an admired, controversial and significant historical figure. As a result of his death and romantic visage, along with his invocation to armed class struggle and desire to create the consciousness of a new man driven by moral rather than material incentives, Guevara evolved into an icon of leftist-inspired movements—as well as a global merchandising sensation. He has been mostly venerated and occasionally reviled in a multitude of biographies, memoirs, books, essays, documentaries, songs and films, like “The Motorcycle Diaries.” This film tells the incredible true story of a 23-year-old Che Guevara, a medical student from Argentina who motorcycled across South America with his friend Alberto Granado in 1951-52. The trek became a personal odyssey that ultimately crystallized the young man's budding revolutionary beliefs. Walter Salles's film is based on Che's own diaries of the trip. Time Magazine named him one of “the 100 most influential people of the 20th century,” while fashion photographer Alberto Korda’s (also known as Alberto Diaz Gutierrez) photograph of him entitled Guerrillero Heroico, was declared the “most famous photograph in the world,” a symbol throughout the world of a revolutionary man and idea. Today Western youths wear this image on T-shirts, other clothing, and even have Che tattoos inscribed on their skin. Ironically, the image has stolen all the meaning. Guevara has been completely subsumed by a culture that he hated.

“I know you are here to kill me.
Shoot, coward you are only going to kill a man.”

– Che Guevara’s last words upon being executed in 1967 in Bolivia at age 39.

* * *

The soil collection from Cuba took some doing on the part of Gary Simpson, a couple of failed volunteers and finally a successful gathering. The two-inch thick file is full of English and Spanish language emails, failed shipping documents, research papers, photographs and a sealed envelope containing our earlier request for participation of the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba (returned unopened in 2007). Gaining soil from an embargoed country is almost impossible, it turns out.

Finally Gary responded to an email from Betty Marchorro, a good friend of the Common Ground 191 project who lives in Guatemala and has helped with soil from her country, Honduras, and El Salvador, and is one of the few collectors we actually met in person when she came to the U.S. a couple of years ago:

“Hi Betty,

“Great to hear from you through your e-mail to Jheri. I am humbled by your continued support of the project and the introduction of your friend in Cuba with the hopes of their contributing soil. These are times of great concern that our world neighbors have other goals than peace.

“Please tell your friend that I have been given permits by the USDA to import soil samples to the USA for my art project. They will be attached to the return box to the US and acknowledged by DHL. Further, I have a license from the Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Asset Control, to allow the import, in consideration of the embargo with Cuba (no border for the message). All postage is prepaid with DHL’s office in Havana and there is no cost to the volunteer. I can assure you that they will only conduct their business properly. Submit the volunteer form and away the package goes.

“I would love to have soil collected by Castro. Thanks again, Gary.”

This volunteer idea seems to have bitten the dust (pun intended). When you consider that the project was instituted in September of 2001, saying “more time passed” might be a motto for the project itself, but in the case of Cuba, more time passed.

* * *

Finally, Jerry Lloyd agreed to collect the soil when he visited Cuba in October of 2007. Jerry is a grade school teacher in Orange County, who visited Gary’s show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in 2007, and decided to become a volunteer. He went through quite an adventure getting the soil back to the U.S., but it did finally arrive and sits on the International Wall of Soils in Gary’s studio. He wrote: “I . . . have some photos from Santa Clara, where Che started the Revolution, and where the monument is. It was a very big observance here.” Following is a little photo album Jerry sent of people in the area, the monument, and other items of interest on the special day of remembering a special man, gaining special soil from a special location in a special country:

Thank you, Jerry Lloyd, for your heartfelt participation in Common Ground 191,
from all of us--artist, writer, friends, collectors and readers.

* * *

Havana is the capitol of Cuba, a republic Communist state. When Raul Castro was elected as the new President of Cuba, he promised that some of the restrictions that limit Cubans’ daily lives would be removed—a ban on the purchase of computers, DVD players and microwaves is to be lifted. Before and during the present government, Cuba has boasted some of the highest rates of education and literacy in the Americas. The Cuban state, through tax receipts, funds education for all Cuban citizens including university education. The Cuban Ministry of Higher Education operates a scheme of distance education, which provides regular afternoon and evening courses in rural areas for agricultural workers. Cuba has also provided state subsidized education to foreign nationals, including U.S. students, who are trained as doctors at the Latin American School of Medicine. The program provides for full scholarships, including accommodation, and its graduates are meant to return to their countries to offer low-cast healthcare. The Cuban government operates a much-lauded national health system and assumes full fiscal and administrative responsibility for the health of its citizens.

Historically, Cuba has long ranked high in numbers of medical personnel and has made significant contributions to world health since the 19th century. Cuba stands out among third world nations in addressing children’s health care. Many foreigners travel to Cuba for reliable and affordable health care. Cuba provides medical care as foreign aid, providing free care to victims of disasters, including 16,000 victims of Chernobyl, and sends medical teams to scores of poor nations. Cuban doctors have won a reputation for being willing to endure primitive living conditions, and for being able to improvise when equipment and supplies are lacking. A special country and people, indeed.





In fact, if Christ himself stood in my way, I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to squish him like a worm. - Che Guevara

We began our journal entry with pictures of two men who met in Cuba and fought in Cuba, for Cuba. These two pictures show trees, plants and soil around these two men, who are probably far from thinking about any of that ubiquitous foliage and land. Military and political men talk about homeland, fatherland, motherland, country and state, but what Common Ground 191 is attempting to bring to mind is the soil upon which we all live, and under which we will all be buried--many times, our loftiest ideas with us.

I never saw a contradiction between the ideas that sustain me and the ideas of that symbol, of that extraordinary figure, Jesus Christ. – Fidel Castro

Many men made today’s Cuba possible, and the soil collection from Cuba as well. These men below, pictured in Cuba, “where fertile land is abundant” on our great Mother Earth, are treating Her as she deserves, bathing in Her riches, and smiling in the waters of Her birth. The word for peace in Cuba is “paz”.


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