Causes of the Revolutions in Latin America
Info: 5605 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 6th Dec 2019
The French Revolution has often been credited with fanning the revolutionary flames that swept through Latin America at the turn of the nineteenth century. It thus seems logical that the struggle against Spain was conditioned by the ideas and events that caused the upheaval in France, and that the great liberators of the continent, men like Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin, were inspired by political tremors from across the sea.
Yet a careful study of the Latin American uprisings–placed against the nineteenth-century backdrop and amid the influences of the American Revolution, several English authors, and the writings of some “liberal” Jesuits–makes the French connection rather difficult to discern. The scholar must also distinguish between the influence of the famous “critics” of the ancien regime–Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and the encyclopedists–and the impact of the guillotine. In Latin America, the first carried much more weight than the second.
Placing the whole period in historical perspective, it is safe to say that French Jacobinism produced a negative reaction among most Latin revolutionary elites. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Creoles–a powerful white minority born in the colonies–were undergoing a cultural crisis. Taught that their mother countries were glorious and powerful empires, they realized Spain and Portugal had become second-rate powers, far beneath mighty England and enlightened France.
Seeking cultural independence, the Creoles learned economic liberalism from England and political liberalism from France–along with near mystical faith in the power of a constitution, popular sovereignty, and the evils of absolutism. Ideologically armed, they aimed their criticisms against the “obsolete” policies of Spain and Portugal.
Although increasingly chaffing under colonial rule, and impressed by these new ideas, the Creoles were far from revolutionaries. They wanted to curtail their monarchs’ authority and become equals to the Spaniards and Portuguese without violent upheaval. Surrounded by seemingly docile Indians, black slaves, and mestizos, most Creoles worried that any political turmoil would provoke a disastrous racial conflict. The Indian rebellions of 1791 in Peru (which had drawn the Creoles to the Spanish side), and the heroic, successful black revolt in Haiti in 1794 (the one Latin American uprising directly connected to the French Revolution) gave credence to this worry.
The writings of the French critics of absolutism (particularly Rousseau and Montesquieu), which began reaching Latin America at the end of the eighteenth century, were thus cautiously embraced by the enlightened elite, despite cultural and traditional barriers to their acceptance. For example, even the most radical Creoles, unlike their French masters, were outspokenly Catholic. In 1810, the Argentinean “revolutionary” Mariano Moreno translated Rousseau’s Social Contract, but suppressed those chapters criticizing religion. Concerning religion, Moreno explained, the great French philosopher “suffered a certain delirium.”
Consequently, the Creoles were willing to approve or applaud the events in France as long as they followed a pattern outlined by the ancien regime’s critics. The proclaiming of a constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of man thus had a profound impact. But when the Revolution intensified, Creole attitudes changed. The royal executions, mob violence, religious persecutions, and Robespierre’s guillotining provoked a general rejection.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Colombian leader Antonio Narino and a group of Venezuelan conspirators translated and distributed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, defending most French revolutionary ideas. A few years later, Venezuela’s Francisco de Miranda, the great ingurator of Latin independence who had fought as a general in the French revolutionary army (his name is inscribed in the Arc de Triumph), stressed that the ideas of the French Jacobins and Girondins should not be allowed to “contaminate” the continent, “not even under the pretext of bringing us freedom… I fear anarchy more than dependence,” he stated.
That pervasive fear of anarchy (evident in the writings of Bolivar and San Martin) and the events leading to Napoleon’s rise reinforced the creoles’ cautious instincts. They associated in French Revolution with anarchy, bloodshed, and sacrilege. In 1800, the distinguished Peruvian politician Pablo de Olavide (who like Miranda had lived in France during the revolution) publicly recanted his former liberal ideas and exalted orthodox Catholicism as the only defense against the destructive tide of the French Revolution. “I was in Paris in 1789 and saw the birth of the horrible revolution, which in little time has devoured one of the most beautiful and rich kingdoms of Europe,” de Olavide wrote.
Almost at the same time Mexico City’s Fray Servando de Teresa y Mier, who had endured prison and fought for Mexican independence, attacked the Revolution: “The French have deduced it is necessary to hang each other to attain equality in the cemetery, the one place we are all equals.”
To judge from the writings and declarations of the period, three concepts survived the creole’s rejection of revolutionary excess: constitutionalism, republicanism, and popular sovereignty. Too hastily attributed to the French Revolution, all had penetrated Latin American years before, legitimized by the popular (at the time) example of the United States.
In 1806 Napoleon deposed and imprisoned Spain’s King Ferdinand VII, imposed his brother Joseph on the throne, and caused the Portuguese royal family to flee to Brazil. When the Spanish people rebelled, the creoles’ cultural crisis became decidedly political.
Amid the collapse of royal authority and the threat of anarchy, they moved from condemning Napoleon’s crime and asserting their loyalty to the deposed king to proclaiming their independence. After Napoleon was forced to free Ferdinand, most creoles, enjoying new political power, fought the king’s attempt to regain authority over his colonies. The struggle intensified after the fall of Napoleon (denounced by the creoles as an ambitious tyrant and the product of the French Revolution) and the vague threat of the Holy Alliance formed in Europe to crush any revolutionary movement. Only then, when the campaigns against Spanish armies had become tough and bloody, did some creoles refer to the early stages of the Revolution in glowing terms, comparing their fight to the French people’s. The allusion was as rhetorical as creole claims of fighting to “avenge the conquered and abused Indians.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, nearly all the newly created Latin American republics had inserted into their constitutions the basic tenets of liberal tradition: the division of power, individual rights, and equality before the law. All decreed Catholicism the official religion. But unlike the previous period, many Latin writers were by then crediting the political advances to the French Revolution.
The change of attitude may have stemmed from two main factors. First, the creoles–the new upper elite of their respective countries, with firm control of the state forces–now had less fear of social turmoil. As the danger of anarchy declined, sympathy for the French Revolution increased. Conservatives acknowledged the justice of the people’s uprising, and liberal factions in each country strove to realize constitutional freedoms.
The Triumph of Romanticism:
Another factor was the triumph of Romanticism, the most popular and lasting literary movement in Latin America. For many Latin writers, Romanticism was embodied by France, and primarily Victor Hugo. France became the spiritual fatherland for Latin intellectuals, with a pilgrimage to la Ville Lumiere, Paris, mandatory.
Ironically, Europe’s romantic poets glorified the bandits, rebels, and outcasts. French writers from Michelet to Hugo hailed the glories of revolution, of barricades, and of violence against tyrants, and extolled Napoleon, now transformed into the Great Soldier of the Revolution.
The Latin writers followed suit. Suffering postindependence disillusionment, watching the rise of caudillos who trampled their beloved constitutions, enduring what the Argentinean poet-politician Esteban Echeverria called “the shipwreck of our dreams”; they declared themselves the heirs of the Girondins and the Jacobins, and the continuers of a revolution for independence frustrated by tyrants. Every leader, idealist, or bandit who challenged the status quo proclaimed himself “revolutionary,” with every “revolution” a child of the “glorious French barricades.” This lasting devotion to nominal radicalism moved philosopher Hermann Keyserling to register a keen observation. “Everywhere,” he wrote in 1905, “the words tradition and revolution are opposite. Except in Latin America, where politicians appear to be traditionally revolutionary.”
In 1849, a group of Chilean writers and mystic “revolutionaries” adopted the names of Danton, Saint-Just, and Demoulins. They formed a “Society of Equals” and attempted a popular uprising in Chile. Although the revolt was a total fiasco, leader Francisco Bilbao (a writer in the apocalyptic style) swore they had saved the dignity of the Chilean people and vindicated the glory of the French Revolution.
Bilbao may have used the wrong example. In 1848, France and other European countries witnessed a new revolution, one whose failure heralded a new concept of what revolution should be. For the first time, Paris saw a parade of workers displaying red flags and witnessed the bloody collapse of their barricades. The following year, Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto. The Romantic movement had died.
Romanticism took the rest of the century to die in Latin America. At the end of the Latin American romantic era, Nicaraguan Ruben Dario became the acknowledged leader of Modernism. By then, the French Revolution had been sanctified. It was a political and philosophical ideal, a sign of the Latin identity before the menace of the “barbarians from the north” (the American Revolution was now viewed as the source of American imperialism) and a spiritual bond with the beloved France.
The French Revolution’s mythic influence has far exceeded its actual contributions to the political trends, constitutions, and laws of Latin America. But the myth has had an influence, helping to maintain the dream of real democracy and true equality for Latin Americans. Sadly, contemporary Latin “revolutionaries” raise banners closer to the red flags of 1848 than to the ideals of “Liberte, Egalite, and Franternite.”
The French Revolution and Freedom:
We have devoted a considerable portion of this month’s issue to the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. Americans, who are aware that France has been our ally since the time of our own revolution, empathize with the French celebration. The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, shares with the flag and the bald eagle the distinction of symbolizing our own nation and civilization.
The great motto of the French Revolution–Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity–expresses values we Americans respect greatly. Yet, it would be dishonest if we did not note the distortions these values suffered during the Revolution. In one of his rare poetic moments, Hegel referred to the concept of absolute freedom, as it came to be expressed in the French Revolution, as “absolute death, meaningless death, as meaningless as quaffing a glass of water or clefting a head of cabbage.”
French intellectual life at the time of the Revolution was dominated by the philosophers. Some, like Holbach, were empiricists, who believed that knowledge started with sensation. These sensations produced a picture of an external world that was in principle completely knowable. Others, like Condorcet, following the model of inquiry initiated by Descartes, were rationalists. Conceiving of the world on the basis of mathetmatical logic, they believed it was governed by fundamental axioms the mind could grasp intuitively.
If God–who had made the world but then left it to its own devices–knew the initial conditions of the atoms, he would be able to predict the entire future. Men were machines in a clocklike world that science, in principle, could understand thoroughly. Because ignorance had destroyed the initially happy state of nature, science would be required to restore such a state in modern society–even if humans had to be forced to be free.
It is this aspect of the French Revolution that justified the Terror in the minds of its partisans. And it is this aspect of the French Revolution that inspired the Bolsheviks. It is the concept of limitless freedom–the kind of freedom that Hegel satirized–that today inspires a number of discontented groups in the United States.
Although the German language, with its immense penumbra of connotations, permits the looseness of reasoning that one finds in a Mein Kampf, it is the lucidity and precision of the French language that inspires a type of rationality that allows a few a priori axioms to constrain thought about life and politics.
The absolute freedom that Hegel called absolute death is an abstract freedom that lacks concrete connectedness. All freedoms are dependent upon correlative constraints. For example, if an object is to be free to roll, it must have a rounded shape that makes it difficult for it to rest on the crest of a slope. The ability to think rationally is dependent, among other things, on not taking mind-altering substances. There is no absolute freedom and no absolute perfection, at least not in this life, where every choice and every freedom involves a trade-off.
The ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity also require trade-offs. Any attempt to absolutize one of these values will impose intolerable costs on the others. Possibilities are limited by circumstances. Novelty–and this includes at least some aspects of the future–is not predictable. Moreover, even with respect to mechanics–and especially with respect to quantum theory–predictive power is limited. In fact, the paths of planets are not entirely predictable, for both measurement error and the accumulation of small effects eventually will produce radical, unforeseeable change.
Any philosophy that fails to give due weight to uncertainties, complexities, and historically concrete idiosyncracies is likely to encourage tyranny. Any philosophy that is willing to jettison established institutions solely on the basis of a prior theory is likely to produce a reign of terror.
This is not an argument against rationality per se, but against only a particular type of rationality, the type that manifested itself in France at the time of the Revolution and against which the most profound French thinkers now are reacting. The overreaction that France experienced twenty years ago in the deconstructionist movement–which risks turning into its opposite–now is being rejected by the best French thinkers at the very time that deconstructionism has invaded prestigious American universities.
The reexamination of the French Revolution, which is so vigorous in France today and which we recount in this issue, should help to inoculate against this intellectual virus. We can thrill to the ideals of the Revolution while sternly rejecting its excrescences and false ideals. Hail, Marianne, still beautiful, glorious, and lucent. This time your scholars and intellectuals are leading the way. From El Cid to El Che: The Hero and the Mystique of Liberation in Latin America Spain gave the world the hero incarnate in El Cid and the transcendent hero in Don Quixote. Much of Spanish destiny would unfold in their shadow, as affirmation and negation of their exemplary lives. The poem and the novel reflect and foreshadow the two great epics of Spanish history: the reconquest of Spain and the conquest of America.
For almost eight hundred years Spaniards were obsessed, consumed by the passion of the reconquest of Spain from the infidels, the Arabs who invaded in 710. The notion of lucha, struggle, which permeates much of the revolutionary poetry of Spanish America today, probably goes back as far as 1099, when it is said that El Cid, already dead but strapped to his horse Babieca, won his last battle at Valencia. The capture of Granada and the final expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 was the epic feat of another Spaniard not unlike El Cid, Gonzalo de Córdoba, El Gran Capitán, whose tactics, training, and organization would make Spanish infantry invincible for almost two centuries.
The centuries devoted to warring against the infidel, an enterprise involving much the male population, resulted in plebeians who regarded themselves as noblemen, “fumo di fidalgo,” according to the Florentine ambassador to Spain in 1513. A Frenchman who visited Spain in the seventeenth century was amazed to hear a poor squire boast that “I am as much a noble as the king, aye, and nobler, for he is half Flemish.” And the nobleman’s, or hidalgo’s, chief occupations were to make war and attend mass; a knight’s tasks, like Don Quixote’s, were battle and prayer. The heroic life was, had to be, a quest, a gesta filled with adventure and longing, longing for honor, even death–anything but the ordinary. Otherwise one might as well be dead or worse, working with money, papers, or one’s hands, like Jews and other infidels or, God forbid, women. The regard for leisure and aversion to ordinary work that existed in medieval Spain were exacerbated by the conquest of America. Saint Teresa describes how one of her brothers, having returned from America, refused to work the land. Why should he toil like a dirt farmer after having been a señor in the Indies?
The notion of a heroic life was propagated by the cantares de gesta, or chansons de geste, the heroic poetry of the Spanish Middle Ages, the popularity of which is exemplified by Don Quixote’s reciting such a ballad to an innkeeper perceived to be the governor of a fortress:
Mis arreos son las armas mi descanso el pelear mi cama las duras peñas mi dormir siempre velar (Arms are my ornaments combat, my rest vigilance, my sleep the hard rock, my bed).
If Spain is “the home of the idea of chivalry,” observes Miguel de Unamuno, then “Quixotism is simply the most desperate phase of the battle of the Middle Ages against its offspring the Renaissance.” The books of chivalry, which popularized the medieval ethos of heroic poetry, were the favorite reading not only of the general public but of such “austere spirits as Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa and the Emperor Charles V.” indeed, Cervantes, who published the world’s first novel in 1605 to ridicule the genre, was in a sense unhorsed by his own creation, a caricature that took off with a life of its own, leaving its creator behind, eclipsing all his “serious” works, galloping onto posterity to become that most endearing and enduring of gallant knights.
The conquest of America was the consecration of the Spanish hero as crusading knight. The conquistadors exemplify Joseph Campbell’s definition of the hero: individuals who venture forth from the world of common day into regions of supernatural wonders where fabulous forces must be encountered and decisive victories won so that the triumphant hero can return home with the power to bestow blessings and riches on his fellow men.
And the feats of the conquest would be as heroic as anything in the books of chivalry. Few men have shown the daring of Cortes’ marching into Mexico with 400 men or of Pizarro taking over the Inca empire with 180. And what witnesses they had in their soldiers! One of Cortes’ men, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, writing as an old man, left us the most vivid, unforgettable account of that mythic European entry into the New World: “With such wonderful sights to gaze on we did not know what to say or if this was real that we saw before our eyes… and, as I write, it all comes before me as if it had happened only yesterday.”
But the first wizard to infuse the New World with all the magic and wonder of the Old World’s legends was the discoverer himself. Columbus painted the inhabitants of Hispaniola to the Spanish sovereigns as if they were blissful creatures from the Golden Age, unsullied before the fall; free of violence or greed, the natives showed “as much love as if they were giving their hearts.” And from the seed of Columbus’s fancy would grow that most enduring American myth, one that combined the bliss of Ovid’s Golden Age with the innocence of the Bible’s paradise lost: the notion of the Noble Savage, a much stronger and lasting presence in the history, literature, and folklore of Latin America than in the United States.
In a brilliant examination of Latin American political mythology, the Venezuelan author Carlos Rangel points to the connection between the past notion of the Noble Savage and today’s notion of the Noble Revolutionary. The present essay is an exploration of this connection, an attempt to establish whether the Latin America guerrilla of today is somehow the latest incarnation of the Spanish hero. The crusader, warrior, savior, is once again stalking the continent, charged with a sacred mission: to liberate us, to restore us to that free and happy state that Columbus found before the rot set in, to convert us to the true faith, to that very old belief in the New Man.
Spanish America, the Nineteenth Century: The Hero As Emancipator:
Is it possible, as has been pointed out, that the most significant achievement of that prototypical hero of the nineteenth century, Napoleon, was one that never entered his mind: the emancipation of Spanish America? That Napoleon was both the denial and the consummation of the French Revolution is exemplified by the coins that bore the inscription: REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, NAPOLEON EMPEREUR. But even more than France itself, the young Spanish American republic would be doomed to the paradox of that inscription, to the cyclic transmutation of revolutionary liberation into absolutism.
After the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the abdication of King Ferdinand VII in 1808, the Spanish American colonies proclaimed their freedom. Their independence, however, was achieved after sixteen years of savage war with the Spanish armies, a campaign led by the Venezuelan Simón Bolivar (1783-1830), thereafter known as the Liberator.
At the time, “belief in the power of the heroic individual” was at its peak. And Bolivar, a dashing, brilliant, irresistible personality, exemplified the Napoleonic ideal (the Argentine José de San Martín, the liberator from the South, was more of a George Washington and did not fit the heroic-romantic mold). Bolivar had not only the conceit of genius but, as noted by Unamuno, the heroic energy, indomitable will, and cult of glory characteristic of Don Quixote.”
The Latin American war of independence was fought with unwilling, untrained, and poorly equipped recruits, over terrain of a savagery inconceivable to either Julius Caesar or Napoleon. In such circumstances, military science counted less than the heroic will and a gift for leadership, traits that were characteristic of Bolivar–a brilliant improviser who lived by Danton’s famous maxim: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours de l’audace!” Audacity in everything. In addition to being a great warrior, Bolivar was also the region’s first romantic writer and the first great interpreter of Spanish American history. Unquestionably one of the most gifted revolutionary leaders in history and the first Latin American to attain universal renown, he was also the region’s greatest visionary. Not the least of his gifts was the clarity of insight with which he analyzed the Latin America conditions that would prevent the liberation he so brilliantly led from producing either a workable political system, as in the United States, or extensive social and economic reforms, as in post-Napoleonic Europe. He concluded that to serve the revolution was to plow the sea.
Truthfulness, harsh honesty about the problems and faults of Latin America, as well as emphasis on the region’s responsibility for its own destiny, have been characteristic of the true Latin America hero. But in a political culture where mendacity, sentimentality, and the rationalization of responsibility are endemic (especially among the elites and the intelligentsia), Bolivar’s harsh truths have never been popular.
The great irony of Spanish American emancipation was that el pueblo–all who are not among the elite (e.g., Indians, blacks, mestizos, mulattoes, poor whites)–were consigned to either harsher bondage or greater servitude after liberation than they had been in colonial times when the humanitarian laws of the Spanish Crown did, to an extent, shelter the weak from total exploitation by the powerful. Partly as a result of such abuses and injustices, there arose in the nineteenth century a veritable tide of populist leaders, the rural caudillos who would wreak almost as much havoc and destruction across the young republics as had the savage wars of independence. With “clairvoyant desperation,” Bolivar anticipated the vengeful rise and bloody wake of these Latin American Cossacks.
Another true and truthful hero, the Cuban José Martí (1853-1895), a great admirer of Bolivar, also expressed doubts about the relevance of North American or other democratic systems of government for Latin America. Alluding to the continent’s violent heritage, the tradition of meeting force with force, he warned, to paraphrase him, that you don’t stop the charge of a caudillo’s stallion with a Hamiltonian decree.
The magnitude of Bolivar’s achievement, the continental scope of his mission, as well as his unrealized dream of an independent and unified Latin America would haunt future generations and inspire in Martí and others a peculiarly Spanish American mystique of continental liberation. The millenarian and totalitarian tendencies of this cult would become more evident in the twentieth century when more than one liberation movement resulted in the oppression and repression of the people it liberated.
The great Russian writer Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who had known or befriended many European revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, including Marx, Bakunin, Garibaldi, and Mazzini, was as prescient as Bolivar about the dark forces unleashed by liberation. He foresaw them engulfing his own country with dire consequences for the Russian people. His statement about Catholic Europe also applies to Latin America: “The Latin World does not like freedom, it likes to sue for it; it sometimes finds the force for liberation, never for freedom.” He concluded that “if only people wanted, instead of liberating humanity to liberate themselves, they would do a great deal for human freedom.”
Cuba, the Twentieth Century: The Hero As Revolutionary:
It is no accident that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 took place in one of those Caribbean islands mythified by Columbus: “The earliest utopias of the imagination and the starting places for many key nineteenth century revolutionaries were often islands.” The old utopia was thus reborn in the romantic dream of a socialist island inhabited by noble revolutionaries, led by a new Prospero who, like the discoverer himself, could transmute American reality into the stuff European dreams are made of. At long last, through magic incantation, through the language of fantasy and sorcery, a much beloved figure would be summoned: the Noble Savage as New Socialist Man.
Like the medieval Spanish knight who consecrated his words, his life, and his death to the nobility of his cause, one of the island’s warriors would set forth into the wicked world to proclaim the good news, to spread the gospel of the incarnation of the revolutionary word: In Latin America a New Man had risen to die for our sins, and the New Man was he–Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Almost twenty years ago, I published a memoir about him, reminiscences of the young man I knew in Cordoba, Argentina, in the 1940s-1950s, Ernestito Guevara as we knew him then: a handsome, mesmerizing young man who was wildly eccentric and shockingly opinionated but unusually idealistic and generous. But now, I write not about that boy, but about El Che, the Revolutionary, the Guerrilla, an implacable zealot of total war, whose ultimate end is as much a mystery to me as to anyone else. The attempt to unravel it here, to explore from the distance of years, books, articles, this second, abstract persona against the memory of the first real and immediate human being that I knew well, is a disconcerting endeavor, somehow like refocusing a multiple exposure in which the first impression will always overshadow the others.
He was different from other children–wiser, tougher, more independent–probably because of having been from infancy on the verge of death because of asthma attacks. From the beginning, we wondered at his amazing nonconformity, his passion for the out-of-the-ordinary–what in hindsight now appear to have been the first stirrings of that very Spanish yearning for the heroic. Unamuno described this yearning as the need to “live a life of restless longing,” an existence driven, in Huizinga’s words, by the “vision of a sublime life”–or perhaps a sublime death? In a journal he kept as a young man, he carefully transcribed the words of an unidentified victim of the French Revolution: “I go to the scaffold with my head high. I am not a victim, I am the blood that fertilizes the soil of France. I die because I must, so that the people can live on.”
And so are revolutionary myths spun and revolutionary heroes born. In our case, the mythmaking begins with the history of the Cuban Revolution, which would not be portrayed not as the outcome of an extraordinarily favorable constellation of forces and circumstances (e.g., approval rather than intervention on the part of the United States; enthusiastic reports in the American press; massive support on the part of the Cuban middle class; active encouragement and even some assistance from democratic governments in Latin America; and last but by no means least, a powerful and deadly urban terrorist network of middle-class students). “The peasants,” as Leo Sauvage has observed, “played a more important role in Che’s imagination than they did in the Cuban Revolution.” But the myth of a rural-based revolution would grow and persist, all credit being accorded Cuba’s peasants as well as that indispensable factor: a “miraculously… small band of men… the armed vanguard,” the twelve apostles that would lead the poor peasants to victory.
The number twelve is no coincidence–even if the original survivors of Batista’s first attack were in fact fifteen. The incorporation of biblical or eschatological imagery into political ideology is characteristic of what one historian has called “the revolutionary faith.” In the nineteenth century, revolutionary ideologies became secularized versions of “the old Judeo-Christian belief in deliverance-through-history. At a deep and often subconscious level, the revolutionary faith was shaped by the Christian faith it attempted to replace.” In the Paris of the French Revolution there was, as in Galilee, a “revolutionary apostolate of twelve,” presided over by an ascetic visionary aptly called Saint-Just. The apostles would return with the Russian Revolution in Alexander Blok’s 1918 poem “The Twelve,” the final image being “that of Christ-as-revolutionary leading armed apostles into windswept St. Petersburg.” As in Paris and St. Petersburg, the apostles’ third apparition in Havana in 1959 would be as ominous, as fraught with danger for the flock as for the apostles themselves.
The Cuban gospel was so electrifying that Che’s words would reach as far as his original arch enemy: the Catholic Church. Latin American priests would adopt th
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