Thursday 19 September 2019

Putting a stamp on our Latin-American links

An Post's Guevara stamp marks a longer line of Irish revolutionaries active in South America, writes Tim Fanning

Stamped: The ‘tyrannical’ Bernardo O’Higgins
Stamped: The ‘tyrannical’ Bernardo O’Higgins

Tim Fanning

During a recent visit to Miami, I had the pleasure of visiting Little Havana, the barrio in which thousands of Cuban exiles from the Communist revolution settled in the 1960s. On Calle Ocho, Little Havana's main drag, stands a memorial to the martyrs of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban soldiers who died taking part in the failed CIA-backed invasion of the island in 1961.

The Cuban community's hatred for the Communists is palpable and understandable. Many residents hold the Castro brothers and Che Guevara personally responsible for the deaths of family members. My mere mention of Raul Castro's name in a popular Little Havana restaurant was enough to earn me a rebuke from my dining companions.

So it is unsurprising that An Post's decision to use Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick's celebrated image of Che Guevara on its latest stamp angered Cuban-Americans last week. At home, the Argentinian revolutionary was ludicrously compared to Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Before we get too worked up, it's worth remembering that Che Guevara is not the first Latin American revolutionary accused of murdering his political opponents to appear on one of our stamps.

There was no fuss when the 19th-Century Chilean leader Bernardo O'Higgins - also of Irish descent - appeared on an 82c stamp in 2010. Yet many of the same accusations made against Che Guevara last week have been levelled at O'Higgins.

Bernardo's politics were in stark contrast with those of his County Sligo-born father, Ambrose O'Higgins, who, as Viceroy of Peru, had been an unflinching Spanish royalist.

Jim Fitzpatrick’s famous poster on the Che Guevara stamp.
Jim Fitzpatrick’s famous poster on the Che Guevara stamp.

As a young man, Bernardo was sent to be educated in Europe where he was exposed to the political ideas swirling around the continent in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions. He soon became convinced Chile should be independent of the Spanish Empire and returned home to join the fight.

In 1818, with the final defeat of the Spanish, O'Higgins took power and became Supreme Director of Chile. Convinced by bitter experience that the revolution would collapse into anarchy without firm government, Bernardo O'Higgins alienated powerful sections of Chilean society, including the church and the landowning elites. His enemies accused O'Higgins of tyrannical behaviour, and of ordering the executions of his political rivals. When patriot leader Manuel Rodríguez was murdered by Chilean soldiers and his mutilated body thrown into a ditch, O'Higgins was held responsible.

In 1823, his opponents forced O'Higgins into exile. He never returned to Chile.

An Post might consider Daniel Florence O'Leary for a future stamp. The son of a Cork butter merchant, O'Leary was a teenager when he left Ireland for Venezuela in 1817 to participate in the war of independence against the Spanish. O'Leary was a steely individual who rapidly rose through the ranks of the patriot army to become Simon Bolivar's right-hand man.

O'Leary accompanied Bolivar during the revolution in the north of the continent, participating in the liberation of Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule.

It was a bloody struggle. In 1813, Bolivar called for guerra a muerte - war to the death - which permitted the summary execution of Spanish prisoners.

O'Leary was similarly ruthless. He once advised his son that one should never 'be cruel nor violent, but that if the public good demands it, he should be prepared to shed blood'.

In the post-independence era, Bolivar attempted to build a federal state to rival the United States, encompassing much of South America. His critics denounced him as a power-crazy tyrant. O'Leary remained fiercely loyal. In 1829, Bolivar sent O'Leary to suppress a rebellion by the Colombian general Jose Maria Cordova. O'Leary defeated Cordova's forces at the town El Santuario close to Medellin in modern-day Colombia. Cordova was taken prisoner.

The events that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of El Santuario led opponents of Bolivar's regime to accuse O'Leary of being a murderer.

Rupert Hand was one of O'Leary's officers, born in Dublin and a veteran of the wars of independence.

Hand was a wild character. He had lost his left testicle in a duel and been arrested for robbing a post office. He was drunk when he arrived at the house where Cordova was being held. Falling off his horse, he drew his sabre, staggered into the house and slashed and stabbed Cordova to death.

The opposition accused O'Leary of having ordered Cordova's execution. When Bolivar lost power, O'Leary was forced into exile in Jamaica.

Admiral William Brown, the County Mayo-born founder of the Argentinian navy, Roger Casement, who highlighted human rights abuses in Peru, and the County Monaghan-born army officer John Mackenna, who fought for Chilean independence, are among the other historical figures with connections to Latin America who have been commemorated by An Post.

We might also include John F. Kennedy, whose Latin American policy included several CIA-sponsored assassination attempts on Castro.

Che Guevara is the most famous Latin American of Irish descent in the world. Surely he deserves to be on that list. With the first print run of 122,000 stamps selling out in a week, An Post's customers certainly seem to believe so.

Tim Fanning is a writer with a particular interest in Spanish and Latin American history and politics. He is the author of Paisanos: The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America (Gill: 2016).

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