Communist Heroes of South America, needlepoint pillows, by Jim Finn

These six needlepoint portraits are all of people who were once and often still are considered communist heroes. Each portrait appears alongside a symbol of a group they belonged to, were sponsored by, or influenced. Besides representing different countries, each of them also represents a different aspect of communism. Carlos Marighella represents the urban foco, or the idea that the revolution should start in a major city and work its way out; Tania, who fought in the Bolivian countryside with Ché, represents the rural foco, the Cuban model that the revolution will begin in the countryside; Markus Wolf represents the institutional communism of the Eastern Bloc; Edith Lagos represents the Maoist insurgency; Carlos the Jackal represents the international terrorism of the left; and finally, Father Camilo Torres represents liberation theology, which is the moral imperative that the struggle for justice happen in this world before getting to the next.

I chose needlepoint because I grew up with it. In St Louis, girls make their boyfriends and brothers needlepoint belts and women needlepoint pillows and church cushions among other things. I designed the images I wanted and sent them to the Sign of the Arrow, a needlepoint store in an affluent suburb of St. Louis. They hand-paint the image on the canvas and I stitch across it and then make them into pillows. A number of people have helped on this project. I want to acknowledge the hard work of Kerry Gilley, Kathy Finn, Sarah Wood, Evelyn Weston, Madeline Finn, Colleen Burke, Cecilia Rubalcava, Dana Carter, Fatima Tucker, Susie Poole, Dean DeMatteis, and Shane Gabier; all of whom helped stitch, stuff, sew, iron, and advise.

Carlos Marighella
Brazilian revolutionary (1911-1969) famous for writing the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. He was born in Bahia in eastern Brazil and joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1930. In 1953 he traveled to China and met Mao Tse-tung. After being expelled from the party in 1967 for his “pro-Cuban” sympathies, he formed the National Liberation Action (ALN). His tactics and writings inspired the Italian Red Brigades, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Gang). It is their logo that appears on the pillow. He was killed in a police ambush in November 1969.

A second strategic objective of revolutionary terrorism is to provoke ruling elites into a disastrous overreaction, thereby creating widespread resentment against them. This is a classic strategy, and when it works, the impact can be devastating. As explained by Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian guerrilla leader whose writings influenced political terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s, if a government can be provoked into a purely military response to terrorism, its overreaction will alienate the masses, causing them to “revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.”
(Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2004 introduction)

Markus Wolf

An East German born in 1923 and a “fluent Spanish speaker who ran Stasi operations in Chile during the Allende government, set up a system using false compartments in cars to smuggle fugitives like [Chilean Socialist Party leader Carlos] Altamirano across the border into Argentina.” (John Dinges, The Condor Years, 2004) The sword and the shield were the symbol of the East German intelligence agency, the Ministry for State Security, Stasi for short. Known as the man without a face for his ability to avoid being photographed, Wolf went on to be the head of the entire Stasi and had a reputation as brutally efficient in his intelligence work. He was put on trial and later acquitted by the post-communist unified German government.

It used to be my principle, even with someone who sold himself to us, to try to remove their feeling that they were doing something dirty. I tried to instill a different motivation, to give them the security and the conviction that they were doing something good, something necessary, something useful—if you want to use a grandiose expression, that they were doing something for peace. I mean, we did believe we were doing it for peace.
(Markus Wolf, CNN interview, 1998)


Edith Lagos
On September 3, 1982, nineteen-year-old Edith Lagos was killed in a confrontation with members of Peru’s Guardia Reublicana. A few days later more than thirty thousand people attended her funeral in Ayacucho in an act of open defiance to the authorities’ ban of a public funeral. The frail-looking, petite Lagos had become a tragic and romantic rallying figure in a context where there were none. A member of the Partido Comunista del Perú-Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) since the age of sixteen, Lagos symbolized the aspirations of many of the Sierra youth who were, then, still trying to understand the full significance of the bloody rebellion initiated only two years earlier in the remote Sierra village of Chuschi. More significant still, the apotheosic posthumous tribute paid to Lagos was a clear recognition of the important role played by women in Sendero’s organization.
(Daniel Castro, “War is Our Daily Life” from Confronting Change, Challenging Tradition: Women in Latin American History, 1994)

Tania la guerrilla
“The only woman who fought with the guerrilla force led by Ché Guevara in Bolivia, Tania’s portrait hangs in every Women’s Federation office in Cuba.” (from the foreward to Tania, Marta Rojas, 1973) She was born Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider in Argentina to German exiles in 1937. She moved to Cuba in 1961 and was trained in third world liberation struggles. She was assigned to build a support network for the newly forming Bolivian guerrilla front. With the assistance of CIA advisors the Bolivian army tracked down the guerrillas. Tania was killed in an ambush just six weeks before Che’s death in 1967. Her bones were discovered in 1998 and reinterred near Che’s in Santa Clara, Cuba.

When Tania’s diary was later examined it was found to contain only one entry, a quotation from Niccolai Ostrovski’s How the Steel was Tempered: "The most precious thing a man possesses is life. It is given to him only once and he must make use of it in such a way that the years he has lived do not weigh on him and he is not shamed by a mean and miserable past, so that when he dies he can say, I have devoted my whole life and strength to the most beautiful thing in the world, the struggle for the liberation of mankind.”
(Epilogue, Tania)

Carlos the Jackal
Born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in 1949 in Caracas, Venezuela, he was named by his Marxist father after Lenin’s middle name. He joined the Venezuela Communist Youth in 1964 and studied at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. Carlos befriended Palestinian students and after he was expelled from the university for joining Arab student protests, he went to Jordan to train in the camps for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He gained a reputation as a fearless fighter during the “Black September” expulsion of the Palestinian guerrillas. He adopted his guerrilla name Carlos while a member of the Popular Front and became famous as an international terrorist after kidnapping the OPEC representatives in Vienna. He was later expelled from the Popular Front and began work as a terrorist subcontractor based in Eastern Europe and the Mideast. He was captured in the Sudan in 1997 and is currently imprisoned in France.


Father Camilo Torres
Fidel Castro remarked that ‘the Communists in Latin America have become the the theologians and the theologians Communists.’ His aphorism has enough truth in it to trouble the ruling classes and confound the State Department and the CIA. With the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, heretofore a rampart of the existing order, there has appeared a new movement—priests preaching the gospel of socialist revolution in the language of Christianity. No one is more exemplary of that movement than Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest who was killed in the mountains of Bucaranga by government troops, on February 15, 1966, four months after joining the guerrillas of the Army of National Liberation.
Camilo was a rare man: priest, professor, agitator and organizer, and for an all too brief moment in his life, guerrilla fighter. At his death, his personal influence among the masses had become so extraordinary that for fear that his grave might become a revolutionary shrine for the dispossessed, the government has never disclosed its location.
(Maurice Zeitlin, “Camilo’s Colombia”, 1969)

Link to the films of Jim Finn

Further Reading
The Condor Years, John Dinges

Carlos the Jackal
, John Follain

For the Liberation of Brazil
, Carlos Marighela

, Marta Rojas

Revolutionary Writings
, Father Camilo Torres

Man Without a Face
, Markus Wolf

Confronting Change
, Challenging Tradition: Women in Latin American History, edited by Gertrude Yeager

Revolution and Revolutionaries
, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America,
edited by Daniel Castro