October 8th 2017 marks fifty years since the capture and assassination of one of the great socialist revolutionaries of human history, Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna.
Che Guevara was born in Argentina on June 14, 1928, to a middle-class family. He attended school in Argentina, and earned his degree in 1953, becoming a medical doctor. However from a young age his thoughts and solidarity were not limited to his nationality.
Che Guevara took a famous motorcycle trip across Latin America with his friend, Alberto Granado, highlighted in the collection of his writings, “The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey” (Ocean Press, 2003) and the beautiful feature film “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004). While many of his political ideas and convictions were still developing at that time, he allowed himself to be educated by the humble workers and peasants that he met along their journey. Through his travels, Che Guevara was deeply touched by the inequality and injustice he saw throughout Latin America, and he decided to take action.
Che Guevara, the Revolutionary Internationalist
In 1955, Che Guevara met Fidel Castro in Mexico. Under an amnesty for Cuban political prisoners, the U.S.-backed Batista regime in Cuba had released Fidel, who was in Mexico assembling the “Movimiento 26 de Julio” or the July 26th movement. Che Guevara later wrote about his first meeting with Fidel, explaining, "I chatted with Fidel all night. And at dawn I was the doctor of his future expedition. In fact, after all of the experiences of my walks throughout Latin America, it did not take much to incite me to enter a revolution against a tyrant, but Fidel impressed me as an extraordinary man. The most impossible things were the ones he faced and solved."
In November 1956 Che Guevara would board the Granma yacht with Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, and other Cuban revolutionaries as they voyaged from Mexico to the eastern part of Cuba to begin their uprising against the Batista regime in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Che was sometimes teased for not being Cuban, and was invited as the rebels’ medic, however he would soon prove himself in the battlefield and become a legendary thinker, leader, and fighter in the triumphant Cuban revolution.
From these beginnings, Che Guevara’s commitment to revolutionary internationalism was clear. When Che Guevara landed in Cuba with the Granma on December 2, 1956, he had never even visited Cuba before. However, he was so convinced of the need for revolution that he joined the “Movimiento 26 de Julio” to fight on the side of the oppressed towards liberation.
When the Cuban revolution triumphed and the Cuban dictator Batista was forced to flee the country on January 1, 1959, Che Guevara was in Santa Clara, in the center of the island. There he had just led an important strategic battle against Batista’s forces, which is considered the lynch-pin battle that resulted in the triumph of the Cuban revolution. Che was by this time the Comandante of his column of guerilla fighters, having risen quickly in the ranks because of his bravery, intelligence, leadership, and revolutionary commitment. Arriving soon after in Havana, he became military chief of “La Cabaña” fortress and took the lead in training the Rebel Army.
Over the next years Che Guevara built a family in Cuba, became President of the National Bank of Cuba, and later minister of industry. In Cuba, he implemented land redistribution and the nationalisation projects. He led a campaign for strengthening voluntary work, of which he noted, “voluntary work is a school for creating consciousness.” He also represented Cuba’s revolutionary government in delegations around the world, visiting countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
In 1965, Victor Dreke, was Che Guevara's second in command for Cuba’s internationalist mission in the Congo, as Cuba tried to train and bolster liberation movements in Africa. In July 2016, Dreke explained on Cuba's Mesa Redonda program, "No one in the Congo imagined that Che was going to go. That is why when we arrived in Tanzania, everyone waiting for us was so shocked and impacted by the fact that it was Che who would be in charge of the mission personally." This demonstrated the importance of this mission to the Cuban government and the Cuban revolution, that they were willing to send one of their best and most talented leaders.
Dreke explained some of the reasons the Cubans were only in the Congo for 7 months, such as the divisions within the Congolese liberation movement, and the Cuban's misunderstandings about their African counter-parts. He explained, "We did not know much about Africa. The books on that continent were written by the capitalists, and gave the impression that they were savages. That's why it was very revealing experience." However, he also explained the importance of Che Guevara's leadership in treating everyone equally, while also being very demanding of himself, the Cubans, and the Congolese fighters. While the mission ended after only 7 months, Dreke explains, "Cuba never abandoned Africa," as Cuban forces later assisted in Guinea Bisseau, Angola, and most recently in 2015 Cuban doctors where recognized worldwide for their role in the fight against Ebola in West Africa.
Despite the difficulties of the internationalist mission in the Congo, Che Guevara was dedicated to building and reinforcing revolutionary movements around the world. In his introduction to the book Tania: Undercover with Che Guevara in Bolivia (Ocean Press, 2005), Ulises Estrada, a key organizer of Che Guevara’s guerilla mission to Bolivia with Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and Tania’s fiancée, outlines the political context of the decision to send Cubans to Bolivia. He writes, “Latin American and Caribbean communist parties did not, generally, develop policies that would lead to the seizure of political power because they believed that a Latin American revolution should be developed in two stages: democratic-bourgeois and then socialist.” He continues, “The example of Cuba’s victory and resistance encouraged sectors of certain communist parties, particularly the youth, to question whether the tactics of their organizations were appropriate for the circumstances.” Estrada explains that Cuba’s support for revolutionary organizations independent of the communist parties, such as the New Left or other groups, created tension. Cuba also received “sharp criticism” from Latin American communist parties and the Soviet Union. Estrada continues, “Nonetheless, while still maintaining friendly relations with the communist parties, Cuba, in accordance with its internationalist position, continued to support those Latin American and Caribbean revolutionary organizations that appealed for solidarity.” The points made here by Estrada demonstrate how Che Guevara’s mission to Bolivia was based on the experience of the Cuban revolution. Che Guevara also demonstrated a sense of urgency in his work, because he knew the talons of American imperialism were gripped tightly into the backs of working and oppressed people in Latin America, and around the world. He felt confident that Cuba’s revolutionary internationalism was the most secure way of fighting the ravages of imperialism and establishing socialism.
Che Guevara’s decision to go to Bolivia was not political adventurism, this was planned and coordinated with Comandante Fidel Castro and Cuba’s MININT at a time when it seemed guerrilla warfare would be the most reliable way to establish socialism. In 2011, Harry "Pombo" Villegas, who fought alongside Che in the Sierra Maestra, the Congo, and Bolivia, did an interview with Pravda Online and was asked about the revolutionaries' goals in Bolivia. He explained, "Our first objective was to continue the revolution. Why? Because the reasons had not died. Che died, but the reasons why we started this fight had not disappeared. They are there, they are the same.” Unfortunately the Cuban internationalists in Bolivia were betrayed by members of the Communist Party of Bolivia. When Che Guevara and his fellow revolutionaries were captured on October 8, 1967 by the Bolivian army and members of the CIA, they were told they would be given a hearing and prosecuted under the law. However, the next day the orders changed and Che Guevara and others were tragically assassinated.
In 2012, two American human and civil rights lawyers, Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, co-authors of the book Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder (OR Books, 2011), were interviewed by Democracy Now. They both made some useful observations on their research into the murder of Che Guevara and his co-fighters in Bolivia. Smith explained, “The line of the [U.S.] government was that: ‘The Bolivians did it as we couldn’t do anything about it.’ That isn’t true. This whole operation was organized out of the White House by Walt Whitman Rostow and the CIA.” Ratner added, “The U.S. wanted Che dead because that was the way to end revolutionary fervour in Latin America and around the world.” Of course, what Ratner says was the hope of the CIA and U.S. imperialists, but they were not successful.
Che Guevara, the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist
Che Guevara is quoted in many places as having often said, “you cannot be a revolutionary without being anti-imperialist.” Indeed, Che Guevara lost his life in the fight against an imperialist-backed right-wing regime in Bolivia. He died attempting to work with the poor and oppressed of Bolivia to throw off the yoke of imperialism and build a more just and equal society.
One of Che Guevara’s most remembered speeches on the power of the struggle against imperialism was his speech to the Tricontinental or the Organization of the Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America on April 16, 1967. There he spoke of the heroic efforts of the people of Vietnam to throw out the U.S. imperialist invaders. He spoke of their example to the world in leading a dignified fight for their self-determination. He declared the need for, “two, three or many Vietnams to flourish throughout the world.”
Che Guevara and the revolutionary ‘new human being’
Che Guevara left his mark on the development of guerilla warfare strategy, Marxist economic thought, revolutionary internationalism, the movement against imperialism, and many other aspects of the development of the Cuban and international revolutionary movement. However, one of his most celebrated works is a letter he wrote to Carlos Quijano, head of the Uruguayan publication, Marcha, for publication in March 1965. It has come to be known as “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” In this article Che Guevara outlines how the Cuban revolution is not only economic or political, but also a social revolution – which seeks to create a different kind of human being than the one that exists under capitalism. Che Guevara famously says of capitalism, “it is a contest among wolves. One can win only at the cost of the failure of others.”
Che Guevara writes that the next generation in Cuba will bring forth new and larger revolutionary aspirations. “We know that sacrifices lie ahead and that we must pay a price for the heroic fact that we are, as a nation, a vanguard. We, as leaders, know that we must pay a price for the right to say that we are at the head of a people that is at the head of America. Each and every one of us readily pays his or her quota of sacrifice, conscious of being rewarded with the satisfaction of fulfilling a duty, conscious of advancing with everyone toward the new man and woman glimpsed on the horizon.”
Che Guevara’s Legacy Today
Although Che Guevara was killed 50 years ago in Bolivia, alongside his compañera and many compañeros, their struggle continues today in those who fight for justice and equality all over the world. Harry “Pombo” Villegas said, “Today in Bolivia there has been a change with Evo Morales, which is an evolutionary formative process, and you have to see how it goes. Advances will be in a positive upward line where the humble classes will participate increasingly in government in a direct way, in process direction, where for the first time in history, native peoples have a representation.” This is a powerful reminder of how much has changed since Che’s time, and how much will continue to change, if we join the struggle to build a better world.
In commemorating the 50th anniversary since Che Guevara's assassination, Cuba's Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel remarked, “Che has not died as his murderers wanted, his figure continues to grow with time as new generations of Cubans, raised under his legacy and example, discover, recognize and take on his standard as a revolutionary. They make their consistent reminder through their dedication to study, work and their duty. His model as an unselfish man and a conscious revolutionary, transforms into an ideal to follow.”
Of course, this homage by Diaz-Canel echoes the words of the Comandante of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, when he proclaimed on October 1967, "If we want a model of man, a model of a man who does not belong to this time, a model of man who belongs to the future. I say from my heart that this model, without a single fault in his conduct, without a single fault in his attitude, is Che’s model. If we want to say how we wish for our children to be, we must say it with all the vehemence of revolutionaries: We want them to be like Che!"
¡CHE VIVE! ¡LA LUCHA SIGUE!
Che Guevara Lives! The Struggle Continues!
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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