Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara died young. This Argentine doctor who left his home and a career to join the Cuban Revolution was murdered in a Bolivian mountain village while he lay on a bare table. It was October 1967, and Guevara was not yet 40 years old.
In Cuba itself, where Che was a charistmatic and powerful leader of the revolution of 1959, his face picked out in neon lights decorates several floors of a building in Revolution Square in Havana. And on posters and hoardings Che’s image sits beside propaganda to support the Cuban government. Che’s face fills the public spaces of Cuban cities rather than the man who has dominated Cuban life ever since the revolution: Fidel Castro.
There is now an entirely new generation who instantly recognise the deep eyes and wispy beard of Guevara, who wear the T-shirt and buy the enormous variety of consumer goods that carry that famous image. Even though many have little memory of the Cuban revolution and the details of Che’s life aren’t well known; there seems to be wide ackonowledgement that the face has a symbolic power and a meaning that everyone understands. The symbolism of Che, the beret, the star and the red scarf, is a call for something different, a call for revoltution to transform society. That project has a general characther. It is generous, honest, selfless and romantic. And it is youthful. Most fundamentally though it is Socialist.
Ernesto Che Guevara’s birth happened under a garb of ambiguity. Guevara’s birth certificate records his birthday as June 14, 1928. His real birth date was on May 14, 1928. In a way this typified the way Che spent most of his adult life. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children in an Argentine family of Spanish, Basque and Irish descent. In reference to Che’s “restless” nature, his father declared “the first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels. Very early on in life Ernestito (as he was then called) developed an “affinity for the poor”. Growing up in a family with leftist leanings, Guevara was introduced to a wide spectrum of political perspectives even as a boy. His father, a staunch supporter of Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, often hosted many veterans from the conflict in the Guevara home.
During adolescence he found the Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed him to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Karl Marx, William Faulkner and Jules Verne. Additionally, he enjoyed the works of Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and Jean-Paul Sartre (who would later describe Che as the most complete human being of our time).
As he grew older, he developed an interest in the Latin American writers Ciro Alegría, Rubén Darío, and Miguel Asturias. Many of these authors’ ideas he cataloged in his own handwritten notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals. These included composing sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society, and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud’s ideas fascinated him as he quoted him on a variety of topics from dreams and libido to narcissism and the oedipus complex. His favorite subjects in school included philosophy, political science, sociology, history and archaeology. Years later, a 1958, declassified CIA ‘biographical and personality report’ would make note of Guevara’s wide range of academic interests and intellect, describing him as “quite well read” while adding that “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino.”
His main objective though at this point was still to qualify as a doctor with a view to helping the sick and the poor. However, within him a passion for travel was beginning to develop. Initially this was within Argentina itself and then later he undertook two journeys which brought him throughout Latin America and eventually beyond.
The experiences which he encountered during this Odyssey changed his perception of the tasks necessary to end poverty and exploitation. It was during the adventures and events which he witnessed on these journeys that Che eventually embraced socialist ideas.
Che’s first international tours took place in the early 50s. These had a more pronounced effect and ultimately changed the direction of his entire life. At first Che Guevara was content to play the role of an observer at the beginning of his voyage. As it progressed he was eventually increasingly drawn into the revolutionary struggle which ultimately cost him his life.
At the outset of his voyage he and his traveling companion, Alberto, were more interested in having a good time and gaining some medical experience as they toured South America on a Harley Davidson. Che’s Motor Cycle Diaries provide brilliant examples of this. Drunken brawls, romantic encounters and other, “youthful” adventures, dominated the trip they were making around the continent. As they crossed the border into Chile they passed themselves off as leprologists. Frequently they had to flee local towns and villages having aroused the wrath of the local peasants, especially fathers with attractive daughters. During this first trip Che led the largely bohemian and carefree existence which reflected the independent spirit which marked his character.
However, whilst it is this aspect of the trip which is the dominant feature in his diary, other experiences had an important impact on him. The poverty and conditions he witnessed increasingly aroused a profound social awareness. Che’s anger at the indifference shown towards the poor by the ruling class was being stirred during his travels.
Whilst encamped at the Chilean port of Valparaíso, Che was asked to use his medical skills to try and help an elderly woman who it transpired was dying of chronic asthma (which Che himself suffered terribly from all his life). There was little he could do but the experience of trying to treat her, surrounded by poverty, evidently left its mark. Afterwards he wrote: ” There, in the final moments of people whose farthest horizon is always tomorrow, one sees the tragedy that enfolds the lives of the proletariat throughout the whole world; in those dying eyes there is a submissive apology and also frequently, a desperate plea for consolation that is lost in the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the magnitude of misery surrounding us. How long this order of things based on an absurd sense of caste will continue is not within my means to answer, but it is time that those who govern dedicate less time to propagandising the compassion of their regimes and more money, much more money, sponsoring works of social utility.”
Unable to get a boat to Easter Island as they intended Che and his companion headed north, eventually arriving at Chuquicamata, the world’s largest open cast copper mine. “Chuqui” as it is still known in Chile today, was owned by US monopolies such as Anaconda and Kennecott. US ownership of the mines at “Chuqui” was a symbol of imperialist “gringo” domination of Chile. They were eventually nationalised by the Popular Unity government, led by Salvador Allende of the Socialist Party, between 1970 and 1973.
It was here Che and Alberto encountered the harsh realities of class struggle. They met a former miner and his wife, both members of the then illegal Chilean Communist Party. Che was told the bitter story of repression, disappearances and black-listing used by the company and government against those who tried to fight for workers’ rights. Che and Alberto succeeded in entering the mine where a strike was being prepared.
This visit to Chuqui made a lasting impression on Che and he kept a note book on the experience in which he detailed not only the impressions he had of the workers, but also production techniques and the political importance of the mines for Chile. Referring to the mineral rich mountains he protested about the “exploited proletariat” and environmental destruction of the landscape.
The next stop on his Odyssey was Peru which proved decisive in Che embracing socialist ideas through an encounter with a prominent leader of the Peruvian Communist Party, Doctor Hugo Pesce. The discussions with Pesce evidently had a profound effect upon Che. A decade later he sent the doctor a copy of his first book, Guerrilla Warfare, with the inscription, “To Doctor Hugo Pesce who, without knowing it perhaps, provoked a great change in my attitude towards life and society, with the same adventurous spirit as always, but channelled toward goals more harmonious with the needs of America.”
At a party to celebrate his twenty fourth birthday in Peru, Che made a toast declaring “…that (Latin) America’s division into illusory and uncertain nationalities is completely fictitious. We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Straights of Magellan presents notable ethnographic similarities. For this, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of any meagre provincialism, I raise a toast to Peru and for a United America.”
This spirit of internationalism was a theme to which Che returned many times and he soon realised the aspiration of the masses to unify Latin America is not possible to obtain within the context of capitalism because the ruling capitalist class of each Latin American nation have their own economic and political interests to defend. They are also linked by economic and material interests to imperialism from which they cannot break free. Imperialism itself also opposes unity of the continent under capitalism, generally preferring to impose its will on a number of states weaker than itself. The establishment of a democratic federation of Latin American states, as a step to unify the continent is only possible by breaking free of capitalism and imperialism and building socialism.
Once back in Argentina Che’s family hoped that his days as a vagabond would end and that he would take up his chosen profession, medicine. Che completed his studies during April 1953 and received his doctor’s degree in June, a few days prior to his twenty fifth birthday. However Che soon set out again to visit other parts of Latin America with Che gravitating to the idea of committing himself to a life of disciplined and self-sacrificing revolutionary struggle.
At the time of Che’s travels through the Americas, Cuba laboured under the Batista regime, Batista was a former army officer who, despite the pretense of independence had essentially run Cuba as a puppet leader for the United States since 1940. Batista had revoked most political liberties, including the right to strike. He then aligned with the wealthiest landowners who owned the largest sugar plantations, and presided over a stagnating economy that widened the gap between rich and poor. Havana and other Cuban cities became a playground for the rich Americans who visited the island and in a manner that antagonized the Cuban people, the U.S. government used their influence to advance the interests of and increase the profits of the private American companies, which “dominated the island’s economy.”
In 1953 Che, was in Guatemala where a “socialist” experiment was taking place that had drawn thousands from all over Latin America,to see first hand the challenge to US imperialism. Che secured work as a doctor in a hospital and was introduced to Hilda Gadea, an exiled leader of the youth wing of the radical populist Peruvian movement. She introduced him to activists and leaders of various political groupings and gave him political works to study, including some works of Mao. It was during these events that Che encountered a number of Cuban exiles. They had been given asylum by the Arbenz regime and had participated in an attempted assault on July 26 1953 against the Moncada military barracks in Cuba. For the first time Che began to discover the struggle developing against the Cuban Batista regime.
Arbenz was later defeated and Che fled to Mexico and it was while Che was here that he initially met one of the leaders of the July 26th Movement fighting the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, Fidel Castro. Their first meeting was during 1955, after which Che eventually joined the Movement. Che was drawn to the July 26th Movement rather than the Cuban Communist Party due to the policies advocated by the Stalinist Communist parties in Latin America at the time.
Born the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, Castro had became involved in leftist anti-imperialist politics while studying law at university. Involving himself in armed rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he concluded that the U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, who was widely seen as a dictator, had to be overthrown; to this end he led a failed armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. When Che finally met Castro the immediate prospect of a struggle which was offered to him by Castro and his movement together with his “well-defined convictions” finally led Che to accept that “iron discipline” which he had previously rejected. Che subsequently threw himself into the struggle body and soul as preparations were undertaken to land in Cuba and begin the “revolution” during 1956. However, the group was arrested in Mexico and then released. From prison Che wrote to his parents: “My future is linked with that of the Cuban revolution. I either triumph with it or die there”.
His commitment to the cause of revolution was now his entire life. This spirit is indispensable to defeat capitalism and win a revolution. It is the quality in Che which those fighting to free the working class and exploited classes today need to emulate. As he engaged directly in revolutionary struggle his self-sacrifice was to become very evident. At the same time his ideas developed in a one-sided manner. He based himself on the peasantry and guerrilla struggle. This is one important aspect of the Marxist policy which applies in the rural areas where a peasant class exists. The other though is the question of the role of the working class in urban centres is also of decisive importance. This is true even in countries where the working class which form a relatively small section of the population.
The revolutionaries, 80 strong, led by Fidel, his brother Raul and Che finally landed in Cuba on a boat called the Granma. It arrived two days later than planned because the boat was heavily loaded which dashed any hopes for a coordinated attack with the llano wing of the movement so the band of rebels began to make their way into the Sierra Maestra mountains, southeastern Cuba. Three days after the trek began, Batista’s army attacked and killed most of the Granma participants – no more than twenty of the original eighty-two men survived the initial bloody encounters with the Cuban army and escaped into the mountains. The dispersed survivors, alone or in small groups, wandered through the mountains, looking for each other. Eventually, the men would link up again – with the help of peasant sympathizers – and would form the core leadership of the guerrilla army.
On 13 March 1957, a separate group of revolutionaries – the anticommunist Revolutionary Directorate (RD), composed mostly of students – stormed the Presidential Palace in Havana, attempting to assassinate Batista. The attack was suicidal. The RD’s leader, student Jose Antonio Echeverria, died in a shootout with Batista’s forces at the Havana radio station he had seized to spread the news of Batista’s death. The handful of survivors included Dr. Humberto Castello and Rolando Cubela who would later play roles in the revolution. Batista’s support among Cubans began to fade, former supporters either joining the revolutionaries or distancing themselves from Batista. American capitalists however continued their support.The regime resorted to often brutal methods to keep Cuba’s cities under government control. But in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro staged successful attacks on small garrisons of Batista’s troops. Che Guevara and Raúl Castro helped Fidel to consolidate his political control in the mountains, in addition, poorly armed peasants harassed Batista’s forces in the foothills and plains of Oriente Province. These peasents also provided direct military support to Castro’s main forces by protecting supply lines and by sharing intelligence. Ultimately, the mountains came under Castro’s control.
Batista finally responded to Castro’s efforts with an attack on the mountains called Operation Verano, known to the rebels as la Ofensiva. The army sent some 12,000 soldiers into the mountains. In a series of small skirmishes, Castro’s determined guerrillas defeated the Cuban army. In the Battle of La Plata in July 1958, Castro’s forces defeated an entire battalion, capturing 240 men while losing just 3 of their own. However, the tide nearly turned on 29 July 1958, when Batista’s troops almost destroyed Castro’s small army of some 300 men at the Battle of Las Mercedes. With his forces pinned down by superior numbers, Castro asked for, and received, a temporary cease-fire on 1 August. Over the next seven days, while fruitless negotiations took place, Castro’s forces gradually escaped from the trap. By 8 August, Castro’s entire army had escaped back into the mountains, and Operation Verano had effectively ended in failure for the Batista government. After the defeat of Batista’s ofensiva, Castro’s forces began their own offensive directing attacks on four fronts. Descending from the mountains with new weapons captured during the ofensiva and smuggled in by plane, Castro’s forces won a series of initial victories.
On 31 December 1958, the Battle of Santa Clara took place in a scene of great confusion. The city of Santa Clara fell to the combined forces of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos, Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Comandante Rolando Cubela. News of these defeats caused Batista to panic. He fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic just hours later on 1 January 1959. Comandante William Alexander Morgan, leading RD rebel forces, continued fighting as Batista departed, and had captured the city of Cienfuegos by 2 January. Castro learned of Batista’s flight in the morning and immediately started negotiations to take over Santiago de Cuba. On 2 January, the military commander in the city, Colonel Rubido, ordered his soldiers not to fight, and Castro’s forces took over the city. The forces of Guevara and Cienfuegos entered Havana at about the same time. They had met no opposition on their journey from Santa Clara to Cuba’s capital. Castro himself arrived in Havana on 8 January after a long victory march.
Initially in an effort to court, or at least confuse, the American government, Castro installed anti-communists, Havard graduates and political moderates in the new regime. The radical opinions of Che were far from invisible though. The pretence of non-alignment could not last long. In 1960, using laws drafted by Guevara, revolutionary Cuba seized thousands of acres of private property, most notably that owned by American capitalists. The Soviet Union could only afford to maitain a safe distance from such a thorn in it’s opponents’ side for so long. Che had been sent on secret diplomatic missions to meet Soviet officials, after which Kremlin interaction with Cuba increased rapidly.
At this point radicals took centre stage. Moderates resigned who were levered from power, Fidel assumed the presidency and Che took charge of econonmic reform. The US orchestrated a campaign to oust Castro by demanding he call elections. The response was a massive demonstration of hundreds of thousands on May Day, of armed Cubans chanting, “Revolution- Yes – Elections -No.”
Within Cuba itself a massive radicalisation of workers, poor peasants and youth was taking place alongside a polarisation within the government. Vendors were selling fruit juice on the streets to raise money for the state and the revolution.
Kruschev, the Soviet leader, committed to buy the newly nationalised sugar exports which Kennedy had rejected. US-led arms and trade embargos followed. While uncertainty exists over the depth of KGB operations in Cuba, Eastern bloc military hardware and Soviet ballistic missiles were being shipped to Cuba within eighteen months of the revolution. The resultasnt nuclear face-off in October 1962 – the Cuban missile crisis – underlined how high the stakes were that Castro and his band of former mountain guerillas were now playing for.
More than anybody else in Cuba, Che now terrified US imperialism with what he was preaching. He anticipated the onslaught from the US government which would follow the adoption of more radical policies. He delivered a speech, ‘Social Projections of the Rebel Army”. Che proclaimed: “Our revolution is intimately linked to all the underdeveloped countries of Latin America. The revolution is not limited to the Cuban nation because it has touched the conscience of (Latin) America and seriously alerted the enemies of our peoples. The revolution has put the Latin American tyrants on guard because these are the enemies of popular regimes, as are the monopolistic foreign companies…… Today, all the people of Cuba are on a war footing and should remain so, so that the victory against the dictatorship is not a passing one but becomes the first step to the victory of (Latin) America.”
It was a call to revolutionaries throughout Latin America and a declaration of war against US interests. The US was adopting a policy aimed at strangling the measures being taken by the new regime. Castro retaliated to the trade embrago with a decree legalising the nationalisation of all foreign assets. In October, 383 large Cuban industries and the banks were taken over by the state. Capitalism was snuffed out. Soon after, Castro for the first time proclaimed the revolution in Cuba as “Socialist”.
Eventually though, in the face of increased pressure from the US and therefore increased reliance on the USSR a Stalinist bureacuracy manifested itself in Cuba with the resultant impositions on personal freedom. This has only worsened since the collapse of the USSR in the early 90s.
Che meanwhile reacted with hostility to what he saw in the Soviet Union. On one visit, invited to dinner in the apartment of a government official, he ate his meal on the finest imported French porcelain. During the dinner he turned to his host and sarcastically quipped: “So, the proletariat here eats off French porcelain, eh?” Although repelled by what he saw in the USSR and frustrated by the emerging bureaucratic methods and mistakes in Cuba, Che had no clear alternative. His central weakness, the lack of an understanding of the role of the working class in the revolution and in consciously planning and running society, now prevented him from developing a viable alternative policy. To this must be added his lack of any worked out explanation about the Stalinist states in the USSR and Eastern Europe. From a Marxist point of view, both of these deficiencies in his ideas would conspire against him. He correctly looked to extend the revolution beyond Cuba’s borders but failed to grasp how this could be done.
Che’s revolutionary yearnings took him first to the Congo and then to Bolivia where he ultimately met his death. The tragedy of Che was that his heroism was not linked with a fully rounded-out programme and ideas which could bring about the objective he aspired to – an international socialist revolution. The necessity of achieving this is more urgent than ever. It will be accomplished if today’s revolutionaries learn from the experience of Che Guevara’s struggle and emulate his audacity and self-sacrifice in the struggle to bring about a socialist society.
For me Che wasn’t, as Satre said the most the complete human being of his age, but most fundamentally he had the potential to be the most complete human being of all time. Amongst Che’s possesions when he died was some of the works of Leon Trotsky. Who knows what this heroic, courageous, passionate and beautiful Marxist revolutionary would have achieved, armed with the programme of Trotsky! Nevertheless he shall correctly, forever remain a symbol of struggle for Marxists and oppressed masses the world over.
As for Cuba four decades after Che’s death it is once again at a cross-roads. Against the background of a transformed international situation the threat of counter-revolution and capitalist restoration threatens. US imperialism has once again tightened its grip and is spearheading attempts to overthrow the communist regime and recapture a playground for business tycoons.
With the loss of favourable trading arrangements with the former USSR in 1990/91 Cuba was plunged into economic crisis. This has been compounded by the attempts of US imperialism to isolate Cuba with the imposition of a brutal trade embargo aimed at strangling the economy. Every US President since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 has attempted to take measures aimed at bringing about the downfall of the Castro regime and restoring capitalism. Castro (despite last year handing power to his brother) much to the irritation of the occupants of the White House, has survived nine US Presidents, each of which underestimated the massive support which existed in Cuba for the revolution – despite the absence of a genuine regime of workers’ democracy.
However, the past gains of the Cuban Revolution are now under threat as the prospect of capitalist restoration looms. The regime, confronting the loss of economic support from the former USSR and isolation, has been driven to adopt a new economic policy. This has opened it up to foreign investment and ownership of sections of the economy, legalised the circulation of the US dollar and begun to threaten the existence of a centrally planned economy.
The apparent defence by Castro of the revolution and “socialism” in the face of imperialist aggression from the USA has re-enforced support for Cuba in the minds of many youth and workers internationally during the last five years. For many Cuba is now seen as the only regime which is still defending socialism and fighting the threat of imperialist aggression and capitalist restoration. The international workers’ movement has a responsibility to oppose all aggression by imperialism and attempts to restore capitalism in Cuba as it must never be forgotten that Cuba has continued to set an example to the world of what can be achieved if an economy is organised according to people’s needs rather than corporate profits.
One of the first tasks of the revolution was to eradicate illiteracy, achieved within a year with the aid of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Quality, free education is now universally available to all Cubans, and thousands of Cuban teachers are volunteering in dozens of countries around the world. The story is similar for health care. Before the revolution, the life expectancy of Cubans was only 58 years, the country’s 6300 doctors demanded exorbitant fees that placed treatment beyond the reach of most and there was only one hospital in rural Cuba. Today, world-class healthcare is universally free in Cuba and in 2008, Cuban life expectancy was 78 years — more comparable to developed countries than Cuba’s poor neighbours. In 2008, infant mortality in Cuba reached a new low of 4.7 per thousand births, well below the US rate of 6.4 per thousand, and the world average of 52. Cuba has more than 70,000 doctors — the most per capita in the world — and tens of thousands of these are volunteering in more than 80 countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia, the Solomon Islands and in East Timor, where there are currently over 300 Cuban doctors.
At the same time it is necessary to see what lies behind the defence of “socialism” by Castro and the Cuban bureaucracy. Thankfully a section of it is resisting attempts to move towards capitalist restoration. In part this is because it does not want to abandon the social gains conquered by the revolution and preside over the misery and chaos which a return to capitalism would mean in Cuba. But those sections of the leadership which are more inclined towards capitalist restoration are likely to be more assertive with the death of Castro who, at 85, is in ailing health.
The establishment of genuine workers’ councils, locally and nationally, which have control and management of the economy are essential. All representatives and officials must be elected, subject to recall by those they represent and receive only the average wage of a skilled worker.
There must be an ending of the one party regime which exists. This is often justified because of the threat to the revolution from imperialism. This threat is real but will not be averted by only allowing the party of the bureaucracy to organise itself. All parties which are opposed to imperialism and defend the idea of a socialist planned economy should be allowed to organise, conduct propaganda and stand candidates in elections. Independent trade unions need to be established.
The threat posed by imperialism and capitalist restoration in Cuba can only be avoided through the victory of the socialist revolution in Cuba and throughout Latin America and internationally. This would win the support of the working class in Latin America and put pressure on socialist leaders Morales and Chavez to establish a true socialist state in Bolivia and Venezuela respectively and to then establish a Socialist Federation of the continent. This would be the start of worldwide revolution and the foundation of Che’s dream, international socialism.
For further reading see “Che Guevara ~ Symbol of Struggle” by Tony Saunois of the Committee for a Worker’s International.
This is a written version of a lead off first given at a Llanelli & West Wales Socialist Party branch meeting on 22 May 2012.