Socialist Worker

Che Guevara: his life and legacy

How much do we know about the man behind the myths, asks Judith Orr

Issue No. 1907

Che Guevara

Che Guevara

What made Che Guevara political? How did his ideas change? How did he become a worldwide figure in his short lifetime, and why does he still inspire so many people today? A great new book out this week from Mike Gonzalez, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, gives answers to these and many other questions about the life and politics of Che.

The interest in Che in recent years is phenomenal, and reflects the radicalisation created by the explosion of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements.

From Zapatistas in Mexico to trade unionists in Europe, Che has become an enduring symbol of rebellion and anti-imperialism. Every scrap of his writing has been republished and repackaged. There is even a movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, out this summer. It portrays his travels in Latin America, which had such a profound impact on his life.

Mike Gonzalez's book is unique in that he writes with passion and sympathy for the struggle of Che and his fellow revolutionaries for a better society, at the same time as examining some of the problems with the political approach they chose.

The story is fascinating. It tells how this young, middle class, newly qualified Argentinian doctor with wanderlust became a dedicated revolutionary whose name became synonymous with Cuba. Mike shows how Che became politicised by the world around him. He wasn't, as some accounts would have it, born a fully-fledged Marxist!

In fact he first became truly politically aware while travelling around Latin America on his trusty motorbike. He came across the poorest of indigenous Indians who were leading bleak and poverty-stricken lives. The experience brought out his humanity and sympathy.

But it was the trip that he set off on immediately after qualifying that was to change the course of his life forever. It led to him being in Guatemala in 1954, when a US-backed coup toppled a reformist government which had had the temerity to announce the nationalisation of the US-owned fruit companies.

Che was one of many young people radicalised by those events. He fell in with others exiled in Mexico as a result of the coup, and met a young Cuban activist there. This meeting determined the direction that the increasingly politicised Che would take. The revolutionary's name was, of course, Fidel Castro.

These young people saw their continent run in the interests of huge US companies. They saw themselves as anti-imperialist. A few saw themselves as Communist, including after a time Che himself, as they took sides with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Sadly the Soviet Union was no model for a socialist society. It was itself a totalitarian state.

Mike explains how the ideas and the political strategy which crystallised around this group of people were to become the starting point for many of the struggles in the region in the following years. Che Guevara summed these up in his pamphlet, Guerrilla Warfare. He believed that you had to take on the ruling class militarily, with a guerrilla army.

He argued that the key arena was the countryside, that the courage and determination of the guerrillas could overcome objective conditions.

He said, 'It is not necessary to wait for the conditions to be right to begin the revolution-the insurrectional guerrilla group can create them.' He also believed that this elite group would make the revolution on behalf of the masses, saying, 'The guerrilla fighter will be a sort of guiding angel, helping the poor always and bothering the rich as little as possible in the first phases of the war.'

So his thinking about struggle was from the start dominated by the need to organise an elite group of mostly men and train them militarily, with often brutal discipline. Mike describes the training-mountain climbing and long walks along the 17-mile avenue, Insurgentes, that crosses Mexico City.

Che found Mexico City's high altitudes a struggle, for he had suffered from asthma all his life and was forever puffing on his inhaler. The group now had a specific goal. It was to bring down the hated dictatorship of Batista in Cuba.

Cuba in the 1950s was little more than a playground for rich Americans, full of casinos and brothels while the majority of ordinary Cubans lived in poverty. The campaign to bring down the regime nearly failed disastrously. The landing in a leaky, crowded boat was late and the regime was ready for them. But of the 82 who landed 19 managed to survive. Mike describes how up in the Cuban mountains Che took to the guerrilla soldier's life.

He was a charismatic leader, instilling loyalty and fear in those who fought with him. The group all suffered severe physical deprivation, but Che in particular was dogged by his asthma. Mike shows how this motley band of poorly equipped guerrilla soldiers successfully took power in Havana in January 1959.

The regime was crumbling from within and was ripe for collapse. Nevertheless its defeat was a massive blow to US hegemony in the region. Cuba's punishment was a complete US blockade, which continues to this very day. Mike also stresses the impact this victory had on revolutionaries across the world. The strategy of guerrilla warfare had been vindicated. It had beaten the US, used to pulling the strings politically and economically.

Many others from across the region tried to emulate this in the following years. Che had high hopes for real change in Cuba. But sadly these were not to be realised. Mike looks at some of the reasons why. He explains that the revolution right from the start had fundamental weaknesses. Most importantly, he argues, it lacked any real expansion of democracy or workers' control.

The mass of ordinary people were spectators. They were not taking control over their own lives. Instead Mike describes how, in order to raise production and keep the economy going, the new government kept putting more demands on workers to make sacrifices, work harder, volunteer for more work at the weekends. To his credit Che himself did extra manual work at weekends after working long hours in his office.

One of the many photographs in the book by the renowned photographer Osvaldo Salas, who became the official photographer of the revolution, shows Che out doing building work as a 'volunteer'.

This discipline and self denial won him admiration and respect from ordinary Cubans. But the self sacrifice and discipline were not enough. They could not overcome the effects of the US boycott and the lack of any popular democracy or mass participation in the organisation of society, an essential feature of any socialist revolution.

There were no elections. The new government merely appointed itself. In fact Fidel didn't describe his revolution or the new state as socialist until much later, when he had thrown in his lot with the Soviet bloc. Mike's examination of the dilemmas that faced Che and his comrades after they had taken power is compelling reading.

He sides with them against the US, but shows that their flawed political strategy still shapes Cuban society today, leading to the dreadful sight of a society that claims to be socialist denying its citizens civil liberties and any democratic process. Che himself wanted more. He was frustrated by Cuba's growing dependence on the Soviet Union.

He wanted to spread the revolution. He could see that Cuba couldn't survive alone. It was, after all, quite literally an island in a sea of capitalism. He never lost his spirit, famously calling for 'one, two, three, many Vietnams'. But he was held back by his strategy. This was the tragic contradiction of his life.

He wanted to change the world, but the political strategy he relied on made that impossible. So his method for spreading revolution was still that of guerrilla warfare. He eventually chose to resign all his posts in Cuba and went to fight in Congo. The mission was a fiasco and he was lucky to get out alive.

Finally he travelled to Bolivia to conduct another guerrilla campaign. He was hunted down and murdered by the Bolivian army watched over by US 'advisers'. In his short life Che had already become a worldwide figure representing revolution and anti-imperialism. Millions mourned his death. Today millions still see him as a symbol of resistance.

Perhaps some will be unhappy at the criticisms of Che in Mike's book. But by looking at both the weaknesses and strengths of Che Guevara, Mike in no way diminishes this extraordinary man. Instead he enriches our understanding of his contribution to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

Mike Gonzalez is a socialist activist and lectures on Latin America at Glasgow University. His book, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, is available now, price £8, from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to or phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 26 Jun 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1907
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