Who was Che?
CHE GUEVARA has become a symbol of rebellion and revolution across the world. Just as during the revolts of the 1960s, to-day many people in the anti-capitalist movement proudly wear T-shirts emblazoned with his image.
Guevara dedicated his life to the fight against imperialism and oppression. He is most famous for his role in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. It ousted a repressive US-backed dictatorship.
He influenced and inspired a new generation of revolutionary activists in the movements of the late 1960s and early 70s. HAZEL CROFT looks at who Che Guevara was and whether his ideas have anything to teach us today.
ERNESTO “CHE” Guevara (“Che” was a nickname which means “pal”) was born in Argentina in 1928. He grew up in a once very affluent family which had fallen on harder times. From a young age Guevara, who suffered from asthma, read widely. But he was not especially political in his teenage years. His main ambition was to qualify as a doctor.
Guevara was radicalised when, as a medical student in the early 1950s, he travelled around Latin America by motorbike and on foot. For the first time he encountered wide-scale poverty and oppression. He also witnessed the power of the US multinationals which seemed to dominate Latin America. The event that had the biggest impact on him took place when he was in Guatemala in 1954.
The CIA organised a coup against the elected government, led by Jacob Arbenz, which was introducing land reform. The reforms were limited but they challenged the profits and interests of the giant US multinational United Fruit (today Chiquita), which dominated Guatemala. United Fruit owned half a million acres of the most fertile land in a country where the majority of people were landless and poverty-stricken.
Two of the directors of United Fruit, the Dulles brothers, were central figures in the US state-one was Secretary of State, the other was director of the CIA. The coup installed a pro-US regime. It returned land to United Fruit. Guevara was disgusted that resistance had failed. He concluded that the main reason was because the Arbenz government had failed to distribute arms to the people. He vowed from then on to become an active revolutionary.
GUEVARA FLED to Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro in 1955. Castro had just served a two-year prison sentence for his role in an attempted assault on one of Cuba’s key military centres, the Moncada Barracks. Guevara joined Castro’s band of revolutionaries, named the 26 July Movement after the date of the assault at Moncada, as its doctor.
The group planned to return to Cuba to try to overthrow the corrupt and repressive regime of the dictator Batista. Guevara later recalled, “After my experiences all over Latin America and the coup in Guatemala, it didn’t take much to arouse my interest in joining a revolution against tyranny.”
Castro’s group of around 80 rebels landed on the coast of Cuba in 1956. They were met by Batista’s troops, who killed most of them. Guevara was one of about 20 rebels who survived. Over the next two years Castro and Guevara went to the mountains and set about building a guerrilla campaign. Guevara became second in command to Castro and developed his theories about guerrilla war.
Guevara believed the revolution should be carried out by a small band of highly disciplined and motivated revolutionaries. He thought the revolution could come about almost by an act of will, and that revolutionaries could make revolutions in any social conditions. The key element of society, for him, was the peasantry. But he saw their role mainly as providing support, such as food and shelter, for the revolutionaries. He wrote, “Given suitable operating terrain, land hunger, enemy injustices etc, a hard core of 30 to 50 men is, in my opinion, enough to initiate revolutions in any Latin American country.”
He was suspicious of urban workers. He thought the countryside would be ripe for revolution first, and then the revolutionaries would seize the towns from the outside. “The ideological influence of the cities inhibits the guerrilla struggle,” he wrote.
GUEVARA’S STRATEGY seemed to be confirmed by the collapse of the Batista regime in 1959. The working class played very little part in the Cuban Revolution. Castro’s group was tiny, numbering around 800 at the time of the revolution. The guerrillas’ fight did hasten the end of Batista’s regime.
But the main reason the regime collapsed quickly was because it was corrupt and stagnant, and no one was willing to defend it. The army was demoralised and stopped fighting. Crucially, the US withdrew its support. Castro and Guevara marched into Cuba’s capital, Havana, in January 1959. The regime they created was extremely popular. Cuba became a beacon for resistance to imperialism around the world.
Guevara was put in charge of nationalising companies and taking over the land, without compensation, from the big landowners. Guevara sought to develop the Cuban economy away from its total reliance on sugar production. But the US imposed a strict blockade on Cuba. It wanted to isolate and destroy the new regime.
Cuba’s new leaders became increasingly reliant on the Soviet Union for resources. The Soviet Union wanted sugar in return for supplying heavy machinery, which meant Cuban dependence on sugar grew. Guevara increasingly found himself at odds with Castro and in 1965 he resigned his government posts and left Cuba. He openly criticised the Soviet Union and sought to make links with other Third World countries. He rightly saw the need to spread the revolution.
His enemy was US imperialism, and he was inspired by the liberation struggle against the US war in Vietnam. Famously he called for “two, three, many Vietnams”. But the years after Guevara left Cuba exposed the great weaknesses of his guerrilla strategy. In 1965 he set out with a tiny band of Cuban guerrillas to Congo (which later became Zaire) in Africa.
He had been deeply angered by the murder of Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba on the order of Western leaders. Guevara aimed to join the fight against the Western-backed despot Mobutu. The operation was a disaster. Guevara’s group was ill prepared and knew little of the political and social conditions of Congo.
They had little connection with those involved in the uprisings and waves of workers’ struggles that had shaken Congo since the late 1950s. Guevara was forced to retreat. He admitted the operation had been a huge failure: “A desolate, sobering and inglorious spectacle took place… There was not a trace of grandeur in this retreat, nor a gesture of rebellion.”
He went on to repeat many of the same mistakes in his next expedition in Bolivia, South America. Guevara hoped he could provoke a US invasion and so spark a revolution throughout Latin America. Again little or no account was taken of local conditions and politics-for example, the fact that the government was very popular with peasants and had recently been re-elected with 62 percent of the vote. Guevara’s band of 40 rebels was isolated and failed to win support among the peasantry.
His failure to look to the collective power of workers led to tragedy. Miners had led a revolution in Bolivia in 1952-showing how industrial workers could draw the impoverished masses behind them. There were miners’ strikes, which were savagely repressed by the government, while Guevara was in Bolivia. But his group had no connection with this struggle.
He spent six hungry and desperate months in the countryside before the Bolivian army captured his group in October 1967. Guevara was executed by a Bolivian army general while a CIA agent looked on. They chopped off his hands and displayed his corpse for the world to see, before burying his body in an unmarked grave. It was not recovered until 1997. But the US government and the ruling class could not kill the spirit of revolt which Guevara stood for.
He became a symbol of resistance for workers across Latin America, the US and Europe, when struggles erupted after his death. Guevara’s image today is marketed and used to sell products by the kind of multinational companies he despised and fought against. It is his message of defiance and revolution, not a fashion statement, which attracts young anti-capitalists to adopt his image. Guevara’s revolutionary spirit should be celebrated.
But if we want to overthrow capitalism Guevara’s method of guerrilla war in the jungles and mountains has little to teach us. Small groups of rebels, however dedicated and brave, cannot defeat global capitalism.
We need a mass movement which brings together all those who hate the system with the organised working class, which has the collective power and strength to strike at the heart of the capitalism. As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put it, “Where the chains of capital are forged, it is there they must be broken.”
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