Sunday, April 24, 2005

Ernesto "Che" Guevara

Throughout the world he is known simply as "Che", but who was this man beyond the image we see on a T-Shirt. What I am attempting to do today is to delve far beyond the image you see on t-shirts all over the world. I wish to portray him as much more than just a heroic guerilla – above all I want to point out the lessons and mistakes that we as the revolutionaries of the twenty-first century should learn from and implement against US Imperialism and Imperialism throughout the world.
Some cynical and superficial pro-capitalist journalists have attempted to dismiss this re-awakened interest in Che. They have falsely attempted to portray it as nothing more than a desire to be identified with the so-called "permissive" life-style associated with the 1960s. However this may be true to some extent, I think the predominant reason for the interest in Che is because he has a romantic and cultural appeal to many young people who associate his image with a struggle against exploitation and above all some form of "revolutionary spirit". And it is this spirit that we must all pry out of each of us – and use it to our fullest advantage in the fight for socialist ideals.
It is for these reasons that today, I am delivering this speech. And it is for these reasons I want to focus on the Cuban revolution, in particular the contribution to it made by Che Guevara, as it has many lessons to learn from in the struggle against exploitation which is taking place all over the world, particularly in Latin America today.

It is important to understand the origins of the Cuban revolution. In January 1934 Batista topples the new government and installs himself as dictator, ruling until 1940 when he is legitimately elected as president. Finding himself out of power in 1944, Batista now a general bides his time until 10 March 1952, when he overthrows the government in a bloodless coup and cancels planned elections. The US recognises the Batista government on 27 March - that very month. Batista rules by decree and presides over a corrupt regime with links to US business and organised crime.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara was born as the first of five children on 14 June 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, into a liberal, middle-class family. As a child he suffers terrible and at times life-threatening asthma, and will continue to do so for the rest of his life. However by the age of 10 he had learnt how to independently administer his Asthma medication intravenously. Many believe it was this kind of self-determination and triumph over adversary that started his revolutionary journey – as it continued to be a dominant feature in this young mans psyche, right up until the day he died.
In 1947 young Ernesto begins studying for a degree in medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. He spends his leave on motorcycle tours with his friend Alberto Granado, who ran a dispensary at the leper colony near Cordoba in Argentina. It is during this time the young Guevara began to take a particular interest in philosophy.
It was around this time his exploration into the concepts and origins of socialist thought began to gather momentum. He consulted Mussolini on Fascism, Stalin on Marxism, Alfredo Palacios, the flamboyant Argentine Socialist party founder, on justice, Zola for a highly critical definition of Christianity, and Jack London for a Marxist description of social class. He had read a French biography of Lenin; The Communist Manifesto, some speeches by Lenin; and had dipped again into Das Kapital. It is in his third journal, that he began to show a special interest in Karl Marx, filling dozens of pages with a thumbnail biography of the German philosophers’ life and works. (The figure of Marx became an enduring fascination: In 1965, while living clandestinely in Africa, he found time to sketch an outline for a biography of Marx, fully intending to write it himself.)
In journeys undertaken in 1951 and 1952, Guevara travels all around Latin America and wanted to go onto Miami in the US, where he is turned back by the immigration authorities, because his luggage contained some "questionable literature".
While in Peru he works in the San Pablo leprosarium. His experiences with the lepers and the poor and underprivileged during his travels have a key impact on the development of his political thought. He becomes convinced that genuine equality can only be achieved through socialism.
His first experience in actually participating in radical politics is in 1952, where Guevara participates in riots and protests against Argentine President Juan Perón. He then travelled to Bolivia and then to Guatemala, which was governed by the reformist administration of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. While in Guatemala Guevara meets his first wife, Hilda, an exiled Peruvian Marxist. The couple will later divorce.
In 1954 the Guatemalan Government is overthrown by the Central Intelligence Agency in a coup d'état in June, The CIA's involvement includes the compilation of lists of individuals to be "eliminated", imprisoned or deported following the coup.
So after helping in the resistance against the coup, Guevara flees to Mexico City. His experience of the CIA's role in the downfall of the Guzmán government confirms his growing belief in the need for armed resistance against opponents of socialism.
While in Mexico in 1955 - he meets Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary. Castro is in self-imposed exile following his early release from a prison sentence imposed after his abortive attempt to overthrow the Batista regime on 26 July 1953.
"Our first argument revolved around international politics," Guevara later writes of his first meeting with Castro. "By the small hours of that night I had become one of the future expeditionaries."
In 1956, from his base in Mexico, Castro forms the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. Guevara joins the group as a medic and trains with them in guerrilla warfare techniques. The group of 82 land on Cubas coastline on the 2nd of December and launch an attack against the Batista regime. The attack results in the death or capture of most of the revolutionaries.
Faced with the choice of either remaining a medic or taking up the gun, Guevara writes, "I was confronted with the dilemma of dedicating myself to medicine or my duty as a revolutionary soldier. I had in front of me a rucksack full of medicine and an ammunition case, the two weighed too much to carry together. I took the ammunition and left the rucksack behind..."
It was this period in his life he was actually given the name "Che" - Che is a commonly used term in Latin America. It is used to grab someone’s attention, like "Hey you!" or "You there!" … Today in Latin America however it has a double meaning. It also is a word used to describe anyone from Argentina – Che’s native country.
The 12 survivors, including Castro, his brother Raul and Guevara, retreat to the Sierra Maestra Mountains. From there they stage continuous, and successful, guerrilla attacks against the Batista government, gaining widespread support and eventually growing to an estimated 3,000 men.
Guevara becomes Castro's chief lieutenant and distinguishes himself as a resourceful and ruthless tactician. He comes to believe in hatred as a potent revolutionary force. "Hatred (is) an element of the struggle," he later writes in his famous "Message to the Tricontinental".
In 1958 the US provides Batista with $1-million US dollars in military aid. However, the revolution cannot be stopped. With the guerilla forces pressing in, Batista flees the country on New Year's day in 1959. Castro's 3,000 guerrillas have defeated a 30,000 strong professional army, with US support. A new interim government is formed and is recognised by the US on 7 January, the same day that Castro enters the capital. Castro assumes the position of Prime Minister on 16 February. Guevara is declared Cuban born. He marries his second wife, Aleida. Guevara and Aleida had fought together during the insurgency. They will go on to have four children.
On 7 October Guevara is appointed as director of the industrialisation program of the Instituto Nacional de la Reforma Agraria (National Agrarian Reform Institute). Guevara advocates rapid industrialisation and centralisation of the economy, a position that will put him at odds with others in the government more concerned with the development of the agricultural sector. He also argues that Cuba should turn to the political left and ally itself with the Soviet Union. He calls for the creation of a 'New Man' selflessly dedicated to the betterment of society.
Relations between the US and Cuba sour when the land reforms begin to bite when the American industrial, commercial and agricultural interests are nationalised. In February 1960 Castro signs a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Cuba agrees to buy Soviet oil in return for sugar exports and US$100 million in credit. The US responds in March by terminating purchases of Cuban sugar and ceasing oil deliveries.
In May, Cuba and the Soviet Union establish diplomatic relations. Further seizures of US-owned properties and further agreements with other communist governments causes the US to restrict trade with Cuba and, on 19 October, impose a partial economic embargo that excludes food and medicine. The Soviet Union becomes Cuba's chief supporter and trade partner.
In August, "Time magazine" publishes a cover story on Guevara, calling him "Castro's brain"…"It is he who is most responsible for driving Cuba sharply left, away from the US that he despises and into a volunteered alliance with Russia," the magazine states.
During the year, Guevara completes his book "Guerra de guerrillas" (Guerrilla warfare). The book will become a manual for revolutionary groups in Latin America and elsewhere, and is in continued use today.
1960 is also the year in which photographer Alberto Diaz Gutierrez takes the most famous of all the images of Guevara. Titled 'The Heroic Guerrilla', the photograph will become a symbol throughout the world of a revolutionary ideal.
In 1961 the US officially breaks diplomatic relations with Cuba on 3 January and intensifies attempts to destabilise the Castro government. In the first two weeks of April there are several terrorist bomb attacks in Havana as well as bombing raids on Cuban airfields by "unidentified" aircraft.
On 17 April, 1300 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA and operating from a base in Nicaragua, attempt to invade Cuba at a southern coastal area called the Bay of Pigs. After three days of fighting Castro’s forces crush them.
On 23 February 1961, Che is appointed minister of industry in the Cuban Government, stepping down from his position as president of the National Bank. In the industry portfolio, Guevara continues his advocacy of centralised economic planning. He fixes prices for staples, reduces rents, and places controls on the accumulation of private capital. Industrial output is increased, imports are reduced and the tax burden is shifted to upper income earners.
In July, he publicly criticises Castro for over-funding the armed forces when the money could better spent on industrial production. The next month, Guevara is appointed as a member of the board of economic planning and coordination. In July 1962 he becomes secretary of the board.
In March 1962 the US extends the trade restrictions on Cuba. Imports of all goods made from or containing Cuban materials are now banned, even if the product is made in third country.
The 'Cuban Missile Crisis' flares in October when the US Government discovers that the Soviet Union is setting up launch sites for long-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. After a tense 13-day stand off between US President Kennedy and Soviet leader Kruschev the missiles are removed on condition that the US withdraws its missiles stationed in Turkey and cease its attempts to overthrow Castro.
In 1963 the US economic and social restrictions on Cuba are tightened further still. Travel to the island by US citizens is banned, as are all financial and commercial transactions. All Cuban-owned assets in the US are frozen. In December Guevara addresses the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, stating that armed struggle is the only sure path to socialism.
In 1964 tensions within the Cuban Government over Guevara's economic policies continue and are heightened by his enthusiasm for carrying the revolution beyond Cuba into other parts of Latin America and to Africa.
Guevara begins to travel widely and frequently, meeting with guerrilla and revolutionary groups and their supporters around the world and arranging the formation of the Organisation of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (the "Tricontinental Conference".)
In December he again addresses the UN General Assembly, where Guevara denounces Western imperialism, singling out the Congo in Africa as an example of the damage that can be caused by Western meddling in the affairs of underdeveloped and newly independent countries.
"We would like to see this Assembly shake itself out of complacency and move forward," he says. "Imperialism wants to turn this meeting into a pointless oratorical tournament, instead of solving the serious problems of the world. We must prevent it from doing so."
"Much progress has been made in the world in this field. But imperialism, particularly US imperialism, has attempted to make the world believe that peaceful coexistence is the exclusive right of the earth's great powers."

"It must be clearly established, however, that the government of the United States is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetuator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population."

"There cannot be peaceful coexistence only among the powerful if we are to ensure world peace."

In February 1965 while addressing the Tricontinental Conference at Algiers he hints at his disillusionment with the established socialist countries, implying that they are exploiting underdeveloped nations for their own ends. The USSR saw this as a direct attack on its policies, but as Che put it, "They should give all they can to perpetuate the socialist movement around the globe."

In March Guevara is back in Cuba but with his policies now discredited stays only long enough to drop out of the Cuban political scene all together. However his treatise "Socialism and Man in Cuba", in which he elaborates on his theory of the "New Man", is published on 12 March.

In April, he tells Castro he is relinquishing all his official positions and his Cuban nationality. In July he travels to the Congo with a group of Cuban volunteers to ferment a rebellion in the eastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebellion, which is not widely supported by the local people, fails. Guevara moves on.

The people of Cuba begin to worry and wonder where their Che has gone, rumours begin to spread. On 3 October, Castro publicly reads a farewell letter written to him by Guevara in April.

"I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory," the letter says, "And I say goodbye to you, the comrades, your people, who are already mine ... Other nations of the world call for my modest efforts. I can do that which is denied you because of your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part."

In the interval between his disappearance from Cuba in the spring of 1965 and his death in Bolivia in the fall of 1967, Guevara made one last public statement. It was his message "from somewhere in the world" to the Tri-Continental – this speech basically declared war on the United States.

"Our share, the responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world, is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capital, raw materials, technicians, and cheap labour.

While envisaging the destruction of imperialism, it is necessary to identify its head, which is no other than the United States of America.

A relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.

We must carry the war into every corner the enemy happens to carry it: to his home, to his centres of entertainment; a total war. It is necessary to prevent him from having a moment of peace, a quiet moment outside his barracks or even inside; we must attack him wherever he may be, make him feel like a cornered beast wherever he may move. Then his moral fibre shall begin to decline.
And let us develop a true proletarian internationalism; with international proletarian armies, the flag under which we fight would be the sacred cause of redeeming humanity.

Each spilt drop of blood, in any country under whose flag one has not been born, is an experience passed on to those who survive, to be added later to the liberation struggle of his own country. And each nation liberated is a phase won in the battle for the liberation of one's own country.

The time has come to settle our discrepancies and place everything at the service of our struggle.

How close we could look into a bright future should two, three, or many Vietnam’s flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism.
What do the dangers or the sacrifices of a man or of a nation matter, when the destiny of humanity is at stake?

Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, that another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and that other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory."

In 1966 Guevara travels onto Bolivia, where he joins and becomes a leader of a communist guerrilla movement attempting to overthrow the country's military government. In 1967 the guerrilla band has some initial success but receives little support from the local people. Never numbering more than 50 or so men, the guerrillas are soon outmanoeuvred by about 1,800 US-trained and armed Bolivian troops assisted be CIA operatives.

On 8 October, Guevara is wounded and captured near Vallegrande, and placed under guard in a schoolhouse, along with other captured rebels. Around noon the following day, and against the CIA's wishes, Guevara is executed with four gunshots to his chest. His last words are reported to be, "I know you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man."
Committed to the life of a revolutionary by his mid-twenties, the struggle for the international revolution would cost him his life at the age of 39.

On 18 October Castro delivers a eulogy for Guevara to nearly a million people assembled in Havana. Castro states that Guevara's example and ideals will be an inspiration for future generations of revolutionaries.

"They who sing victory over his death are mistaken," Castro says. "They are mistaken who believe that his death is the defeat of his ideas, the defeat of his tactics, the defeat of his guerrilla concepts... If we want to know how we want our children to be – we should say, with our entire revolutionary mind and heart: We want them to be like Che."

The same month, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk receives a report from his Bureau of Intelligence and Research that predicts that Guevara "will be eulogised as the model revolutionary who met a heroic death".

"Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter? Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend." Castro says.

If we flash forward to the twenty-first century we can see that Che is still present and existent today – in peoples hearts, in peoples minds and in the walls of history.

In the year 2000 – Time Magazine names Guevara as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. Though communism may have lost its fire, he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution and he remains a personification of what it possible and what WE ALL can do. Ches legacy remains a potent force in all of Latin America (and the world for that matter) but especially in Cuba. Images of the long-dead revolutionary are found throughout the island, and school children begin every day with the pledge, "Seremos como el Che" - we will be like Che.

Some serious books and biographies have been produced about Che Guevara. The one before me is, Che Guevara - A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson, this book is a well researched and an enjoyable biography, it is a big read – but an easy read none-the-less. For anyone is still interested in Che I suggest go out and find a copy. However despite the extensive research and investigation such authors have undertaken, their work inevitably lacks one thing. They do not draw a political balance sheet of the lessons of Che's contribution to the revolutionary movement that can assist the struggle against capitalism and imperialism today.

So let us some up some key points on Che Guevara and his politics, so we may cement in our minds the kind of character he was – the contribution he made so socialist politics – and the inspiration we can all draw from his short lived life…

He was a bitter opponent of capitalist exploitation and fought with his life - against it. He was drawn towards socialism largely as the result of his own experiences and was motivated by a desire to see its victory internationally.

He led by example and was an incorruptible internationalist. Because of these qualities he continues to be a source of inspiration as a symbol of struggle against oppression and exploitation.

Che also developed other ideas relating to the economy and also what he called "socialism and the new man" which centred on how people's attitude towards society could be developed after the overthrow of capitalism.

In Cuba and amongst the Latin American masses Che was a hero whose revolutionary example should be emulated. Amongst the ruling circles of the bureaucracy in Moscow he was attacked as "an adventurer" "pro-Chinese" and worst of all a "Trotskyist". The ruling class of the capitalist countries hated everything he defended and fought for.

Che was executed by those intent on defending the rich and powerful. His image lives on as a symbol of struggle against oppression. As protests against 'neo-liberal' policies and the market have erupted in Latin America it is still common to find graffiti scribbled on walls by young people - "Che -Vive" - Che Lives.

A further study of Che's life shows that his ideas developed over a lengthy period of time, often as the result of his own experiences. He died at the relatively young age of 39, and it is clear that he was still developing his ideas at the time of his death. In this respect a certain parallel exists between Che and Malcolm X.

While history may never repeat itself in exactly the same way, there are important lessons from previous struggles and revolutions that must be drawn by those fighting for socialism today if we are to be successful.

And with that I would like to end with a little poem I wrote…
"An action without a dream is useless;
as is the dream without action
It would seem today that the power to dream is underestimated
Or today this world would gleam…"