By Ike Nahem
“Che died defending no other interest, no other cause than the cause of the exploited and the oppressed of this continent. Che died defending no other cause than the cause of the poor and the humble of this earth.”
October 18, 1967
On October 9, 1967 the highest levels of the United States government transmitted orders to CIA-operative Felix Rodriguez who passed them on to Washington’s flunkies in the Bolivian military dictatorship. The orders were to murder Ernesto Che Guevara – a wounded combatant captured in battle. They proceeded to display Che’s mutilated corpse to gawking journalists and selected spectator-voyeurs before burying his remains in what they planned on forever being a secret, unmarked grave. Above all, the imperialist decision-makers understood there could be no trial, even a phony formality in their own rigged courts, for Ernesto Che Guevara. As Fidel Castro stated in his extraordinarily powerful and moving tribute to Che given before one million Cubans on October 18, 1967, the imperialist “thugs, oligarchs, and mercenaries” shamelessly conceded why they murdered the wounded and disarmed Che. “…They explain why they did it. They assert that Che’s trial would have been quite an earthshaker, that it would have been impossible to place this revolutionary in the dock.”
By murdering Che in cold blood and then clandestinely dumping his body, the imperialist gangsters hoped and expected that Che’s physical extermination and hidden bones would be “the end of the story,” that is, the end of Che’s historic political impact and significance.
As they clinked champagne glasses – and this is literally true – in the offices of the National Security Agency of the Lyndon Johnson White House upon hearing confirmation of Che’s death, Washington’s political officers truly thought that Che would be quickly forgotten, at most faintly remembered as a minor historical footnote. How different reality turned out!
It is quite clear that today, 40 years later, the life and example of Ernesto Che Guevara resonates greater than ever with each new generation of youth and working people, particularly throughout the Americas, and with all who understand that a better world is possible and who are ready to fight for it. More than any other figure in contemporary history Ernesto Che Guevara embodies the uncompromising anti-imperialist struggle for social justice, social equality, and national liberation…by any means necessary.
40 years after his cowardly assassination by imperialism, the specter of Che Guevara continues to haunt the imperialist world. We see today a concerted campaign to throw mud and slander, disinformation and half-truths, on the memory and example of Che. As we move closer to the 40th Anniversary of Che’s death, we can expect to see the big-business media and publishing houses churn out op-ed pieces, new books (there’s already a few out), and films that rewrite and distort history to demonize Che.
They do this precisely because Che’s legacy is so powerful, because his ideas and example have become a material factor in world politics, intertwined with the Cuban Revolution – which he was a both a product of and central creator – which grows stronger, more politically attractive, and weightier in world politics today. Socialist Cuba is the only state power in today’s world with a foreign policy that promotes international solidarity, an internationalism based on the interests and struggles of the working people of the world.
Che has been endlessly caricatured. And not only by the conscious enemies of his revolutionary ideas and practice. That is to be expected. More pernicious perhaps are the caricatures of those claiming, sincerely or not, adherence or sympathy with Che’s ideas and example.
The predominant caricature of Che presents him as a quixotic utopian and romantic adventurer, perhaps with a death wish. Someone to be admired, even exalted, as a mythic hero but not someone to be learned from, and certainly not realistic in his “naïve” faith in the capacities of oppressed humanity. Such “admiration” of the Che icon in place of the actual, human Ernesto Guevara in truth buries Che’s ideas and strips them of all contemporary relevance and applicability. By reducing Che to an icon, his revolutionary Marxist world outlook, his fraternal, collaborative, and democratic methods of work, his serious attention to scientific knowledge, objective facts, and honest study as the basis of practice and action are also buried. The Che of mythology is presented as a starry-eyed utopian idealist. The actual Che was a voracious reader and highly cultured man of science, a revolutionist of action deeply grounded in theoretical study and practical experience.
On October 15, 1967, six days after his murder, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba passed a resolution creating a commission of leading members “to orient and direct all the activities aimed at perpetuating the memory of Major Ernesto Guevara.” That pledge has been and continues to be fulfilled in revolutionary Cuba. Fortunately Che’s writings have been preserved in Cuba, Latin America, in the United States, in fact everywhere in the world. No matter how much the liberal and conservative imperialists, the agents of the Latin American oligarchies, and the big-business media throw mountains of mud at Che’s memory, which will be stepped up in the coming months, we can and will through Che reach millions more with his revolutionary message.
More than ever we need the clarity of ideas and political perspective of Che. Our Che is not merely a revered figure from the past. Our Che is a guide for the generation of today in the Americas and world-wide who are looking for a serious and effective way to fight the imperialist world economic and social order, with its brutal wars, racism and the oppression of women, obscene inequality, haughty arrogance, and environmental degradation. Most importantly, our Che is a beacon, illuminating what we are for, not merely what we are against.
It is also necessary to rescue Che from a false image that appears more benign than the reactionary anti-Che boilerplate. This is the Che of the capitalist marketplace, where his image is a ubiquitous commodity to buy and sell, an abstract symbol, a handsome face to be adorned as a fashion statement maybe connoting some abstract notion of “rebellion” or “idealism.” The capitalist market works to reduce Che to a harmless icon stripped of his actual ideas. We get the myth of Che to divert us from his ideas, which have been preserved in his writings and speeches. Che T-Shirts and refrigerator magnets are fine, but what is really important is to read Che. What is really significant, what really honors his memory and example is to study Che. And in his own words, before someone else’s rendition and “analysis.” You will be treating yourself because Che was a beautiful, profound, and clear writer and thinker. (At the end of this essay is an essential bibliography.)
To understand the extraordinary human being that Che became, you must start with how “ordinary,” in a sense, he was and place him in his times and experiences. Che’s ideas were developed by and combined with his experiences in the struggles of the oppressed and exploited majority. Grasping this is the only way to understand and truly embrace Ernesto Che Guevara.
The Che we honor and celebrate was a product—and became a supreme protagonist of—the giant revolutionary upheavals of the post-World War II 20th Century—of which the most powerful, enduring, principled, and resonant has proven to be the Cuban socialist revolution that unfolded when the July 26th Movement, of which Che had become a central political and military leader, led the workers and peasants of Cuba to state power after the revolutionary triumph over the US-backed Batista dictatorship on January 1, 1959. Nearly half-a-century later, that power remains and has effectively defended itself from an unrelenting economic and political war organized in Washington.
The Crucible of Guatemala
Che was one of the 82 men—most of whom perished within days, any number of whom could have become another “Che”— with outstanding human, revolutionary and patriotic qualities, organized under the command of Fidel Castro, who jammed aboard the Granma yacht, converted into a troop carrier, which landed on the Cuban coast. They were almost wiped out following a betrayal, regrouped, fought a brilliant rural guerrilla war complemented by a vast urban revolutionary underground, and in less than three years swept into power, unleashing the mass action of millions of Cuba’s oppressed and exploited majority.
Ernesto Guevara was a not atypical middle-class Argentine boy, suffering from acute asthma but athletic nonetheless, a good, serious student who liked to have a good time, sensitive to injustice but whose early social and political viewpoint did not go beyond a definite humanitarian imperative. It was in Guatemala that the revolutionary transformation of Ernesto Guevara began.
Ernesto Guevara arrived in Guatemala in 1953 as the government of Jacobo Arbenz had taken office, elected by the votes of workers and peasants hoping for an alleviation of their miserable conditions of life and work. In the early 1950s – and to this day – Guatemala and all the Central American states were ruled by an ultra-wealthy oligarchy of semi-feudal landlords and a comprador bourgeoisie wholly linked and subordinate to foreign, mostly US, capital. Imperialist domination forged a Guatemalan economy geared toward the production of food for export to US and European markets. Food produced on giant plantations by super-exploited labor, kept in line by state and private armed violence.
The dominant company in the Guatemalan economic landscape was the US-based United Fruit Company (since rebranded as Chiquita Brands International). The lawyer for United Fruit was John Foster Dulles who became Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.
Under the Arbenz government political space opened up for the super-exploited majority. Arbenz promoted and began to implement very mild reforms, including agrarian reforms that affected United Fruit’s vast holdings. Washington reacted with fury and proceeded step-by-step to organize an eventually successful CIA-directed military coup which overthrew Arbenz and installed the ferociously murderous right-wing military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. Subsequent military regimes armed and backed by Washington have murdered some 100,000 Guatemalan working people.
The young Ernesto Guevara went to Guatemala, like many South American patriots and developing anti-imperialists, attracted to the democratic and progressive promise of the Arbenz regime. The future Che had already received his medical degrees and title of Doctor. Idealistic and full of passion for and determination to serve the oppressed and destitute, Dr. Guevara went to work, under programs sponsored by the Arbenz government, in the vast barrios of unspeakable impoverishment that made up the social reality of imperialist-dominated and directed “democracy” in Guatemala. Dr. Guevara noticed from the outset that the symptoms and diseases he would treat and correct were always being reproduced out of the social relations and conditions that swirled around his modest clinic, oblivious to the skills and techniques employed inside. An important conclusion was thereby reached by the 25-year-old future revolutionary who wanted to be a revolutionary doctor. To be a revolutionary doctor, he decided, there would first have to be a revolution.
Guatemala became the crucible that forged the future Che. The extensive FBI and CIA files on Ernesto Guevara began during his time in Guatemala.
Che watched, with increasing frustration and exasperation, as the coup-forces prepared for their strike while the Arbenz government proved unable or unwilling to prepare counter-measures, especially by spotlighting and campaigning against the US subversion and physically preparing, training, and arming workers and peasants to defend the Constitutional government. (19 years later Fidel Castro did everything in his power to prevent a similar historic defeat and slaughter of working people in Chile, when, in 1973, the US-backed coup overthrew the elected and Constitutional government of Salvador Allende, as workers and peasants ready to defend their gains arms in hand waited in vain to be mobilized, organized, and armed.)
Ernesto Guevara escaped from Guatemala to Mexico, one step ahead of right-wing death squads which had him targeted. He landed in Mexico City, a destitute refugee at one point selling pencils and photographs on the streets, radicalized and transformed in the Guatemalan crucible.
Meanwhile, on July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro, Abel Santamaria, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, and dozens of other revolutionary Cuban youth stormed the Moncada Barracks of the US-backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which had taken power the previous year, overturning the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Defeated in the assault, the young rebels emerged politically victorious as a number of factors converged resulting in the establishment of the July 26th Movement led by Fidel Castro. These included the orgy of torture and murder unleashed by Batista’s police and army on the surrendered rebels, revulsing Cuban public opinion; the power of Fidel Castro’s defense speech, “History Will Absolve Me,”, at his subsequent trial, detailing the rebel program and widely circulated throughout the island; the rapid spread of a massive campaign for political amnesty for the imprisoned rebel leaders which forced their release in 1955. Under surveillance from Batista’s death squads Fidel Castro and other July 26th Movement leaders left Cuba, regrouped in Mexico City, gathering forces, beginning training and preparations for an invasion and a revolutionary armed struggle against the US-backed tyranny.
Che’s escape from Guatemala and Fidel’s forced exile found them both in Mexico City, where colonies of Latin American freedom fighters were to be found and who worked and played in overlapping social and political circles. Soon Ernesto had befriended a number of July 26th Movement cadre including Raul Castro. Ernesto became Che, the affectionate moniker affixed to him by his Cuban pals soon to become comrades.
Fidel recalled, “I first met Che one day in July or August 1955. And in one night…he became one of the future Granma expeditionaries, although at that time the expedition possessed neither ship, nor arms, nor troops. That was how, together with Raul, Che became one of the first two on the Granma list…
“In those first days [Che] was our troop doctor, and so the bonds of friendship and warm feelings for him were ever increasing. He was filled with a profound hatred and contempt for imperialism, not only because his political education was already considerably developed, but also because, shortly before, he had had the opportunity of witnessing the criminal imperialist intervention in Guatemala through the mercenaries who aborted the revolution in that country.
“A person like Che did not require elaborate arguments. It was sufficient for him to know Cuba was in a situation and that there were people determined to struggle against that situation, arms in hand. It was sufficient for him to know that those people were inspired by genuinely revolutionary and patriotic ideals. That was more than enough.”
Che quickly went from troop doctor to unmatched military leader—fearless and audacious— with the most important assignments. It was Che who devised and implemented the defeat of Batista’s numerically far-superior (in numbers and equipment, if not motivation) forces in the decisive Battle of Santa Clara in late-1958. This broke the back of Batista’s army which rapidly disintegrated. Washington was unable to do anything to prevent the triumphant march into Havana by Fidel’s converging guerrilla armies as the Cuban masses exploded in a festival of revolutionary joy and struggle.
The Che who became a central leader of the Cuban Revolution that seized power on January 1, 1959, was a voracious reader of the entire range of democratic and revolutionary thought from Goethe, Voltaire, and the European Enlightenment to Darwin, Einstein, and Freud as well as Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, and the deep tradition of Latin American nationalism. He had already become a convinced Marxist from a deep study of the works of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and V. I. Lenin. Additionally Che’s mind had assimilated the essential thoughts and precepts of modern science and mathematics.
Illiterate peasants and others recruited to his guerrilla army in Cuba, and later in the Congo and Bolivia recalled in amazement and love how Che would always incorporate into the fighters daily routines time for the study of language, mathematics, science, and history, in addition to literacy classes. It was Che who organized the “Rebel Radio” which broadcast from combat zones during the Cuban revolutionary war.
Che the Executioner?
One of the first tasks of the triumphant revolutionaries was to establish justice for the thousands of Cuban families whose sons and daughters, mothers, fathers, and neighbors had been tortured and slaughtered on the streets and in the dungeons of the Batista regime. The martyred dead numbered at least 20,000 in a country then of 6 million (the equivalent of over 650,000 dead in a country the size of the US at the time). A messy people’s justice had already begun with the end of the regime as spontaneous retributions took place against known torturers and murderers whose cover and protection had vanished.
Che was assigned the task of establishing a just and fair but also transparent and certain justice and to bring the process under revolutionary control, ensuring due process, defense lawyers, and fair proceedings. This was done in an exemplary way. Popular, public tribunals were organized. Volumes of public testimony were given, with horrific testimony of the most vile tortures and bestial murder recorded and made public. Some 200 of the worst torturers and murderers of the US-backed Batista tyranny were shot by firing squads. No one has ever offered a shred of evidence that anyone innocent was executed. Whatever one’s opinion of the death sentences that were implemented, backed by the great majority of the population, no one can say, or has ever shown, that the guilt of those executed was not established beyond the shadow of a doubt. Batista’s cops and thugs were, after all, known to all. In their glory days, prior to the revolutionary victory, those brought to justice strutted their power and brutality over what they thought would be forever helpless victims; they never dreamed they would face their victims and their victim’s families in a legal proceeding.
This process of bringing to justice the worst criminals of the hated Batista regime led to an orgy of hypocrisy and phony moral outrage in the big-business press and among Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States. The highly orchestrated propaganda campaign was the pretext for turning public opinion, which had been very sympathetic to Fidel Castro and the rebel cause, against the Cuban Revolution as radical social reforms began to be implemented which affected US business interests and US economic and financial domination of the island.
Che’s efficient and thorough carrying out of his assignment overseeing the trial and sentences, including the executions, has led to grotesque caricatures of Che as a “ruthless executioner” and “mass murderer” by conservative and liberal haters and slanderers of the Cuban Revolution. He was recently portrayed as such on film in the Hollywood box- office flop The Lost City, produced and directed by prominent actor and Cuban-American hostile opponent of the Cuban Revolution, Andy Garcia.
Washington and the big-business media’s crocodile tears for Batista’s torturers and murderers stands in sharp contrast to their approval or silence towards the mountains of corpses piled up by US-backed military regimes and death squads in Latin America and the Caribbean before and especially after the Cuban Revolution from Trujillo and Somoza to Pinochet and the Argentine generals.
Che and the Transition to Socialism
For several years after the revolutionary triumph Che carried out essential tasks for the revolutionary government, as varied as heading up the national bank – an absolutely daunting task which placed him at the nerve center of the entire Cuban economic and financial superstructure. Step by step as the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations moved to asphyxiate the workers and farmers government, the Cuban revolutionaries moved to overturn the dominance of the capitalist market and social relations, and establish the new pre-eminence of conscious and progressive economic planning on the basis of totally new foundations of nationalization and workers management of not only basic industry and finance, but also the decisive mechanisms of wholesale and retail commercial exchange. It was on this basis – and could only have been on this basis – that the egalitarian social measures that marked, and have made so attractive, the Cuban Revolution, were possible: the eradication of illiteracy within two years; the massive expansion of free, quality medical care; the establishment of an excellent public school system embracing every single Cuban child without exception; the radical uprooting and extirpation of the system of legal racist discrimination, the Cuban version of Jim Crow; the eradication of the “free market” in the sale of women’s bodies for vile sexual gratification and the whole machinery of the US-based Mafia as part of a radical program of women’s emancipation, including the right to abortion; the breaking up of imperialist and Cuban-owned sugar and other plantations replaced by peasant co-operatives and land redistribution; and radical rent reductions followed by a massive expansion in home ownership.
Che’s economic writings are particularly brilliant and thought-provoking, with stress on the consciousness and transformation of the human being as the foundation of socialist economics, combined with the most modern application of science and technology, statistical rigorousness, and scrupulous accounting methods.
In these years Che became particularly beloved among Cubans – from fellow revolutionists to rank-and-file working people because of his selflessness, his integrity, his modesty, his abhorrence of privilege, routinism, and bureaucracy. Che was the example, which became legendary, of being the hardest worker in whatever task he was undertaking.
To the same degree that Che was respected and loved by Cuba’s workers and peasants, he was hated by the landlords and capitalists and Mafioso whose world of privilege, obscene inequality, and vile criminality and brutality was smashed to bits forever by the Cuban revolutionaries. Che was also hated and feared by the supervisors of the decrepit Cuban ruling class, who resided in Washington and on Wall Street.
Among his many tasks in Cuba’s revolutionary leadership Che became the embodiment of Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy – one of the most enduring features of world politics since the revolutionary triumph on New Years Day 1959 to this day.
In forums friendly and hostile – from the Organization of American States meeting at Punta del Este, Uruguay in 1964 to the United Nations that same year, Che spread the word and policies of the Cuban Revolution in language diplomatic and revolutionary.
While still fighting in the Sierra Maestra Fidel Castro has recalled that Che made him promise that the future revolutionary government would create no obstacle when the day came that Che wished to participate in and organize revolutionary struggles elsewhere in Latin America.
While Che was traveling the globe as a most effective protagonist of Cuba’s foreign policy and the broad establishment of diplomatic relations and trade with a wide range of nations, he was also laying the basis for the organization of a revolutionary continental army to engage in a continent-wide battle against the Latin American oligarchies and the domination of US imperialism which was their first and last prop.
For much of 1965, prior to returning to the battlefield of Latin America, and with the political and logistical support of the Cuban government, Che attempted to work with followers of murdered Congolese President Patrice Lumumba to establish a revolutionary front to fight the neo-colonial regime there backed by South African mercenaries, the Belgian colonialists, and Washington. The effort failed. Che’s brutally honest account of the struggle contains the lessons.
After the Congo failure, Che returned to Cuba and immediately, again with the full backing and collaboration of the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, immersed himself into preparations for a secret return to Latin America with a selected team of fighters.
Che’s strategic perspective was to build a guerrilla base in Bolivia to begin an armed struggle against the US-armed and sustained military regime there, which could link up with other vanguard forces continent-wide as part of rising mass struggles against the imperialist-backed oligarchies and military dictatorships throughout the Americas. While this heroic effort was betrayed and defeated, Che’s legacy and his revolutionary message have emerged stronger than ever in the changed conditions of Latin America today.
There is a continuity of struggle that links Che’s heroic Bolivian campaign to the battles against Latin American military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, to the decade of mounting and deepening popular struggles against the “Washington Consensus” of economic and financial policies of austerity, privatization, and attacks on workers living standards and social benefits that has been shaking Latin American politics from top to bottom
Che and the New Wave of Struggle in Latin America
Popular resistance to neoliberal policies has led to the election of a series of governments, most prominently led by Presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, that have promoted domestic and foreign policies challenging the prerogatives of Washington and their own ruling classes. These governments have deepened their fraternal and mutually beneficial economic ties to revolutionary Cuba. The memory of Che Guevara has been particularly venerated in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Washington’s attempts to destroy the Chavez government by backing a rightist military coup in April 2002 was beaten back by mass counter-mobilizations by Venezuelan working people. Over 20,000 Cuban doctors, in the spirit of Che, have provided quality medical care to over 10 million Venezuelans. Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have joined with Cuba to initiate the Bolivarian Alternative in the Americas (ALBA) as an economic trade and exchange pact based on solidarity as an alternative to Washington apparently aborted Free Trade in the America Act (FTAA).
The conditions of struggle in Latin America and the Caribbean are far different – and far more favorable – for workers and peasants today than at the time of Che’s heroic struggle. Those who murdered Che forty years ago will be forever buried with contempt. Che’s banner has been picked up and is being carried forward by millions as the coming historic class battles in the Americas for solidarity, national and social liberation continue to unfold. Our Che will be present as an inspiration and political guide.
Ike Nahem is a coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York, a member of the National Network on Cuba. He is an Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainman, a division of the Teamsters Union. These are his personal opinions.
Essential Writings and Speeches of Ernesto Che Guevara
Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Pathfinder Press
Guerrilla Warfare, Ocean Press
The African Dream, Grove Press
Bolivian Diary, Pathfinder Press
Che Guevara Speaks, Pathfinder Press
Che Guevara Talks to Young People, Pathfinder Press
Che Guevara Reader, Ocean Press
“Socialism and Man in Cuba,” Pathfinder Press
“Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams (Message to the Tricontinental)
in Che Guevara Reader, Ocean Press