(Author’s note: This is an updated, re-edited essay, based on a 2007 written for a Celebration of Ernesto Che Guevara’s life held in October 2007 in New York City in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of his execution, attended by 300 people.)
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.
— Fidel Castro, 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 regime. 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 Washington 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 earth shaker, 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 hope and expectation was 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 receiving confirmation of Che’s death, Washington’s central political officers truly thought that Che would be quickly forgotten or at most faintly remembered as a minor historical footnote. How different reality turned out!
50 years later it is quite clear that – beyond the image – the life and example of Ernesto Che Guevara continues to resonate strongly in world politics. Che’s revolutionary legacy, his ideas and example, continue to inspire new generations of youth and working people, particularly throughout the Americas, but in truth across the entire globe. Young people and working people today who understand that a better world – a socialist world – is possible, and who are ready to fight for it. For decades now, embodying contemporary history, Ernesto Che Guevara has personified uncompromising anti-imperialist struggle for freedom, justice, and equality…by any means necessary, as his contemporary and fellow revolutionist Malcolm X put it.
Fidel and Che
The November 26, 2016 passing, at the age of 90, of the great Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, leads us to revisit the historic military and political collaboration between Fidel and Che, the two revolutionary Marxist fighters and close friends who worked together with an outstanding team of Cuban revolutionary fighters, men and women, as they planned a military and political campaign against the venal and brutal Fulgencio Batista dictatorship – backed by the United States government until essentially the bitter end.
When Fidel Castro died, there was, in the United States, a veritable down-pouring of calumny across the established, corporate media, echoed in much of the so-called “democratic West.” We can certainly expect more of this mendacity as the 50th Anniversary of Che’s death approaches.
During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 actually filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated in April, 1961 at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after drawn out negotiations.
The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel Miami protests in 2017 were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated “dictator.” Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for “the undefeated” Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.
The ashes of Fidel Castro driven through the streets of Holguin, Cuba
The Spector of Che in the 21st Century
The specter of Che Guevara continues to haunt the imperialist world. This 50th Anniversary of his cowardly assassination is bound to see another wave in the perpetual concerted campaign to throw mud and slander, disinformation and half-truths, on the memory and example of Che. A new wave over time from the big-business media and publishing houses, with op-ed pieces, new books and films adding to an already lamentable list. There will be endless anti-communist and anti-socialist trolling online. All these efforts are inevitable and every fighter for revolutionary socialist change, and every person who takes seriously concrete historical truth, will be compelled to defend the person, ideas, and legacy of our Che.
Of course, it is precisely because Che’s legacy is so powerful that bourgeois governments and their corporate media, especially in the United States, must counter this with renewed regurgitations of myths and false assertions. The method involved is repetition of what in current parlance is called “fake news.”
The continuity of Che’s revolutionary socialist legacy is naturally intertwined with the Cuban Revolution – of which he was both a product and central creator. The Cuban Revolution, having survived the economic unraveling of the early 1990s, first described by Fidel Castro as the “Special Period,” has emerged from that crisis stronger, more attractive, and weightier in world politics today. Leading Cuba through the cataclysmic crisis of the Special Period was Fidel Castro’s last historic revolutionary political triumph in defense of the Cuban Revolution, Cuban sovereignty, and the Cuban workers state.
Fifty years after Che’s execution, the capitalist world order of 2017 is crisis-ridden, stuck in a seemingly permanent economic stagnation marked by lingering weakness and volatility, even as the social impact of decades of so-called “neo-liberal globalization” — that is austerity and assaults on the rights and living standards of the working class — continue to accumulate: deepening of social inequality; sharpening class and social polarization; recurrent crises in bourgeois politics and capitalist parliamentary democracies.
The burning question of revolutionary leadership is no less central in the second decade of the 21st Century than in the 1960s. Or as it was in the 1930s, when the successive defeats of popular revolutionary struggles and working-class upsurge were consecutive starting with the triumph of Adolph Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933 and consequent pulverization of the worker’s movement, the trade unions, and all democratic rights in Germany through to the crushing of the Spanish Revolution by 1938. That latter defeat accelerated the events directly leading to, laying the basis for, the devastation of World War II in Europe. An unintended consequence of that worldwide imperialist slaughter was the acceleration of colonial independence movements and struggles for national liberation, including what became socialist revolutions in China and Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution was part of that international dynamic.
Cuba today maintains the revolutionary Marxist outlook of Che and Fidel in its foreign policy. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959 it revived a genuine proletarian internationalism that had been battered by gross abuses, betrayals, and defeats since the death of V.I. Lenin and the early foreign policy of the Soviet Union.
Socialist Cuba in 2017 is a state power with a foreign policy that actively promotes international solidarity, an internationalism based on the interests and struggles of the working people of the world. This is true in both political ideas and actual deeds.
The Unintended Consequences of World War II
The strategic perspective of Fidel and Che after the revolutionary triumph was to organize and coordinate a revolutionary leadership, throughout the Americas and worldwide, out of the mass upsurges and anti-imperialist struggles for colonial independence and national liberation that exploded on every continent where colonial domination began to erode during, and in, the aftermath of the earth-shattering events of World War II. This is the post-World War II world that the Cuban Revolution and its workers and farmers government of young revolutionists was born into on January 1, 1959.
The pre-World War II world order, dominated by the already decadent and fraying British and French colonial empires, was now being further battered by the blows of a resurgent, aggressive German-Nazi imperialism. British and French “democratic” colonialism and imperialism found themselves at war with fascist Germany despite striving throughout the 1930s to appease it. An unintended consequence of the massive multi-front, multi-national slaughterhouse and holocaust of World War II in Europe was accelerating the conditions for the eventual collapse of the colonial empires.
In Asia and the Pacific Rim, the British, French, and other Western European colonial powers along, with the United States, already an emerging Pacific military and economic power (and minor colonial power in the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and the US Hawaiian territory) faced an aggressive Japanese imperialism that had already invaded and occupied Chinese Manchuria in 1931, escalated its military aggression there in 1936-37, and bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941.
Independence movements grew rapidly everywhere in formerly colonial lands, often with a mass revolutionary dynamic. This was true in all the arenas where the titanic militaries of existing and competing imperialist powers and the more minor colonial players clashed in Asia, Africa, the Middle East in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond. A huge historic transformation was the political outcome.
Indian independence was gained in 1948. The Chinese Revolution triumphed in 1949. French imperialism tried to reconquer Vietnam and Indochina before being routed at Dienbienphu in 1954. The French imperialists, employing truly epochal brutality, managed to hold on in Algeria until 1962. Eventually, the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch governments, with much stress and strain, were forced to retreat and concede formal national political sovereignty across much of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Rim. The world political situation that the triumphant Cuban Revolution entered into and impacted on in 1959 was one where that pre-war order was coming apart and there was concurrently the consolidation of the framework and intensification of the so called “Cold War” epoch.
Splits in the “World Communist Movement”
Additionally, within the “world Communist movement,” great political schisms began to develop in this new post-war period, which saw the triumph of the Chinese Revolution and the consolidation of a government led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949; revolutionary independence struggles in Vietnam and Korea in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat and the French attempts to recover its doomed colonial power and “glory” in Indochina.
Political divisions intensified after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. At the 1954 Geneva Accords “Agreement” Soviet and Chinese diplomats pressured the Ho Chi Minh government, which had just routed the French at Dienbienphu, to make major concessions to the United States. In 1956 there was a stunning international impact from a speech by top Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev denouncing (and by doing so acknowledging and revealing appalling criminal abuse on a massive scale under Stalin (a speech which the US government made sure did not stay “secret” for long). The 1956 Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary was great political grist for anti-communist Cold War propaganda (propaganda is most effective when it is a least partly factual true) and, along with the Stalin “revelations” utterly roiled the Communist Parties worldwide. By 1958 there was some motion for a Cold War “thaw” between Washington and Moscow which seemed directed, at least in part, at the post-revolution Chinese government, “Red China” in US government and corporate media parlance. By 1959, when the Cuban revolution triumphed and Washington began to direct counter-revolutionary efforts against the island, the “Sino-Soviet split,” with increasingly intense polemics and inflammatory exchanges, was exploding into public view. This was the political world the Cuban Revolution entered into and consolidated power in.
“Create two, three…many Vietnams”: Che and Vietnam
From the late 1950s into the early 1960s, US attempts to prop up the illegal and increasingly hated and isolated Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the artificially divided “South Vietnam,” were faltering. By the mid-1960s, JFK’s Washington had brutally dispatched a murdered Diem and embarked on a course and policy of militarily defeating the Vietnamese liberation movement through a massive expansion of US firepower and troop levels reaching 500,000 by 1968.
The “Sino-Soviet split” had deleterious effects for Vietnam, a cause extremely close to the Cuban revolutionaries, and Che Guevara in particular. Che left Cuba and embarked on his revolutionary internationalist mission. He wrote the historic “Message to the Tricontinental.”
This was equally: a cool, objective survey of the world political situation in 1966-67 which placed the Vietnamese Revolution and US aggression at the center of world politics; and a fiery revolutionary manifesto calling for stepped-up international solidarity with Vietnam. “It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression,“ Che wrote, “but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.”
The “Message to the Tricontinental,” was published by the Organization of Solidarity with the People’s of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Ospaal) in April 1967, while Che was fighting in Bolivia. It included a direct, stinging rebuke to the Soviet and Chinese governments:
US imperialism is guilty of aggression — its crimes are enormous and cover the whole world. We already know all that, gentlemen! But this guilt also applies to those who, when the time came for a definition, hesitated to make Vietnam an inviolable part of the socialist world; running, of course, the risks of a war on a global scale-but also forcing a decision upon imperialism. And the guilt also applies to those who maintain a war of abuse and snares — started quite some time ago by the representatives of the two greatest powers of the socialist camp.
In the document, Che also noted the impact of the Vietnam War on US soldiers and on the US politics:
Over there, the soldiers of imperialism encounter the discomforts of those who, accustomed to the standard of living that the United States boasts, have to confront a hostile land; the insecurity of those who cannot move without feeling that they are stepping on enemy territory; death for those who go outside of fortified compounds; the permanent hostility of the entire population. All this is provoking repercussions inside the United States. It is leading to the appearance of a factor that was attenuated by imperialism at full strength: the class struggle inside its own territory.
How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples 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. Perhaps more pernicious are the caricatures of those claiming, sincerely or not, admiration or sympathy with Che’s ideas and example.
A predominant caricature presents Che 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. Someone 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 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 mud 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 on the 50th Anniversary of his murder, Che’s revolutionary message will continue to reach and inspire millions as a guide to action.
In today’s volatile, class polarization of world and national politics – ushered in with the 2007-08 cascading Wall Street-sparked crisis of the world capitalist crisis and international depression and downturn, which continues to unfold in 2017, we need more than ever the clarity of ideas and political perspective of Che.
Our Che is not merely a revered figure from the distant past. Our Che is a guide for the generation of today in the Americas and world-wide who are looking for serious and effective ways to fight this crisis-ridden world economic and social order, with its obscene inequality and haughty class privilege, its brutal wars generally tied to the subjugation of oppressed nationalities, the oppression of women, 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 an imagery that appears more benign than the reactionary anti-Che boilerplate. This is the Che of the capitalist marketplace, where his image is a commodity to buy and sell, an abstract symbol, a handsome face to be adorned as a fashion statement maybe connoting some vague notion of “rebellion” or “idealism.” The capitalist market seeking profit 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.
Che in History
The Cuban Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959 when the July 26th Movement, of which Che had become a central political and military leader, led the workers and peasants of Cuba to governmental and state power over the US-backed Batista dictatorship. The Cuban socialist revolution has proven to have been particularly powerful, enduring, principled, and resonant. Nearly sixty years later, that power remains and has effectively defended itself from an unrelenting economic and political war organized in Washington.
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 and logistical failures and regrouped. What unfolded over the next two years was a brilliantly fought rural guerrilla war that was complemented by a vast urban revolutionary underground, and in less than three years the July 26 Movement swept into governmental power, unleashing the mass action of millions of Cuba’s oppressed and exploited majority. (See Tad Szulc’s Fidel: A Critical Portrait for biographical sketches of the outstanding individuals who made up the Granma expedition.)
The Crucible of Guatemala
Ernesto Guevara was not atypical as a middle-class Argentine boy, suffering from acute asthma but athletic nonetheless. He was a serious student who also liked to have a good time, sensitive to injustice but whose early social and political viewpoint did not go much 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, Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America and Latin America, was 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 the 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 US-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. (See Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary, edited by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith. Ocean Press 1997.)
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.
CIA-organized military coup in Guatemala
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; and 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, organizing and 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 his comrades.
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. After Santa Clara Washington and the Cuban oligarchy were 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.
Che in Command during the Decisive Battle of Santa Clara
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 revolutionary nationalism. He had already become a convinced Marxist from a thorough 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 and semi-literate 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 fighter’s 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 military-police regime as spontaneous retributions took place against known torturers and murderers whose cover and protection had vanished and who were unable to reach safety – and escape justice – in the United States.
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 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 a major pretext in a concerted campaign to turn 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 the US economic and financial domination of the island ushered in by the US rout of Spain in the 1898 Spanish American War.
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, including ten years ago 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, Duvalier, 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, including an appointment to head up the national bank in 1959. This was an absolutely daunting task which placed Che at the nerve center of the Cuban economy during its qualitative, revolutionary transformation. The Cuban revolutionaries were determined to mobilize the Cuban people, galvanized by the triumph of the Revolution, to advance concrete economic and financial policies that would develop and industrialize the Cuban economy within the emerging new social relations of the Cuban Revolution. This included forging new planning mechanisms and incentives for increasing labor productivity in agriculture and industry and for the entire Cuban economic and financial system.
By 1961 in the newly nationalized industries, from which most expert management personnel from previous private owners had left, and where in the case of US-owned factories and plants, the spare parts and skills to maintain and upgrade machinery were being embargoed and were sorely lacking. What Che had faith in was the revolutionary potential of the workers and peasants, and to mobilize the tremendous enthusiasm unleashed among the large majority of the Cuban people and youth to tackle these problems, learning the industrial and management skills needed to industrialize Cuba.
Cuba was moving toward a new social contract – crystalized in the forging in real time of a new state, in the wake of the actual collapse of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive police-military apparatus, its prisons, its courts, and its entire “criminal justice system. This new state that emerged under this historical crucible was fundamentally stamped by the working class which was becoming the dominant social and political force in the government and the state, including in the new armed forces that were in direct continuity with the guerilla army. The same dynamic applied to the new revolutionary police forces, and the new judicial and legal systems. Working people and young people, as well as many students, intellectuals, and revolutionary-minded individuals from the middle and even the affluent classes, united in the heat of the revolutionary moment when, as Lenin said, decades happen in weeks. Ordinary people stepped in to manage and get running factories and farms producing as world politics (and Cold War politics) swirled around the Cuban Revolution.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin
Revolutionary Cuba’s leaders were not able to control the pace and tempo of the economic measures, for the simple reason that the entire framework for the unfolding struggle was the hostility and policies of the US government.
Step by step the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations moved to asphyxiate the workers’ and farmers’ government that was consolidating power with mass support. Concurrently – and dialectically intertwined –the Cuban revolutionaries moved to overturn the dominance of the capitalist market and bourgeois social relations and establish the new pre-eminence of conscious and progressive economic planning. The amazing, egalitarian social measures that marked, and have made so attractive, the Cuban Revolution: 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 legal extirpation of the system of 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 annihilation of the whole machinery of the US-based Mafia where the oppression of women was essential to the business) as part of a radical program of women’s emancipation, including the right to abortion.
These achievements that are marveled at or grudgingly acknowledged even by opponents of socialism could only have been possible with the economic measures that transformed the class character of the Cuban state: radical land reform; nationalization of banking and capitalist industry; state monopoly of foreign trade; central planning based on human needs over “market” (that is private capital) prerogatives; the breaking up of imperialist and Cuban-owned sugar and other plantations replaced by peasant co-operatives and land redistribution; the retention and consolidation of private, family farms protected and aided by the workers state; and radical rent reductions followed by a massive expansion in home ownership, on the basis of human need over private profit.
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. (See Fidel Castro’s October 8, 1987 speech “Che’s Ideas Are Absolutely Relevant Today” reprinted in the valuable Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism by Carlos Tablada, Pathfinder Press, 1998. Also see Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution by Helen Yaffe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.)
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, and 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 Year’s 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.
Che addresses the UN General Assembly
Fidel Castro recalled often that Che made him promise, while they were still fighting in the Sierra Maestra, 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, while he was playing a leading part in 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. These reactionary forces were backed by South African mercenaries, the Belgian colonialists, and Washington. The effort failed. Che’s brutally honest and objective account and concrete analysis of the failed struggle contains many lessons, and is also a profound example of the Marxist method. (See The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo by Ernesto Che Guevara, Grove/Atlantic, 2001.)
Patrice Lumumba just before his murder by CIA-backed mercenaries
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.
Che’s book Guerrilla Warfare (Vintage Books, 1969) is a profound and historical document on the art and politics of military struggle. That is, the strategy and tactics of revolutionary armed struggle against entrenched military dictatorships which are defending the oligarchies and oppressing the workers, peasants, and masses. This in a context where all avenues and space for independent legal, constitutional, and democratic struggle have been closed and snuffed out.
In it he writes:
Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.
Che’s heroic effort, based in Bolivia, was betrayed and defeated prior to significant mass upsurges and deepening class struggles that did unfold in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (See Fidel Castro’s “A Necessary Introduction” in Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, 1994 for Fidel’s description of the factor of betrayal in the defeat of Che’s guerrilla forces.)
Che and the Next Waves of Struggle in Latin America
There is a continuity of struggle that links Che’s heroic Bolivian campaign to the battles against Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s and the eventual opening of political space, democratic and worker’s rights, that are again under pressure today; the revolutionary upsurges in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s; and 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 that led to major shifts in Latin American politics to the left at the opening of the 21st Century.
The worldwide impact of the 2007-2009 economic and financial crisis had a somewhat delayed but finally devastating impact across the Americas. Major economies like Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina, dependent on exports of raw material commodities such as oil, copper, soy and other agricultural products to markets in the advanced capitalist countries were thrown into economic turmoil by the so-called “Great Recession” and the financial shocks that began in the United States and spread to the EU. This necessarily led to political volatility and turmoil. Tremendous pressures have been put on left-wing political parties and tendencies that gained governmental power (and carried out various progressive policies in the interests of working people in the period of high commodity prices) as the still-fully capitalist economies they oversee became immersed in economic downturn. This gave some traction to more conservative, neoliberal forces that managed to replace the Worker’s Party government in Brazil in 2016 with a parliamentary coup and a similar result earlier in Argentina after presidential elections in 2015. Venezuela has had the most devastating economic downturn where the crash of the price of oil has combined with economic sabotage and escalating violence and provocation by US-backed forces determined to overturn the Nicolas Maduro government, although they are badly divided over tactics, methods, and political postures.
As this is written on October 9, 2017 it is certain that, in the coming years, the framework for the class struggle and unfolding political battles for power – outside and inside of capitalist parliamentary institutions which are weakening, rife with corruption, and seemingly unable to address let alone resolve accumulated and intensifying social and political crises.
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 fifty years ago will be forever buried with contempt. Che’s banner has been continually picked up and carried forward by millions as the coming historic class battles in the Americas and every corner of the globe for solidarity, national and social liberation continue to unfold. Our Che will be present as an inspiration, political guide, and example, with Fidel, of revolutionary leadership.