Che: an extraordinary revolutionary

By Roberto Jorquera & Jorge Jorquera

On October 9, millions throughout the world will commemorate the 41st anniversary of the assassination of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Che was central to the victory of the Cuban revolution of January 1, 1959. Since then his role and contribution to socialism in Cuba and to socialist understanding have been reflected upon and admired by millions of revolutionaries around the world.

On October 18, 1967, more than 200,000 people gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana to hear Fidel Castro read an obituary for Che, who had been assassinated in Bolivia by the CIA-backed army. Fidel spoke of the significance of Che’s life and death: “Che died defending the interests of the exploited and oppressed of this continent. Che died defending the interests of the poor and the humble of the earth ... Before history men who act as he did, men who give everything for the poor, grow in stature with each passing day and find a deeper place in the heart of the people.”

In his 800-page 1997 biography of Che, Jon Lee Anderson wrote of Che’s early years that, although he was not very clear politically, he hated the upper classes and always felt close to the poor and disadvantaged. Che was a brilliant medical student and always wanted to use his skills to help others. Anderson traces Che’s politicisation to his four-month journey through the leprosariums of the Andes. But it was not until his visit to Guatemala that Che announced his revolutionary convictions, stating in a letter to a friend:

“My life has been a sea of found resolutions until I bravely abandoned my baggage and, backpack on my shoulder, set out with companero Garcia on the sinuous trail that has brought us here. Along the way, I had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of United Fruit [company], convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are ... I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.”

Che’s experiences in Guatemala opened his eyes to the role of US imperialism in Latin America. Most importantly, he realised the role of international solidarity with people fighting for socialism. Che compared the situation in Guatemala in 1954 with that of Spain in 1936.

Contact with poverty

Che arrived at his political convictions by confronting the realities of ordinary people. During his travels through Latin America in the early 1950s while still a medical student, he saw first hand the poverty afflicting the common people. In a 1960 speech “On revolutionary medicine”, he spoke of this time: “I came into close contact with poverty, with hunger, with disease, with the inability to cure a child because of lack of resources, with the numbness that hunger and continued punishment cause until a point is reached where a parent losing a child is an unimportant accident”. Helping those people became his life’s work.

Che realised, though, that this could not be done from a distance. He chose to throw in his lot with the struggles people were waging for their national liberation. In 1954 in Guatemala, he became politically active and witnessed the CIA-organised army coup that toppled the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, which had initiated social reforms potentially threatening to US corporate interests. Che fled to Mexico and soon made contact with leaders of the Cuban revolutionary movement, including Fidel Castro. “Then I realised a fundamental thing ... the isolated effort, the individual effort, the purity of ideals, the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals goes for naught if that effort is made alone, solitary.”

In 1956, convinced to join the struggle of the Cuban working people against US imperialist domination and the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Che left with 81 others on a boat called Granma. They were confident that they could add a new spark to the struggle of the Cuban peasants and workers. On arrival they were met by Batista’s army — only 15 revolutionaries survived.

The victory of the revolution in 1959 opened a new era for the international socialist movement, in which Che played a central role. Anderson explores the many events that unfolded in the first few years of the revolution, particularly the establishment of close relations with the Soviet Union. Anderson outlines the many criticisms Che had of the post-Lenin Soviet system. From the start, Che made it clear he was fighting for a socialist society true to the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and he staunchly opposed the bureaucratic “socialism” of the Soviet Union. Che, Anderson noted, criticised the “elite lifestyles and bourgeois luxuries he saw among Kremlin and party officials”. At a dinner in Moscow, Che said bluntly, “So, the proletariat here eats off of French porcelain, eh?”

Despite his directness, Che was to be central in establishing Soviet-Cuban relations while being one of the most outspoken critics of the Kremlin bureaucracy’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” between the superpowers. For Che, “peaceful coexistence” was impossible. He delivered a message to US President John Kennedy four months after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion: “Thank you for Playa Giron [Bay of Pigs]. Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it is stronger than ever.”

As Anderson’s research reveals, Che, from the very start, planned to continue developing a continent-wide revolution, using his experience in Cuba as a training ground for future revolutions. He played a vital role in shaping and defending Cuban socialism. Most important, he argued, was the need for Cuba to break its isolation by aiding revolutionaries throughout the world to defeat imperialism and capitalism. This dedication to revolutionary internationalism has been a consistent hallmark of the Cuban Revolution.

Che knew that the struggle for social liberation was an international one. Acting on that conviction, in April 1965 he left Cuba to throw in his lot once again with others in struggle. In 1967, in a message to the Organisation of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Che urged people at “every small point on the map of the world [to] fulfil our duty and place at the disposal of the struggle whatever little we are able to give”. Che died at the hands of the Bolivian army on October 9, 1967. Since then, his example of steadfast resistance to oppression, and the lessons he drew out of the struggle for socialism, have inspired revolutionary activists struggling for freedom across the world.

Misunderstanding the revolution

Che’s political life and the example of the Cuban Revolution, many of whose features have been influenced by Che’s thinking and principles, should be an inspiration to socialists. However, some on the left, such as John Minns from Socialist Alternative, see it differently. In a January 2003 article, Minns claimed that the “commandantes of the [Cuban] Communist Party run things in their own elite interests’’ and that “[a]t least part of the explanation for this is to be found in the ideas of the leaders of the Cuban revolution”. These leaders allegedly held to an “elitist strategy where the revolution is, first and foremost, the product of the vanguard” not the working masses.

Minns misunderstands the entire history of the Cuban Revolution, starting from the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953. The July 26 Movement, which developed from this failed attack and which later was joined by Che, always noted the essential role that the Cuban working class would need to play in any revolutionary struggle. Minns simply ignores the fact that the J26M created an extensive urban underground movement that organised a general strike in Santiago de Cuba in April 1958 and in Havana on January 1959. In 1959-60 Cuban workers were organised by the Castro government to take over the running of the country’s nationalised plantations and factories.

Che’s foquista (focal point) perspective was a shift that developed later as a tactical attempt to break the isolation of the Cuban Revolution. It was based upon the mistaken assumption that the Bolivian Communist Party would play a similar role in Bolivia’s urban centres as the J26M mass resistance movement had played in Cuba’s cities. In Che’s own diary captured after his death, he bristled with complaints about the Bolivian CP, which he characterised as “distrustful, disloyal and stupid”.

Minns claimed that Che and the Cuban revolutionaries’ “elitist notions must have a huge impact on the kind of society which is created from such a revolution. If the mass of people do not themselves make the revolution ‘from below’ — neither will they control the society which issues from it.” Furthermore, “both a lack of democracy in Cuba and its inability to develop economically have provoked great opposition and cynicism from much of its population”.

Minns’ view contradicts the real experience of the Cuban Revolution. Its survival after almost 50 years under a criminal imperialist blockade has been due to the masses’ active support of the revolution and their democratic participation in the running of the society born out of the revolution. The counter-revolutionary opposition in Cuba is tiny, not “great”.

The continual mass mobilisations led and organised by the Communist Party, the trade unions and other mass organisations have kept the leadership accountable and led it to be continuously renewed. There is a wide and vigorous debate on the future of socialism in Cuba within the Communist Party, academic circles and the mass social organisations.

Now, after decades of capitalist neoliberalism ripping through the world, we desperately need more people like Che. He represents the hope that emerges when people take their beliefs seriously and seize every chance they get to make a difference. He lived until his final breath with the same attitude he asked of his children in his farewell letter to them: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.”