Allow Me To Explain

Was there a split between Che Guevara and Fidel Castro?

Posted in Cuba, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Fidel Castro, History by amte on October 11, 2009

A rumor persists to this day that Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Fidel Castro had some sort of falling out near the end of Che’s life that caused him to leave Cuba and prompted Fidel to withhold support for the guerrilla effort Che lead in Bolivia. But with a little investigation, we find that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this rumor, which, it should be noted, originated with Felix Rodriguez, a wealthy Cuban-born CIA assassin who ordered Che’s murder.

Che and Fidel in Cuba.

Che and Fidel in Cuba.

And what is the supposed source of major disagreement between Che and Fidel? Some have suggested that Che was critical of the USSR.  A review of Fidel Castro’s speeches in the 1960’s, in which he criticized the USSR several times, easily dispels that myth.  Still others have claimed that Che took the side of China while Fidel took the side of the USSR in the Sino-Soviet Split. This too, is easily disproven.

Che wrote that:

“When we analyze the lonely situation of the Vietnamese people, we are overcome by anguish at this illogical moment of humanity.

“U.S. 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.”[1]

While, around the same time Fidel wrote in a similar vein that:

“Without a doubt, the South Vietnamese people and the people of North Vietnam are suffering all this and suffering it in their own flesh, because there it is men and women who die, in the south and in the north, victims of the shrapnel and Yankee bombings. They do not have the slightest hesitancy in declaring that they intend to continue to carry all that out because not even the attacks against North Vietnam have resulted in overcoming the divisions in the bosom of the socialist family.

“And who can doubt that this division is encouraging the imperialists? Who can doubt that a united front against the imperialist enemy would have made them hesitate–would have made them think a little more carefully before launching their adventurist attacks and their increasingly more brazen intervention in that part of the world?”[2]

For his part, Rodriguez claimed in his autobiography that upon capture, Che “was bitter over the Cuban dictator’s lack of support for the Bolivian incursion.” But only a fool would believe the words of Che’s enemy and murderer (who, incidentally, wears his watch to this day like a trophy).  More reliable sources suggest that Che considered Rodriguez a traitor and refused to speak to him. But that hasn’t stopped the capitalist press from keeping the claim alive.

As Fidel put it in a June 1987 television interview with Italian journalist Gianni Mina:

“What could we have done? Sent a battalion, a company, a regular army? The laws of guerrilla warfare are different; everything depends on what the guerrilla unit itself does.”[3]

Che’s plan to wage guerrilla war in Bolivia to initiate a socialist revolution to overthrow the dictatorship was fully supported by Cuba. Cuba provided training grounds, fighters, weapons, passports and more to the effort.

We need not pretend Che and Fidel agreed on every single question to know that there was no major disagreement that lead to abandonment or a suicidal departure.

According to the survivors of the guerrilla force he led and the pages of his personal diary, which has since been published, Che never once suggested that he felt betrayed or abandoned by Cuba or Fidel. In his farewell letter Che wrote to Fidel, “I am also proud of having followed you without hesitation, of having identified with your way of thinking and of seeing and appraising dangers and principles.”

1. Guevara, Ernesto, Che. “Message to the Tricontinental.”
2. Castro, Fidel. “Live speech from the steps of Havana University on the occasion of the anniversary of the attack on the Presidential Palace (13 March 1965).”
3. Mini, Gianni. “An Encounter With Fidel.”

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Revolution and counterrevolution in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, History, Imperialism, revolution, USSR, War by amte on July 25, 2009

In 1978 the Saur Revolution swept across the central Asian country of Afghanistan uprooting backwards social and property relations and liberating women from domestic slavery, abuse and extreme oppression.

Afghanistan is a country with a long and complicated history. Throughout the years, it came under the influence of  many different groups, from the Kushans to the Iranians to the Greeks to the Mongols.

Map of Afghanistan today.

Map of Afghanistan today.

The Durrani empire was established in 1747, with a man of Pashtun ethnicity named Ahmed Shah Durrani at its head. Besides a very short period in 1929 when a Khan named Bacha-i-Saqa briefly overthrew the government and named himself emir, every Afghan leader belonged to Ahmed Shah Durrani’s tribal confederation.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the people of Afghanistan fought against the British imperialists several times resulting in various parts of the country falling under British control.

The borders of modern Afghanistan resulted from a combination of of those battles and competition between the British and Russian Empires.

In 1921, after army leader Amanullah Khan led a successful uprising, Afghanistan formally won its independence from the British.

In 1933, Mohammed Zahir Shah became king after his father was assassinated. He instituted a few reforms, such as limited education for women, but also showed great indifference towards the country’s toilers, as could be expected.

While infrastructure crumbled and famine lead to thousands of starvation deaths, Zahir Shah used the country’s
resources to have castles built for himself in Kabul and Italy.

Zahir Shah ruled until 1973, when he was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan.

Instead of naming himself king, Daoud broke tradition and proclaimed Afghanistan a republic, with himself as president. He was originally backed by Parcham, a reformist faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan
(PDPA), because he promised to introduce a number of progressive, democratic reforms.

Instead, Daoud’s rule was marked by increasing repression, including the arrests and executions of numerous revolutionaries and the closure of the newspapers of both the Parcham and the more revolutionary Khalq factions of the PDPA.

Demonstration in support of the PDPA. Photo held by marchers is of Nur Muhammad Taraki, first president of Afghanistan after the Saur Revolution.

Demonstration in support of the PDPA. Photo held by marchers is of Nur Muhammad Taraki, first president of Afghanistan after the Saur Revolution.

The factions of the PDPA, which formed in 1965 and split from each other two years later, finally reunified in 1977, with the encouragement of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Saur Revolution
In late 1977, students and workers in the capital city of Kabul rose up against the oppressive Daoud government, but were put down by the police. After the rebellion, Daoud had several members of the PDPA jailed.

In January, 1978, another uprising broke out as thousands of Afghans demanded the release of the jailed PDPA members. The police were unable to put down the rebellion and so the army was called in to smash it.

A few months later, in March, Mir Akbar Khyber (also known as “Kaibar”), a leading member of Parcham, was murdered by government forces. Tens of thousands of Afghans gathered soon after to listen to speeches delivered by leaders of the PDPA. Daoud was frightened by this display of popular support for the PDPA,and ordered its leaders imprisoned.

By the time the Daoud’s forces had got around to jailing one PDPA leader, and putting another under house arrest,
the Saur Revolution had already broken out.

PDPA members in the military, with the support of tens of thousands of others, began an uprising against the Daoud
government on April 28, 1978.

The uprising started at the Kabul International Airport and spread to the capital of Kabal within twenty-four hours. It
was there, on April 28, that revolutionary forces stormed the presidential palace and overthrew Mohammed Daoud

Upon taking power, the revolutionaries took to the radio to declare, “For the first time, power has come to the people.
The last remnants of the imperialist tyranny, despotism and the royal dynasty have been ended.”

Two days later, hundreds of thousands of Afghans marched through the streets waving red flags and celebrating
the victory of the Saur Revolution.

Revolutionary measures
The revolutionaries moved quickly to establish the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, with a Revolutionary Council at its head, and a provisional democratic program that guaranteed the legalization of trade unions, equal rights for women and the separation of church and state.

In the years leading up to the Saur Revolution Afghanistan was a reactionary nightmare for the large majority of its residents – especially women, who were fundamentally the property of their fathers or husbands to be bought and sold.

Prior to the Saur Revolution, there were only 35,000 workers employed in manufacturing in Afghanistan, while
there were some 250,000 mullahs who existed as parasites living off the poor masses.

There were no railroad tracks or highways to speak of and malnutrition and starvation was the norm.

Only 10 percent of men and 2 percent of women could read.

The average person lived just 40 years, and half of all children died before reaching the age of five.

In contrast, in the neighboring Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan nearly 100 percent of the population was
literate and life expectancy was 70.

The revolutionary Afghan government began carrying out revolutionary measures to combat the problems facing the toilers of Afghanistan almost immediately.

The first step was to construct schools and hospitals across the country, and to train doctors and teachers.

As Saira Noorani, a female Afghan doctor, recalled in the Observer in 2001, “Life was good … Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go wherever we wanted and wear what we liked.”

Kabul University after the Saur Revolution. For the first time in its history, a majority of the students at the school were women.

Kabul University after the Saur Revolution. For the first time in its history, a majority of the students at the school were women.

The revolutionary leadership also canceled the massive debts that the poor peasants owed to the loan sharks and

They also began a sweeping land reform policy, to take arable land out of the hands of the exploiting mullahs – who
controlled 42 percent of it, and necessary irrigation systems, and put them into the hands of the peasantry that actually did the farming.

In doing this they met huge resistance from the mullahs who saw their easy ride on the backs on the poor coming to an end.

The mullahs raised reactionary counterrevolutionary gangs that carried out vicious acts of terrorism and economic

Despite this, the revolutionary government was still able to redistribute land to 200,000 landless peasants (in a country of 20 million).

But it was the revolution’s establishment of equal rights for women – which included the establishment of compulsory schooling for young girls, and free literacy classes for adult women – that truly raised opposition from the mullahs,
khans and strong Islamic clergy.

The counterrevolution
The reactionary ‘mujahedin’ (or holy warriors – the name that the bands of the khans, mullahs and Islamic clergy
gave themselves) that lead the counterrevolution sought to preserve their positions in society. These position rested upon a backwards system in which women were the private property of men, where local laws only allowed married men access to land and water – with more wives meaning more of those resources, and where a price was literally put on each bride.

In these reactionaries the U.S. capitalist ruling elite saw an ally against the spread of revolution and the overthrow of capitalism internationally and Soviet Union itself, which bordered Afghanistan to the north.

It didn’t take the U.S. imperialists long to began aiding the mujahedin secretly through the CIA, sending them money, guns, bombs, advisors, special agents and the like.

On top of this, the reactionary capitalist governments in Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with the fraudulent bureaucrats that controlled China, were also aiding the counterrevolutionaries.

As the armed counterrevolution grew, with literally tons of aid pouring in from the CIA, China, Pakistan, Egypt and
Saudi Arabia, Revolutionary Defense Groups were formed in Afghanistan, with the participation of large numbers of
women who sought to defend the rights they had gained.

At the same time, the revolutionary government requested military assistance from the USSR.

The bureaucratic leadership of the USSR first sent only military advisors before finally being pressured by the reality of imperialist-backed counterrevolution at the gates of the Central Asian Soviet Republics to send in some 100,000 troops.

USSR soldiers in Afghanistan.

USSR soldiers in Afghanistan.

While revolutionary Afghanistan’s army and popular militias, with the assistance of soldiers from the USSR, were more or less able to beat back the counterrevolutionaries for ten years, horrendous atrocities were still carried out.

Whenever the reactionaries of the mujahedin were able to get a hold of a soldier from the USSR or a teacher (who committed the “crime” of teaching a women to read), they would frequently cut up, skin or behead them, or some combination thereof. Other times they would drug them and imprison them, so that they could be brutally tortured later.

These savage reactionaries – which included amongst their ranks Osama bin Laden – were the people Democratic U.S.
President Jimmy Carter gave billions of dollars to, and the same scum Republican U.S. President Ronald Reagan hailed as “freedom fighters.”

USSR withdraw
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union.

Under the guise of “democratic reform” and “openness,” Gorbachev and his cohorts sought to settle with the imperialists – who were openly driving for the destruction of the USSR – and allow an increase in capitalist penetration.

On July 20, 1987, the USSR, then beginning to crumble under the weight of internal contradiction and the suicidal policies of its bureaucratic leadership, treacherously announced that it planned to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan.

By 1989 the task was complete, leaving the revolutionary Afghan government to stand on its own against a counterrevolutionary band receiving major backing from several governments.

At the time, there were over a quarter of a million women working, and another 15,000 women serving in the army and militias in Afghanistan. Women made up half of the doctors and university teachers in the country, and more than 500,000 were enrolled in schools and literacy programs. For the first time in the history of Afghanistan, women could walk around in the cities without having to wear a veil.

All of these women were prime targets for the reactionary mujahedin which, emboldened by the withdraw of the Soviets, were now stepping up their attacks.

Afghan Womens militia. Women volunteered for militia duty to defend their newly won rights against counterrevolutionaries.

Afghan Women's militia. Women volunteered for militia duty to defend their newly won rights against counterrevolutionaries.

In response to this serious threat, the PDPA set out to arm and train all of its female members.

More civil war
Despite the withdraw of the USSR, the revolutionary forces of Afghanistan were able to hold their own against the mujahedin reactionaries for some time.

In fact, the Afghan Army, which had been trained by the USSR’s military and by participating in several battles,
actually began to perform better after the USSR’s withdraw.

The militias too did well against the counterrevolutionaries. They were able to successfully defend, for instance, the Afghan city of Jalalabad from the onslaught of mujahedin bands operating out of nearby CIA bases in Pakistan.

But the revolutionary forces, demoralized by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR and under a de facto oil blockade from Russia’s new capitalist government, were increasingly fractured and divided. By 1992 they could no longer hold out.

The counterrevolution succeeds
By April, 1992, the mujahedin entered the capital city of Kabu, and President Mohammad Najibullah was

A “coalition” government was then set up, made up of elements of the mujahedin – which was beginning to split into different factions – some PDPA members, and some army officers.

Over the next four years control of the government would shift back and forth between different factions of the mujahedin, but one thing remained the same throughout: all the progressive measures introduced by the revolution
were steadily being overturned.

In 1996, one particularly reactionary Islamic fundamentalist militia, the Taliban, was able to take control of Kabul, which was devastated by years of war.

President Mohammad Najibullah and his brother hung from a lamp post by Taliban.

President Mohammad Najibullah and his brother hung from a lamp post by Taliban.

One of the first acts the Taliban carried out was the forceful removal of Mohammad Najibullahfrom the UN compound he had been staying in. They then proceeded to publically castrate him before hanging him and his brother from a lamp post in downtown Kabul where they were left for three days.

The aftermath
The rule of the Taliban, which enjoyed the support of the U.S. imperialists that funded it as a part of the mujahedin early on, was notoriously oppressive.

Upon taking power, these reactionary religious extremists threw acid in the faces of women whose faces were uncovered, closed down schools and created groups of young thugs that went around brutally beating any woman who so much as bared her wrist.

Women in Afghanistan today, enslaved and forced to wear full length burqas.

Women in Afghanistan today, enslaved and forced to wear full length burqas.

Under their rule, women were forcefully secluded in their homes (where all windows had to be painted black). Women were forced to wear a burqa which covered them from head to toe, and were forbidden to be educated after the age of 8 (and prior to that, they could only learn about the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran).

In 2001, the U.S. imperialists used the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as justification to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban, which had refused to bow to their demands.

Today, Afghanistan remains a horribly oppressive country, occupied by imperialist forces and headed by a U.S. puppet leader.

Responding to slanders against Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution

Posted in Cuba, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Fidel Castro, History, revolution by amte on July 11, 2009

The following is a copy of a response I wrote to a recent email I received asking how I could support Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, a “communist killer,” and the Cuban Revolution. It has been edited slightly for form.

Che was a indeed a revolutionary. That’s what enabled him to be such a great person. He fought for the liberation of humankind from exploitation and oppression.

Che didn’t kill “thousands” of people. Not even his enemies (at least those who are at all serious or have any idea what Che did during his life) claim that.

At most, he killed some people in the course of revolutionary wars. A revolution is not a tea party. It’s necessary to take up the gun to abolish the gun.

Che’s enemies also condemn him for overseeing the popular trials after the Cuban Revolution that brought the torturers, rapists and murderers of the dictatorship to justice. A revolution is not a bed of roses.

The Cuban Revolution was fought against the dictatorship of the Butcher Batista, a U.S.-sponsored monster who was responsible for the torture and deaths of tens of thousands of Cubans. It was a popular revolution that drew the support of the large majority of Cubans. After a hard fought war against the dictator’s army, Batista’s rule was finally brought down by a general strike of all workers across Cuba.

Thousands of Cubans greeting Rebel Army guerrillas as they ride victoriously into Havana.

Thousands of Cubans greeting Rebel Army guerrillas as they ride victoriously into Havana.

Here’s a video of Fidel’s arrival in Havana

Chinese Cubans celebrate the victory of the Cuban Revolution

Chinese Cubans celebrate the victory of the Cuban Revolution

Over 1 million Cubans turn out to hear Fidel Castro speak

Over 1 million Cubans turn out to hear Fidel Castro speak

You speak of Cuba as the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” but it was more commonly known as the “Whorehouse of the Caribbean.” Most of the country was owned by U.S. businesses. It was the playground of rich people from the U.S. and the Mafia. Many beaches were off limits to Black Cubans. Today they are open to all. Only 54% of the population could read (as compared to 100% now), life expectancy was only 55.8 years (as compared to 78 now), and infant mortality was 60 (as compared to 5.8 now, a number surpassing even the United States, the richest country in the world).

The Cuban Revolution ended the rule of Batista and the dominance of imperialism over Cuba. Farms and businesses owned by U.S. corporations were taken under the control of the Cubans who worked them, the houses of the rich were given to the servants that cleaned and maintained them, and everyone was given an equal opportunity to advance together.

Cuba has been harassed and attacked by the United States since the beginning of the Revolution. There have been over 600 attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. There was a military invasion of Cuba. There were threats, bombings that killed innocent people, sabotage, and more.

Even today, the U.S. continues its decades-long blockade of Cuba, despite the fact that the vast majority of the countries of the world have condemned it 17 times again in the United Nations (source).

Despite all this, the Cuban Revolution has eliminated illiteracy, homelessness and unemployment, and has brought quality education and healthcare to all.

It is because of this, and more, that the Cuban Revolution still has the support of the majority of Cubans (as can be seen in the following photos) and millions of others around the world.

Thousands of Cubans holding signs that read Long live Fidel!

Thousands of Cuban's holding signs that show their support for Fidel Castro

A picture of a banner hung by a Cuban that says Long live Fidel, 80 more years!

A picture of a banner hung by a Cuban that says "Long live Fidel, 80 more years!"

Where’s the picture of a banner that says “4 more years of Bush?” Where are the pictures of a million people coming to hear Bill Clinton speak? How about graffiti that says “Long live Lyndon Johnson?”

Those Cubans who attack the Cuban Revolution (and make up crazy stories about it like your “Che ran over a child for no reason,” “Fidel Castro eats babies,” or whatever other nonsense they can come up with) are the uninformed and the rich, mostly white Cubans who fled Cuba after the Revolution because they were afraid they’d have to work together with the rest of the population instead of continuing to live on the labor of others. The latter are commonly known in Cuba as  los gusanos (the worms).

The Cuban Revolution was by and for the toiling majority. It took the power out of the hands of the U.S. businesses and their Cubans assistants and put it in the hands of the masses.

Che fought in the Cuban Revolution and in revolutionary struggles in the Congo and Bolivia. He gave his life for the liberation of humanity. This is why he is hailed by millions upon millions of people around the world while the butcher Batista is scorned or forgotten.

If you’re really interested in the facts you should do some research. Relying on second-hand stories from people who are hostile to Che and the Cuban Revolution is no way to find out the truth.

Here is the real story of Che (it’s short and to the point).

Here is a site that shows how Cuba compares with the rest of the world in areas like poverty, literacy, healthcare, education, etc. You can see that Cuba surpasses them all.

I’d also recommend the DVD “Fidel: The Untold Story.”

Little courage in film portrayal of the Heroic Guerrilla

Posted in Cuba, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Film reviews, History by amte on July 9, 2009

Director Steven Soderbergh has produced a fairly straight-forward, if uninspired, film in “Che,” a two-part presentation of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s participation in revolutionary wars in Cuba and Bolivia.

The first part of the four-hour, 18-minute film depicts the Argentine-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s participation in the revolutionary war in Cuba, which ousted the bloody-dictatorship of the U.S.-government and mafia backed Fulgencio Batista. The film progresses with the rag tag group of guerrillas as they make their way across the island, gaining support, recruits and victories. Events from Che’s initial meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Mexico through his last battle before victory are accurately portrayed. Throughout the fighting, we are continually brought forward to Che’s historic speech at the United Nations in 1964, in which he exposed the U.S. government, which “is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetrator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population.”

The second part of the film depicts the guerrilla war initiated by Che and a group of his comrades in Bolivia, aimed at toppling the military dictatorship that existed there and paving the way for the construction of socialism. Despite a drawn out introduction which aptly demonstrated Bolivia’s location in the heart of South America, those not familiar with Che’s ideas may not realize his continental strategy, which was to start in Bolivia with a group of internationalist guerrillas who would, upon gaining enough strength, branch out into the surrounding countries and initiate similar struggles. Using different cameras and filming styles from part one, Soderbergh and company do a good job of recreating the struggle. Most of the events that contributed to Che’s defeat – from the monumental betrayal by the leader the Communist Party of Bolivia Mario Monje (Lou Diamond Philipps), who refused to help the struggle as promised and instead actively worked against it, to the treachery of the Argentine artist Ciro Bustos (Gastón Pauls), who drew identifying pictures of all of the guerrillas after being captured by the Bolivian army – are covered. While most fight scenes are realistic, the portrayal of Che’s capture in battle is lacking.

While some will undoubtedly argue that film is too long, it could hardly have been otherwise. The historic episodes portrayed in the film deserve serious attention. A condensed biopic of the Che’s extensive revolutionary career could not have done it justice.

A better criticism would be to question the exact moments and events that Soderbergh decided to focus on. Noticeably absent from the film were any depictions of the general strike that sealed the Rebel Army’s victory and their victorious ride into Havana. Further, there was no mention of the U.S. government’s role in Che’s execution. While outside the scope of the film, brief overviews of Che’s life both before meeting Fidel Castro and during his time in the Cuban government would have been helpful.

Helpful too, both for audiences and the film team, would have been filming the first part of the film on location in Cuba. Of course the blockade that the U.S. government has maintained against Cuba for decades prevented that.

Benicio del Toro is fitting as Che, though he is unable to muster the energy or replicate the depth of the fallen revolutionary.

Demian Bichir does a fairly good job as Fidel Castro, but he lacks the charisma of the Cuban leader. Other actors do good jobs of portraying their respective characters, but Spanish speakers will notice differences in their accents. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays the Cuban Aleida March (Che’s second wife), maintains the accent of her native Colombia throughout the film. Many others portraying Cuban revolutionaries carry the accents of their native Mexico.

As was the case in his previous film “The Good German,” Soderbergh fails to properly develop the characters in “Che” – an unforgivable mistake in a film based on well documented events and historical figures.

In the end, Soderbergh remains too far outside of the main character. Unlike Che, he fails to take any risks. While he doesn’t obscure the facts (and briefly allows revolutionary  theory and practice to be described from the perspective of revolutionaries themselves instead of the capitalist rulers and their mouthpieces – a rare feat in post-blacklist cinema), he also avoids taking up Che’s cause: the cause of humanity.

Thankfully, Soderbergh’s film didn’t reflect his belief that revolutionary war is “a type of war that can’t be fought anymore,” or star Benicio del Toro’s ridiculous assertion that today “revolutionaries can use elections and other nonviolent methods to promote change.”

Sorderbergh has stated that he “wanted to show day-to-day stuff – things that have meaning on a practical level and on an ideological level, but that, from a narrative standpoint, aren’t necessarily in support of some goal” to show “what it might have been like to be there.” In that he succeeded.

“Che” does a sufficient job of portraying Che and his participation in the Cuban Revolution and guerrilla war in Bolivia. But little courage was shown in making the film, which is very regretful. “Che” was sufficient, but it could have been much more.

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Who was Che Guevara?

Posted in Biographies, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, History by amte on July 8, 2009

Famous photo of el Che by Korba.

You’ve probably seen his face on t-shirts, hats, or some other piece of merchandise, but what do you really know about Che Guevara? What did he accomplish that made him the hero of oppressed people all around the world?

The Russian revolutionary Vladamir Lenin once pointed out the tendency of the ruling class to “co-opt” revolutionaries after their deaths, turning them into mere “logos” which they attempt to render meaningless by separating the individual from what it is they stood for. It is in an effort to combat this that we offer this article.

Of course, it is not within the scope of this article to completely detail the life of Che – that has already been attempted to varying degrees of success in numerous biographies – rather, we hope to to provide a general outline to those unfamiliar with the man, in hopes that it will lead them to dig deeper into the story of his life, his theories, and most importantly what he fought for: the liberation of humankind.

Early Years
Ernesto Guevara (the ‘Che’ part wouldn’t come until much later) was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928. His mother and father could be described as middle-class, with liberal inclinations.

Even as a young boy, Guevara was known for his often radical perspective, but they wouldn’t develop fully until later in life.

He suffered from crippling asthma from birth, so much so that his family had to relocate because of it, but it didn’t stop him from becoming an excellent athlete. Rugby was one of the sports that he enjoyed most. His aggressive style of play earned him the nickname ‘Fuser’.

In 1948, he enrolled in the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. He was an excellent student who excelled at his studies.

The Journey Begins
In 1951, on the suggestion of his older friend, Alberto Granado, a biochemist, he decided to take a year off from school to embark on trip across South America that they had dreamed of taking for years. Guevara and his 29-year-old friend set off from their hometown of Alta Gracia on a 1939 Norton 500 cc motorcycle they called La Poderosa II (literally, “the mighty one”). As a part of their trip, they planned to spend a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. Guevara documented the trip in The Motorcycle Diaries, which was translated into English in 1996, and turned into a motion picture of the same name in 2004.

During the trip, Ernesto witnessed first hand many things that he hadn’t had much experience with before, such as the widespread poverty and oppression faced by the masses of people throughout the Latin America (and the world) under capitalism. It was through this, as well as studies of the writings of revolutionaries like Karl Marx, that he began to understand that the only remedy to these ills lay in socialist revolution.

Through his trip he also began to see Latin America not as a grouping of separate nations divided by invisible, often imposed borders, but rather as a single cultural and economic entity. It was from this foundation that he began to formulate his concept of a united Ibero-America, united “from Mexico to the Magellan straits”, and bound together by a “single mestizo” culture.

Upon his return to Argentina, Guevara was anxious to continuing traveling throughout Latin America, and so he completed his medical studies as quickly as possible, finishing in March of 1953.

Imperialism in Guatemala
Following his graduation, Guevara again set out on the road, this time planning to travel through Central America. After much traveling, he finally ended up in Guatemala, where the popular reformist Jacobo Arbenz Guzman had been elected president. Arbenz was attempting to bring about a social change through various reforms – particularly land reform.

It was at this time that Guevara acquired the nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life. Friends in Guatemala began to refer to him as “Che” (pronounced “chay”), after an interjection (often used to get attention, such as “hey” or “wow”, but also used like “friend” or “pal”) commonly used by Argentinians such as himself.

At the time, 2% of the population of Guatemala controlled 74% of the land suitable to farming, and only used 12% of it. Arbenz planned to redistribute some of the unused land to the poor farmers of the country who made up the majority of its population, a plan that they greatly supported.

The U.S.-based United Fruit Company (UFC), the largest landowner in Guatemala, fully opposed the plan, even though it was paid $600,000 (based on land values it declared for tax purposes) for unused land that was seized as the plan began to be implemented.

The UFC had close ties with the U.S. government, and lobbied the CIA and the Eisenhower administration to take action. In 1954, the administration commissioned the CIA to overthrow democratically elected president Arbenz in a plan called Operation PBSUCCESS. The plan was a success and Arbenz was forced to flee the country on June 27th.

Following the overthrow, Che offered to fight, but Arbenz instructed his foreign supporters to leave the country. After spending some time in the Argentine consulate, Che headed to Mexico.

Witnessing the events that took place in Guatemala enabled Che to understand more than ever that the U.S. was an imperialist power that would always oppose any movements that attempted to solve problems like inequality and poverty that are endemic to Latin America and the rest of the third world. His understanding of socialism as the only answer to these problems grew even stronger.

Incidentally, the U.S. sponsored military dictatorship that replaced Arbenz turned out to be one of the most brutal regimes in world history.

The Cuban Revolution
It was in Mexico City that Che would meet brothers Raul and Fidel Castro. The two were in exile from Cuba after being freed – by popular demand – from a Cuban prison to which they were sentenced after leading a failed attack on a military garrison as a part of a larger plan to overthrow U.S. sponsored dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Castro brothers and others Cubans were planning to return to Cuba as a guerrilla force named the “26th of July Movement” (after the date of the original attack on the garrison). Che immediately hit it off with Fidel and agreed to join the expedition as a medic on the first night.

After a period of training, and even imprisonment by the Mexican authorities, Fidel, Che, and 80 others departed from Tuxpan, Veracruz, aboard the cabin cruiser Granma in November 1956. Che was the only non-Cuban on board.

Bad weather, and other problems, delayed their arrival by two days, and so an armed uprising in Santiago, which was aimed at drawing away the attention of Batista’s troops, ended up only serving to put them on alert. They finally landed, 30 miles away from the point where weapons and reinforcements awaited them.

Almost immediately after pulling themselves ashore they were ambushed by the dictator’s army. All but a handful of the guerrillas were killed. It was during this battle that Che made a crucial decision when, while retreating, he chose to pick up a box of ammunition instead of his medical bag. He later described the situation, “Perhaps this was the first time I was confronted with the real-life dilemma of having to choose between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. Lying at my feet were a knapsack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. They were too heavy for me to carry both of them. I grabbed the box of ammunition, leaving the medicine behind.”

Fidel, Raul, and Che were among the survivors who then made their way undetected into the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains. From here they built a strong support base amongst the region’s poor farmers which would soon spread to working people across the country. The numbers of the Rebel Army grew as they continued to carry out successful attacks.

Throughout the revolution, Che continually exhibited great courage, combat and leadership skills, self-discipline, and boldness. He soon rose to the highest rank in the Rebel Army, Comandante (Major). In Late 1958, he lead his column through a long and arduous march to the city of Santa Clara, where they would soon take over after derailing an armored train filled with Batista’s henchmen. This proved to be the final straw and the dictator was forced to flee the country. Guevara later recorded his memories of the two year struggle in a series of articles that would later be published as a book entitled Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary Government
On January 1st, 1959, the 26th of July Movement called for a general strike – to serve as a final blow – which lead to the victory of the revolution. For his part in the fighting Che was declared a “Cuban citizen by birth” and was appointed Commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison. Soon after he divorced his Peruvian wife, Hilda Gadea, the mother of his first child whom he married while in Guatemala. Later he would marry Aleida March, another fighter in the Rebel Army, with whom he would have 4 children.

During his six months at the prison, Che oversaw people’s courts in which the Cuban people dished out revolutionary justice to brutal killers, rapists, and other war criminals that served Batista during the war.

Later, Che would become an official of INRA (the National Institute of Agrarian Reform), that carried out one of the most extensive land reforms ever seen. Large plantations were seized from big (often foreign owned) businesses and given to the poor farmers that actually worked them. An Urban Reform was also carried out in which all rents were lowered so that no renter would have to spend more than 10% of their income on housing, and, after a few years, would receive ownership of it. The mansions of the rich were turned over to the servants that worked in them and the government bought up homes which weren’t being used (usually because the owners had several homes) and redistributed them to people in need of housing. U.S. owned casinos and houses of prostitution (so many in fact that Cuba was referred to as ‘the whore house of the Caribbean) were closed.

Che would go on to become President of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industries, positions from which he headed the major challenge of transforming Cuba’s backwards, colonial, capitalist plantation economy into a socialist industrialized economy. The U.S. government, angry that the socialist revolution had taken up the cause of the people over the interests of foreign-owned business, drastically cut back the amount of sugar that they purchased from Cuba (eventually imposing a full economic embargo, which stands to this day, even though it has been repeatedly condemned by all but 2 nations and deemed illegal by the United Nations), in an attempt to damage the Cuban economy. They also sabotaged buildings, farms, and factories, flew planes over the island dropping bombs, and attempted to assassinate Cuban leaders. Cuba however, would not be intimidated. Che negotiated a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 in which they agreed to buy all Cuban sugar at a price above the going rate. He also represented Cuba on many trade missions to nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Che played a major part in the reorganization of the Cuban economy along a socialist path, which enabled the country to eliminate homelessness, illiteracy, and unemployment in only a few years. He became well known as a hero of many for his fiery attacks on the United States imperialists’ foreign policy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

It was during this time that Che made many important theoretical contributions in his speeches, articles, letters, and essays. His book Guerrilla Warfare became highly influential, and was used as a guide by guerrilla movements throughout Latin America (unfortunately, many of the fighters, though very courageous, oversimplified the theories put forth in the book, eventually leading to their defeat). Groups like the FARC-EP, waging a decades long revolutionary struggle in Colombia, utilize many methods laid out in the book to this day. Man and Socialism in Cuba, put forth many of Che, and Cuba’s, greatest contributions. In it Che pointed out that liberation of humankind could only come about after the people first evolved into ‘new people’, concerned with the welfare of everyone as a whole over the welfare of themselves as individuals. This ‘evolution’ could only occur when the material conditions for it existed, namely, under socialism. Later, when the continuing world revolution, and the economic crises inherent to capitalism destabilized it, the need for the proletarian state would disappear and full liberation would finally exist in a society of equals without states or governments.

Che portrayed this ‘new man’ in his daily life. He spent his weekends and evenings volunteering in shipyards and textile factories or cutting sugarcane. He was known for his simple lifestyle, an example of which was when he refused a pay raise when he became a member of government, choosing instead to continue receiving the much lower salary he drew as a Comandante in the Rebel Army. In another famous example, when Che was served food on expensive china while dining with high-ranking officials from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during a trip to Russia, he asked the officials, “Is this how the working class lives in Russia?”

An attempted U.S. invasion, commonly known as ‘the Bay of Pigs’, and which was defeated in less than 72 hours, took place during Che’s time in the revolutionary government. The event lead Cuba to acquire nuclear missiles from the USSR in its own defense, which resulted in the “Cuban missile crisis” in 1962.

The Disappearance
After returning from a three-month tour of the People’s Republic of China, United Arab Republic, Algeria, Ghana, Mali, Dahomey, Congo-Brazzaville, and Tanzania in March of 1965, Che dropped out of public life and was not seen for some time.

Che’s whereabouts were the main question in Cuba throughout the year, and many rumors began to spread – including one started by enemies of the revolution that Che and Fidel had some sort of a split. This of course was not true at all, as would be proven later.

In an interview with foreign correspondents on November 1st, Castro said that he knew where Guevara was but could not disclose the location. He said that Che was “in the best of health”. Speculation however continued at the end of the year, and Che’s movements would have to be kept secret for the next two years.

During this time, an article written by Che was published in Tricontinental Magazine in which he called for complete support of the heroic Vietnamese people who were fighting against U.S. imperialist invaders, and urged comrades around the world to create “two, three, many Vietnams.”

In The Congo
In March of 1965 the decision was made that Che would lead a rebel force in support of the Marxist Simba movement in the former Belgian Congo (later Zaire and currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Africa.

Guevara worked with guerrilla leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, who had earlier helped supporters of the murdered prime minister Patrice Lumumba lead a revolt that was suppressed by the Congolese army and a large group of white mercenaries.

CIA advisors working with the Congolese army monitored Guevara’s communications, arranged ambushes against the rebels and the Cubans, and interrupted their supply lines. Che had planned to teach the local Simba fighters communist ideology and the strategies and tactics of guerrilla warfare; but, due to their incompetence, superstition, and internal feuds, he was unable to, and the revolt eventually failed. After seven months, Che, who was ill and suffering from debilitating bouts of asthma, finally left the Congo with the surviving members of his Cuban column (six had died in battle). Originally, Che refused to give up and planned to send the wounded back to Cuba and then stand alone, fighting to the end as a revolutionary example; but after much debating with his comrades in arms, and Fidel, he was finally persuaded to return. Guevara documented his experiences in his Congo Diaries (later published as The African Dream).

During his time in the Congo, Fidel had made public a farewell letter written to him in which Che officially severed his ties with Cuba in order to devote himself to revolutionary activities in other parts of the world. “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.”

After spending six months living underground in Dar-es-Salaam, Prague, and the German Democratic Republic, Che returned to Cuba, but only on a temporary basis for the few months needed to prepare another revolutionary effort, this time in Latin America.

Throughout 1966 and 1967 people continued to wonder where exactly Che was. Finally, in a speech at the 1967 May Day rally in Havana, Major Juan Almeida announced that Guevara was “serving the revolution somewhere in Latin America.” It would turn out that Che was leading a guerrilla army in Bolivia.

Che chose Bolivia after a 1964 coup triggered an outbreak in demonstrations, protests, strike by miners, and repression against leaders of leftist and other popular movements. When he and his comrades analyzed the situation, they saw that there was an opening for a guerrilla column made up of Bolivians, some Peruvians, and a group of well trained Cubans, to launch a revolutionary offensive. The plan was to create an international rebel army, that, after achieving victory in Bolivia, would spread the struggle to the rest of Latin America.

A piece of land was purchased in the jungles of the Nancahuazu by the Bolivian Communist party and turned over to Che for use as a training area. The Party originally pledged its full support and participation of its membership, but its leader, Mario Monjae, later decided against it after the struggle had already begun.

The rebel army, named the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional de Bolivia (National Liberation Army of Bolivia), was made up of about 50 well equipped guerrillas. They were able to launch a number of successful attacks against the Bolivian army in the mountainous Camiri region, despite the fact that it was being trained in jungle warfare and aided by U.S. Army Special Forces.

But problems, such as the refusal of the Communist Party of Bolivia to deliver expected assistance, materials, and reinforcements (the Party leadership went as far as to refuse to tell would-be volunteers how and where to join the guerrillas), eventually lead to some defeats. In September the Bolivian Army managed to eliminate two small groups of guerrillas.

Additionally, counter-revolutionary Cuban exiles with full CIA backing set up interrogation houses in which they tortured 300,000 Bolivians in search of supporters of Che and the guerrillas.

Capture and Assassination
To make matters worse a deserter betrayed the guerrillas and lead Bolivian Special Forces directly to them. On October 8th, their encampment was encircled and a shoot out took place. Che refused to surrender and was captured only after being shot in both knees and having his gun destroyed by a bullet.

Che was taken to a old schoolhouse where he was held overnight. On the next afternoon he was murdered by a sergeant in the Bolivian army while he was tied by his hands to a board. Before he was executed, Che said these last words: “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot coward! You are only going to kill a man.”

After a military doctor cut off Che’s hands, Bolivian army officers moved his body to an undisclosed location and refused to reveal if his remains had been buried or cremated.

CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, who also took part in the failed invasions of Cuba and Vietnam, took Che’s watch and still displays it to this day.

On October 15 Fidel Castro gave an emotional speech in which informed the world of Che’s death and proclaimed three days of public mourning in Cuba. The death was considered a severe blow to the revolutionary movement and deeply saddened oppressed people around the world.

The diary Che kept in Bolivia was removed when he was captured. In it, he documented the events of the guerrilla campaign. He wrote of how the guerrillas were forced to begin operation much earlier than they had planned due to discovery by the Bolivian Army. He also recorded the rift between the Bolivian Communist Party and himself, which resulted in the rebel army having far fewer soldiers and contacts than was originally expected. Che also wrote of his increasing illness towards the end of the campaign. His asthma was getting worse, and most of his last offensives were made simply to obtain medicine.

In 1997, Che’s skeletal remains were exhumed from beneath an air strip near Vallegrande, Bolivia, positively identified by DNA matching, and returned to Cuba. On October 17, 1997, his remains were laid to rest with full military honors in a specially built mausoleum, the Plaza Comandante Ernesto Guevara, in the city of Santa Clara, where he won the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution thirty-nine years earlier.

Legacy of a Revolutionary Hero
When Che’s murder was announced protests broke out throughout the world, and articles, books, poems and songs were written about his life, death, and message. Che is especially revered because of his spirit of self-sacrifice, illustrated by his choice to reject a comfortable life and instead join, and take up the cause of the worlds poor, oppressed majority. He never gave up that cause, continuing to give his all to the revolutionary struggle until his death.

The famous photo taken of Che by photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, which became one of the 20th centuries most recognizable images, has become a symbol of liberation for millions of people.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte called Che “the most complete human being of our age.” Ernesto “Che” Guevara was one of the most dedicated revolutionaries we have ever known. But his struggle is far from over. The oppressed masses of the world must continue to fight for freedom, justice, and equality through socialist revolution – the only way it can be achieved – as Che said, “Hasta la victoria, siempre!” [Forever, until victory!]

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