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 to Che Guevara, who
had been assassinated in Bolivia nine days before.
To the crowd gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution, Fidel Castro appraised
the significance of Che's life and death:
"Che died defending the interests of the 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 the deep youth radicalisation of the late '60s, Che became the movement's
symbolic leader. Students in France renamed the Latin American Studies Institute
the Che Guevara Institute during the upsurge at the Sorbonne in 1968.
Students in the USA put Che's face on placards at demonstrations against the
Vietnam War. Across Latin America, revolutionary fighters took up arms in his
name, and in Australia a small band of student radicals at Sydney University in
1968 declared Che their hero as they began the process of forming Resistance.
Che was the natural symbol of such a radicalisation because his revolutionary
convictions were expressed in a profoundly human way. Fighting to destroy the
old society, he was able to inspire people with a fresh vision of the new.
But Che was not just a romantic idealist. He helped to lead a successful
revolution and to shape a new society. Each new generation which bangs its head
against the horrors of capitalism has something to learn from Che.
Che was born in Argentina in 1928. As a young man, he began to study
medicine. He wanted to help the people through a career as a doctor. Two
motorbike tours through Latin America in 1951 and 1953 showed him the misery and
poverty that were the daily experience of so many. Could one doctor alone cure
all these people?
In 1953, political storms were brewing in Guatemala. In 1950, Jacobo Arbenz
had been elected president. He had started to carry out democratic political
reform. He liberalised labour laws, raised minimum wages, freed political
activity and started a policy of land reform.
In 1953 Arbenz expropriated uncultivated land owned by the United Fruit
Company. The US action was swift. On June 18 a military force equipped with US
fighter planes invaded from Honduras.
Revolutionaries in Guatemala called on Arbenz to arm the people. Arbenz did
not listen. Instead he used the standing army to drive out the invaders. This
did not alleviate the situation.
With the mercenary force collapsing, the US turned to right-wing elements in
the Guatemalan military and began agitating for a coup. On June 27 Arbenz caved
in to pressure and resigned, replaced by a right-wing military figure, who
quickly moved to outlaw political freedoms and reverse the economic reforms.
During this time Che had become convinced of the need for revolutionary
solutions to the problems of Latin America. He returned to the study of Marxism
in Guatemala and now began to describe himself as a Marxist.
From the failure of the Arbenz government, Che realised that US imperialism
was the chief enemy of the people of Latin America and that revolutionaries
could not rely on the state machine created by capitalist governments, even
progressive ones like that of Arbenz. The people would have to create their own
army, which would smash the old state and replace it with the strength of the
Che fled to Mexico, where he fell in with the political exile community. He
met Raul Castro and they became friends.
One cold night, Raul introduced Che to Fidel Castro. According to Che, they
stayed up all night talking, and by the morning Che had agreed to join Castro in
an expedition to Cuba: "In reality, after all my experiences all over
America, and the coup de grace in Guatemala, it did not take much to arouse my
interest in joining any revolution against tyranny ... I shared his optimism. It
was imperative to do something, to struggle, to achieve. It was imperative to
stop crying and fight."
The guerillas led by Fidel triumphed in January 1959. Remembering the lessons
of the Guatemalan experience, Castro and Che immediately disbanded the remnants
of the Batista military and police force. They established instead a people's
When bourgeois figures in the initial coalition government refused to
implement land reform, Fidel launched a mass campaign amongst the people,
supported by the trade unions. After a series of strikes and demonstrations, the
bourgeois leaders resigned.
Under Fidel, the government forged ahead with land reform and pro-worker
measures such as rent reductions and wage increases. By 1960 Cuba had begun to
implement a planned economy, and foreign and domestic capital had been
Che set about helping to build and organise a socialist society. One of the
issues which preoccupied him was how to develop a new humanity.
While travelling through Africa in 1965, Che put down some of his thoughts on
the construction of human nature in an article called "Man and Socialism in
A socialist society has to be built by human beings who have been shaped by
bourgeois ideology. Che argued that the leadership of the revolution has to
strive consciously to create new values. He warned against the danger of
pursuing the "chimera of achieving socialism with the aid of blunted
weapons left to us by capitalism".
He particularly stressed the role of young people, being brought up with the
values of the revolution, in helping build a new humanity.
As head of the national bank, and later director of industry, Che wrote a lot
about the planning of a socialist economy. His economic writings remain of great
Che was critical of the Soviet reliance on material incentives to increase
production. He felt this drove socialist society further away from its goal of
removing alienation and cemented capitalist methods of work.
Che argued that moral incentives had to be used as well during the
transitional period towards socialism. Voluntary work was promoted, and workers
were encouraged to try to build a new society in which work took on a new
Che regularly took to the countryside to set a personal example, cutting
cane, working as a stevedore, driving a farm tractor and working in the mines.
The 1960s were a period of deep tensions between the USA and the USSR. The
wars in Korea and then Vietnam had shown the lengths which the USA would go to
contain the threat of communism. In 1961 Cuba faced its own onslaught with the
US sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
In this climate, the USSR was pursuing a policy of "peaceful
coexistence" in which the interests of new revolutions were to be traded
for the security of the USSR.
Che and the Cubans rejected this insular view. For Che, the revolution did
not belong to any one country; it was an international movement. He continually
sought ways to extend the revolution throughout Latin America and the world.
Che called for a "proletarian internationalism" to unite
revolutionary fighters against imperialism. He was very inspired by the heroic
struggle of the Vietnamese people against the might of the US, calling for the
creation of "two, three, many Vietnams".
Che decided to leave Cuba at a time when the US aggression against Vietnam
was escalating. He wanted to help create a new revolutionary break on the
American continent which would end the isolation of Cuba and distract US
aggression from Vietnam.
Che went to Bolivia. Seventeen other Cuban revolutionaries followed him
there. A base camp was established by the guerillas in the jungle. They were
joined sometime later by a handful of Bolivian volunteers.
Che envisaged the Bolivian guerillas as an inspirational focal point for
revolutionary upheavals in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. Unfortunately, it was to
be otherwise. The Bolivian army, aided by the CIA, set out to crush Che and the
guerillas, who could not break out of their isolation, though they held on for
On October 8 Che and a small band of guerillas were surrounded. Che was shot
in the leg and captured. He was taken to a local school and interrogated. A CIA
agent asked Che, moments before a Bolivian soldier killed him, what he was
thinking about. Che answered, "the immortality of the revolution".
These were his last words.
Che remains a revolutionary leader of world importance. Perhaps his most
important contribution is the inspiration he provides to new generations of
radicals. He made his life the revolution.
Despite the efforts of imperialism to bury Che's legacy, 30 years after his death he remains an important symbol for those who have had enough of the poverty, exploitation and destruction that capitalism causes. In the small town in Bolivia were Che's body was taken after his murder, someone has written the slogan on a wall: "Che - alive as they never wanted you to be".
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