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Che Guevara: a continuing inspiration

By Zanny Begg, 1997

[Zanny Begg is member of the Democratic Socialist Party (Australia)]

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 people. 

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." 

Building socialism

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 army. 

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 expropriated. 

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 Cuba". 

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 interest. 

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 meaning. 

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 seven months. 

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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