By Gloria La Riva and Richard Becker
Thirty years ago--on Oct. 8, 1967--Ernesto "Che" Guevara, one of the greatest revolutionaries in history, was captured in battle in the Bolivian jungle. He was leading Bolivian and Cuban guerrillas whose goal was to liberate that country's people from oppression.
The next day Bolivian troops executed him, at the direction of the CIA.
All over the world, millions of people are commemorating the anniversary of Che's death--and celebrating his exemplary life--in marches, rallies and other events. In Chile, 85,000 people participated in a concert and rally.
Cuba, whose people embraced him as their own, is honoring him with a year of remembrance.
Revolutionaries the world over greatly admired Che for his courage as a guerrilla leader. He inspired many with his life of valor and sacrifice.
Che, along with Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban revolution, was seen as a hero for the oppressed peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia.
This is why countless CIA assassinations were plotted against Fidel Castro. This is why the U.S. government was determined to extinguish the life of Che Guevara.
Who was Che Guevara? How did he, an Argentinean doctor, become a "Cuban by birth" and die in Bolivia?
EARLY TURNING POINT
He was born June 14, 1928, in Argentina, one of four children of Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna. His parents were progressive and involved in various political campaigns.
Che was a product of the political ferment and anti- imperialism of the 1940s in Latin America. As a young person he identified ardently with the idea of a united continent, independent of the United States. Later he would give his life for this dream.
Che entered medical school, and obtained his degree in 1953.
During his school years he journeyed twice through Latin America. In December 1951 he traveled through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. This trip was recorded in his diary, recently published in English as "The Motorcycle Diaries."
Che was moved by the stunning poverty he encountered. It created in him an intense desire to do away with injustice and misery--although it was only later that he would understand how to do it.
In Chile, he and his friend Alberto met two very poor communists on the road. They were searching for work. "The couple, numb with cold, huddling together in the desert night, were a living symbol of the proletariat the world over. They didn't have a single miserable blanket to sleep under, so we gave them one of ours, and Alberto and I wrapped the other round us as best we could. It was one of the coldest nights I've ever spent ... ."
In every country he saw the oppressive rule of the United States. He wrote: "[Chile] has the mineral resources to make it a powerful industrial country. The main thing Chile has to do is to get its tiresome Yankee friend off its back, a Herculean task ... given the huge U.S. investment and the ease with which it can bring economic pressure to bear whenever its interests are threatened."
His stay in Guatemala in 1953 and 1954 was a turning point. The U.S. government, through the Central Intelligence Agency, was preparing to overthrow the bourgeois nationalist President Jacobo Arbenz.
Arbenz had nationalized United Fruit Co.'s immense land holdings. The CIA unleashed a fierce destabilization campaign called "Operation Success."
Che already considered himself a Marxist. The lessons of the coup proved to him in practice what he had studied in theory. Che tried to send a message to Arbenz urging him to arm the people against the U.S.-proxy invasion. Che himself joined a militia.
Years later, in a speech to newly graduated Cuban doctors after the 1959 revolution, he said: "I began to look into what I needed to be a revolutionary doctor. I was then in Guatemala. However, the aggression came, the aggression unleashed by the United Fruit Co., the State Department, John Foster Dulles, and the puppet they put in named Castillo Armas.
"Then I realized one fundamental thing: to be a revolutionary doctor or to be a revolutionary, there must first be a revolution."
THE CUBAN REVOLUTION
Meanwhile, in Cuba, dramatic events were unfolding. Fidel Castro and a group of rebels had attacked the Moncada military barracks of the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, on July 26, 1953. Fidel and Rastlgl Castro and others were imprisoned for leading the assault.
Che made it into Mexico in the fall of 1954 as the repression was unleashed in Guatemala. The next year, the Castro brothers went into exile in Mexico after their release from prison in Cuba.
It was there that Che met first Rastlgl, and later, Fidel. They developed an immediate bond.
In their first encounter, Fidel expressed his determination to return to Cuba to launch a revolutionary war. He asked Che to join their group, and Che immediately agreed.
Right afterwards, Che wrote: "yenico [an exiled Cuban revolutionary in Guatemala] was right when he told us that if Cuba had produced anything good since Mart! it was Fidel Castro. He will make the revolution. We are in complete accord. ... It's only someone like him I could go all out for."
In training for the guerrilla war they would soon launch, Che stood out in his abilities and discipline despite suffering from terrible asthma attacks.
From the time the rebels landed in Cuba in December 1956 until the victory over Batista, Che proved to be an outstanding military leader. Fidel quickly made him a leader of the rebel group, now known as the July 26 Movement.
Later Che would become a full commander, the top rank granted to only a few. Like Fidel, Che was greatly respected by his comrades--and loved by the campesinos who sheltered them and joined the rebel force.
Survival and victory required tremendous sacrifice and hard work. With almost nothing, Che led the construction of a guerrilla village carved out of the jungle.
To build the hospital, shoe shop, tin shop, printing press, school, store, bakery and more, Che had to demand a great deal from the campesinos who had joined in the fight.
One peasant, Feliciano Rosabeles, who along with his wife and four children joined the guerrillas, said of Che, "He was so demanding of himself that it seemed normal to everyone that he should also be demanding of his soldiers." This was to be one of Che's outstanding characteristics until the end of his life.
After two years of fighting, the rebels were winning. It was decided to take Santa Clara, a city of 150,000 in Las Villas province.
Che and Camilo Cienfuegos were the military leaders in this attack, which was the decisive battle of the revolution. Che's column had only 340 soldiers to fight thousands of Batista's now-demoralized troops when he launched the attack on Dec. 29, 1958.
A fierce fight lasting three days ended in a disastrous rout for the government's forces. At the same time, forces led by Fidel seized Santiago de Cuba.
These defeats forced Batista to flee the country on Jan. 1, 1959. The revolution had triumphed.
Now, the long and difficult task of building a new Cuba began. Immediately, rents and utility rates were cut in half. Racial discrimination was banned. Land was given to the peasants.
One month after the revolution, Che was proclaimed a citizen of Cuba "by birth" for his role in the revolution. In October 1959, he was designated head of the Department of Industry.
The next month he was named president of the national bank. His role in Cuba's economic development was second only to that of Fidel Castro.
Cuba's economy was reoriented in an increasingly radical direction from 1959 to 1961. U.S.-owned sugar plantations, refineries, mines and factories were nationalized. Washington responded with economic sanctions, sabotage, and, in April 1961, the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, which was quickly crushed.
At the height of the invasion, Fidel declared that Cuba was fighting to defend its socialist revolution.
As head of the national bank, Che played a key role in the socialist transformation of Cuba. He was anything but a typical bank president.
In his speeches and writings, Che emphasized the role of consciousness and collective (or moral) vs. individual incentives in the construction of the new socialist society.
Voluntary labor, Che and other leaders argued, was of particular importance. And the revolutionary vanguard could not just preach. They were required to take the lead in self-sacrifice, providing an example for everyone.
So, despite their overwhelming responsibilities as leaders of a new and besieged revolutionary state, Che, Fidel and others put in hundreds of hours cutting sugar cane, and working in factories, warehouses and construction sites.
Che's contributions to Cuba's revolution alone would have guaranteed him a revered place in history. But he, like the other Cuban leaders, was dedicated to the liberation not only of Cuba, but of all the world's oppressed.
In 1965, Che secretly left Cuba for the Congo. After gaining its independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo had been plunged into civil war and invaded by several imperialist powers under the flag of the United Nations. The CIA assassinated Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister.
Revolutionary forces continued the struggle, and they were joined by Che and 100 Cuban volunteers. Che remained in the Congo for eight months.
When Che disappeared from view, rumors circulated in the world capitalist press that he had had a falling out with Fidel, and might even have been killed in a "power struggle."
After months of this, Fidel responded, "The only thing I can tell you about Commander Guevara is that he will always be where he is most useful to the revolution."
In December 1965, Che returned secretly to Cuba. He began training a group of volunteers to go to Bolivia.
Traveling in disguise, he arrived in Bolivia in October 1966. In March 1967 he launched a guerrilla struggle in that country.
Before leaving Cuba, Che had written an historic message "from somewhere in the world." The statement said in part: "Let us develop genuine proletarian internationalism with international proletarian armies. Let the flag under which we fight be the sacred cause of the liberation of humanity, so that to die under the colors of Vietnam, Venezuela, Guatemala, Laos, Guinea, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil--will be equally glorious and desirable for a Latin American, an Asian, an African, and even a European.
"Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear, if another hand reaches out to take up our arms."
In this message, Che called for creating "two, three, many Vietnams." This was at the height of the U.S. war against Vietnam and the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people.
Che's strategy to aid the Vietnamese was to spread the liberation war and thereby force the imperialists to spread and weaken their forces.
The guerrilla campaign in Bolivia had early victories. But it increasingly drew the attention and wrath of the Pentagon and CIA. Washington made it a top priority to destroy the incipient guerrilla army and its leader.
Despite the overwhelming odds, the guerrillas fought with great determination. But on Oct. 8, 1967, they were surrounded.
After a fierce battle, most of the guerrillas were killed or captured. Che was wounded in the legs. His wounds were not life-threatening.
That night, U.S. and Bolivian authorities made their decision. On Oct. 9, Che was executed.
Nine days later, Oct. 18, 1967, Fidel Castro spoke to a rally of over a million people gathered in Havana to pay tribute to Che. Declaring Oct. 8 the "Day of the Heroic Guerrilla," he said: "As a revolutionary, a communist revolutionary, a true communist, Che had a boundless faith in moral values. He had a boundless faith in the consciousness of human beings. ...
"Che died defending no other interest, no other cause than the cause of the exploited and oppressed of this continent. Che died defending no other cause than the cause of the poor and humble of this earth. ...
"Before history, people who act as he did, people who do and give everything for the cause of the poor, grow in stature with each passing day and find a deeper place in the heart of the peoples with each passing day."
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the October 16, 1997
issue of Workers World newspaper
Thu, 9 Oct 97
|Back to the main index|