The legacy of Che Guevara

Richard Gott looks at the relevance of Che Guevara’s thought and action to Latin America today.
Che Guevara

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The face on the t-shirt is fading, the statue in the working-class suburb of Santiago has been torn down by the military dictatorship in Chile, but still the ghost of Guevara haunts the Latin American continent. ‘History has shown that Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara was right,’ said a Peruvian delegate to a highly respectable United Nations conference in Mexico in June. The Peruvian, the deputy foreign minister of a military regime with some claim to be regarded as progressive, was recalling the moment when Guevara stood up on behalf of Cuba at the founding conference of the Alliance for Progress in Uruguay in 1961 and demanded justice for countries producing raw materials. Now, 13 years later, that dramatic outburst – once so in advance of its time – has become the commonplace of all Third World discussions.

The great general

Has Guevara, then, become absorbed into the mythology of the ruling élites in Latin America? Will he end up like poor Simon Bolivar, as a statue in London’s Belgrave Square, with assorted oligarchs bowing and scraping before his stone toga? That danger is there. The ideas of many men, revolutionary in their day, have ended up as the ideological prop of the most despicable regimes – and Guevara must run that risk. Already the pro-Soviet tendency in Cuba in the 1970s has led that government to downplay Guevara’s profound distrust for the Soviet Union and his contempt for Latin America’s communist parties – a contempt that grew with the years.

Without denigrating present-day Cuba, there is no doubt that Cuban society is not what Guevara hoped and planned for, nor is Cuba moving in that direction.

Perhaps partly for that reason, and also because many of his ideas were fundamentally subversive, Guevara will never be clasped convincingly to the breast of any future conservative establishment. His name will continue to be inscribed on the banners of revolt. As with Trotsky, to whom he bears more than a surface resemblance (though ‘Guevarism’ and ‘Trostkyism’ are by no means the same thing), he was a professional revolutionary. Military strategy was one of the principal things in which the two men excelled.

War and medicine

Inevitably Guevara’s fame as an exponent of the strategy and tactics of rural guerrilla war has taken precedence over other aspects of his achievement. Yet, like Trotsky, Guevara was a revolutionary theorist of considerable talent, and his writings on culture, politics and revolution are all of interest and relevance. For example, his views on socialist medicine were way ahead of their time for a small Caribbean island in 1960.

‘The fight against disease should be based on the principle of creating a robust body, but this cannot be done by the artistic work of a physician on a weak organism. Rather, the creation of a robust body is done with the work of the whole community. Medicine will one day have to become a science that serves to prevent disease and orients the public toward carrying out its medical duties. Medicine should intervene only in extremely urgent cases, to perform surgery or something else which lies outside the skills of the people of the new society we are creating.’

Ardent internationalist

Yet Guevara’s life began in a very humdrum middle-class way in a provincial town in Argentina. He trained to become a doctor, the traditional ‘respectable’ way for the middle class to make money in the Third World rat race. Inspired by wanderlust as much as anything, he set off on his travels through Latin America. This in itself was a rare thing to do. Unlike the youth of Europe, who for long have thought nothing of hitching all over the continent before they’re 18, the sons of the Latin American middle class are, for the most part, a stay-at-home breed. They visit Paris and New York before they go to neighbouring capitals. Guevara was an exception. Finally, in Mexico in 1956, he met Fidel Castro and a long revolutionary partnership began. It was only to end, 11 years later, in October 1967, when Guevara was assassinated in Bolivia.

Guevara saw the development of history in continental, indeed in global, terms. He ignored frontiers, starting a guerrilla war in Bolivia in 1967 that was designed to spill over into all the neighbouring countries of Latin America. He was an ardent internationalist:

‘Let the flag under which we fight be the sacred cause of redeeming humanity so that to die under the flag of Vietnam, of Venezuela, of Guatemala, of Laos, of Guinea, of Colombia, of Bolivia, of Brazil – to name only a few scenes of today’s armed struggle – will be equally glorious and desirable for an American, an Asian, an African, or even a European.’

Guevara, an Argentinean by birth, put his internationalism into practice by fighting, first in Cuba then in Bolivia. In Cuba, where he was perhaps the most brilliant soldier in Castro’s army, he was deeply impressed by the crucial support given to the rebel army by the peasants of the Sierra Maestra. It coloured his judgement on the issue of revolutionary war and from a very early stage he seems to have had hopes of turning the Andes mountains into the Sierra Maestra of the Latin American continent. In the government of revolutionary Cuba he was given important tasks: President of the Central Bank, Minister of Industries, and itinerant advocate of revolution and Third World solidarity. But it was clear that his heart was in Latin America itself, and he was always looking forward to the revolutionary struggle that he knew would have to be waged.

Danger from the North

He identified the enemy as colonialism and imperialism on a global scale, and he believed that the continents of the Third World had a vital role to play in undermining the material base of the capitalist system:

‘The responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped world,’ he wrote in his Message to the Tricontinental, ‘is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism – our oppressed nations, from which they extract capital, raw materials, cheap technicians, and common labour, and to which they export new capital (an instrument of domination), arms, and every kind of article, submerging us in absolute dependence.’

Perhaps more than any other Latin American of his generation, Guevara was concerned and knowledgeable about Asia and Africa. He frequently wrote and talked about their problems, and was an early exponent of the need for Third World solidarity. But as a Latin American, he inevitably had a much clearer idea than an African or an Asian might have of the menace posed by the United States. Africans and Asians had a collective oppression in which British and French, Dutch and Belgians, played the dominant role. Only in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War, did the United States become recognized as a global menace. But to a Latin American, living for a century and half in the ‘backyard’ of the United States, the northern colossus has always historically been the enemy – to a Cuban more than anyone else. Inevitably much of Guevara’s writings and political energies were directed towards convincing Third World colleagues of the particular danger of United States imperialism. At the founding conference of the Alliance for Progress in 1961, and again at the founding conference of UNCTAD in 1964, Guevara spoke eloquently on behalf of Cuba, urging solidarity and warning of the danger of the North American bearing gifts.

He lived through a particularly black moment for Latin America. In the early 1960s, Cuba was isolated and alone. All Latin American governments threw in their lot with the United States. American money poured into the continent, not to ‘develop’ it but to create a sizeable privileged middle class, with the tastes and values of the middle class of the United States. And, in so doing, an antibody to revolution was injected into the very heart of Latin American society.

Guevara lived in an era when the full counter-revolutionary implications of ‘aid’ and the Alliance for Progress had not yet become apparent, but he sensed what was happening and denounced it. He never had illusions about the immensity of the task he had set himself when he embarked again on a guerrilla campaign:

‘The present moment,’ he wrote in his famous Message to the Tricontinental, published early in 1967, ‘may or may not be the proper one for starting the struggle, but we cannot harbour any illusions – we have no right to do so – that freedom can be obtained without fighting.’

But fighting brings its own problems. Guevara hoped to inveigle the Americans into unfamiliar territory. He saw correctly that the Americans could not indefinitely fight an unpopular war, as in Vietnam, far from home in countries where nationalist resentment was bound to be stirred up against them. He hoped that guerrilla rebellions would spark off further American intervention, as in Vietnam or in Santo Domingo, that would provoke a new wave of nationalism that the Americans would be unable to resist.

No longer a viable alternative

Curiously enough, that wave of nationalism has been sweeping over Latin America since his death, but not in the form he predicted. It has emerged in the most unlikely places: in the armed forces of Peru and Panama; in the bourgeois society of Allende’s Chile; in the sophisticated metropolis of Buenos Aires; and now, most recently, in the oil capital of Caracas.

Guevara, a principled revolutionary, might well have dismissed these timid movements towards national independence as merely a new imperialist device to keep Latin America safe for American capitalism. In the long run, perhaps they are, but the rural guerrilla strategy – indissolubly linked with the name of Guevara – can no longer put itself forward as a viable alternative.

In the 1960s, students took to the hills all over Latin America expecting to find the same co-operation from the peasants that Castro and Guevara had found in the Sierra Maestra. In some places they had some success, but overall the rural guerrilla strategy can now be judged a failure. At the simplest, the reasons for this are obvious: the counter-revolution perfected its techniques of counter-insurgency long before the guerrillas were able to improve their own understanding of the needs of revolutionary war. But perhaps the most important consideration is that a guerrilla war needs people. The guerrilla fighter cannot swim like a fish in the sea – in Mao’s phrase – if there are no people among whom to swim. And in Latin America, unlike Asia, there are few people. The population explosion is affecting the towns rather than the countryside, and whereas much of Asia will always have the bulk of its population in the rural areas, Latin America is each year becoming more urban. In many countries the urban population now outstrips the rural.

A sense of identity

Latin America is changing visibly. A greater sense of nationalism is helping to create a new sense of identity that rejects the values of the United States. But at the same time it is making things more difficult for international movements based on socialism, communism or Christian Democracy. Nationalism often degenerates into a kind of narrow chauvinism. Guevara’s tactics for much of the continent now seem unsuitable. Sparking off peasant rebellion, and benefiting from it politically, are two things not easily achieved.

But Guevara remains a figure of such – almost religious – luminosity that there is no likelihood of his example being forgotten. Where his specific advice is ignored, his more general statements will be remembered, of which perhaps his more important should be inscribed on the desks of all those involved with the Third World:

‘In envisaging the destruction of imperialism, it is necessary to identify its head – which is none other than the United States of America.’

The author of this article, Richard Gott, was in Bolivia on the day Che Guevara died. He was the first journalist to make positive identification of his body. At the time he was doubling as the Latin American correspondent to The Guardian and research fellow at the Institute of International Studies, Santiago, Chile. He left Chile in 1970 to become foreign editor of the Tanzanian Standard. He returned to London in 1972 and since then has been writing books, contributing to The Guardian, and has been a member of the editorial staff of the Latin America newsletter.