An icon for all time

Print edition : July 04, 2008

A 1959 photograph of Che Guevara playing golf, taken at Fidel Castros request, according to the photographer.-ALBERTO KORDA/GAMMA

The world remembers Che Guevara, the great revolutionary, on the occasion of his 80th birth anniversary.

JUNE 14, 2008, the 80th birth anniversary of the revolutionary icon Ernesto Che Guevara, was celebrated in many cities of the world. In New Delhi, a photo exhibition highlighting his visit to India in 1959 was held at the India International Centre: Che was in India soon after the 1959 Cuban revolution and met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other senior Indian leaders. Also on display were rare pictures of Ches diplomatic forays on behalf of Cubas revolutionary government in the late 1950s and the early 1960s to Asian countries such as Indonesia and China, Egypt and the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Until the cause of revolutionary internationalism beckoned him, Che held important portfolios in the Cuban government, including finance and foreign affairs.

Che was killed in action 40 years ago while fighting along with a guerilla army in the jungles of Bolivia. A Bolivian army unit trained by the Central Intelligence Agency captured Che and his band of guerillas after they ran out of ammunition. Che was then summarily executed on the CIAs direct orders. Che and his highly motivated band of guerillas had hoped to ignite a popular revolution in Bolivia and, eventually, in the rest of Latin America.

Ches 40th death anniversary was one of the most important events for Cubans last year. The top Cuban leadership assembled to pay homage to him in Santa Clara, the city he helped liberate during the struggle against the United States-backed dictatorship. Ramiro Valdes, one of Ches comrades-in-arms and counted among the three senior leaders of the revolution, emphasised on the occasion that Ches ideas and the legacy of his comrades would remain a living element among all Cubans.

Fidel Castro, paying tribute to his late comrade-in-arms, said that he bowed his head with respect and gratitude to the exceptional combatant. He described Che as a flower yanked prematurely from its stem. In an article that first appeared in the daily Granma, Castro also wrote that Che was the mastermind of voluntary work; he accomplished honourable political missions abroad and served as messenger of militant internationalism in East Congo and Bolivia. He built a new awareness in our America and the world. Castro concluded by reiterating that Che still fights with us and for us.

Che, as was evident from his writings and speeches, was inspired by the struggle of the Vietnamese against U.S. imperialism. In an undated message to the Organisation of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAL) and published in the Cuban magazine Tricontinental in 1966, Che wrote: How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its force under the sudden attack and the increased hatred of all peoples of the world. One, two, three Vietnams became one of Ches famous slogans.

In that article Che also wrote that true revolutionaries need not fear death: Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this our battle cry may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons and other men be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries for victory.

Ches death, in retrospect, was not at all in vain. His struggles in the jungles of Africa and Latin America were inspirations to guerilla struggles that followed. Ruthless U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes had only managed to stem the revolutionary upsurge temporarily.

Che, if he were alive, would have been happy to see the political map of Latin America today. The governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and, importantly, Bolivia, the country in which he laid down his life, all have a left-wing orientation. In the capitals of all the four countries, Ches death anniversary was observed in a big way. Bolivian President Evo Morales went to Vallegrande, 450 km from the capital La Paz, where Ches remains were secretly buried, to pay his respects. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez presided over a ceremony at Pico del Agila in western Venezuela, which Che visited 55 years ago.

Ches foray into Congo with a band of revolutionaries was another interesting episode in his short but eventful life. The CIA, which had assassinated the left-wing Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, soon after the country gained independence, despatched more than a thousand mercenaries to counter the Congolese guerillas led by Che. Ches ideas inspired other revolutionary movements on the continent.

Not many people know that Cuba played a key role in the revolutionary successes of the National Front of Algeria (FLN) in its struggle against French colonialism. Even more important was the role of Cuba in the victory of the Movimento Popular da Libertao de Angola (MPLA) in Angola and the triumph over apartheid in South Africa. The battle of Cueto Cuanavale in 1987-88 turned the tide against the racist South African government. A combined force of Cubans and Angolans defeated the South African army in that battle. White South Africas aura of invincibility was broken. After Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President, he was overheard telling Castro: You made this [freedom] possible.

Thousands of Cuban men and women, inspired by Che, had volunteered to fight in far-off African countries, such as Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, against Portuguese colonialism. South African President Thabo Mbeki, in an article in the African National Congress (ANC) journal to commemorate Ches death anniversary, paid lavish tributes to the revolutionary. Mbekis article quotes from official U.S. documents to prove Washingtons culpability in Ches killing.

Ches life was a testament to his commitment to the downtrodden. Che was born in a progressive Argentinean land-owning family in 1928. His early exposure to the profound inequalities in Latin America made him an avowed enemy of imperialism and the wealthy elite. He worked among the poor in many Latin American countries as a doctor. His stay in a colony of leprosy patients in Peru was documented in his travelogue Motor Cycle Diaries.

In 1954, when he was in Guatemala, he witnessed first hand the CIA-sponsored coup against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, and this had a big impact on his world view. In the same year, in Argentina the army overthrew the democratically elected government of Juan Peron, with the tacit support of the Americans. Che moved on to Mexico, where for the first time he came in contact with Castro in July 1955.

He was among the band of revolutionaries belonging to the July 26 Movement under the leadership of Castro, who boarded the Granma Yacht on November 25, 1956, to begin the struggle against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and restart the war of independence. Granma reached Cuba on December 2, 1956. Within a year, Castro, recognising Ches potential as a fighter and a revolutionary, appointed him commander of Column No. 8 of the liberation army.

Hed be the first for any mission. He was characterised by an extraordinary bravery, an absolute contempt for danger, Castro told Ignacio Ramonnet (Castros recently released book My Life).

Che participated in many heroic battles, including the battle of Santa Clara of December 31, 1958, which was a turning point in the struggle. On January 1, 1959, Castro ordered Che and his troops to march to Havana after receiving news that Fulgencio Batista had run away from the country. On February 7, 1959, Che was formally given Cuban citizenship.

In My Life, Castro reminisces about the days when he first came into contact with Che, whom he describes as first and foremost an internationalist. Castro tells Ramonnet, who is the editor of the book, that Che had only one request when he enlisted for the struggle to liberate Cuba.

The only thing I ask is that when the revolution triumphs in Cuba, you not forbid me, for reasons of the state, from going to Argentina to make a revolution there, Che told Castro, who immediately agreed. The subject, according to Castro, was never broached again until Che decided to leave, not for his native Argentina but for Congo.

At the Delhi airport. Che visited India in 1959, soon after the revolution in Cuba.-COURTESY: EMBASSY OF CUBA

Che went on to become one of Cubas central figures during the formative years of the revolution. In the initial years, he played a key role in bringing about agrarian reforms, eradicating illiteracy, and nationalising all American-owned property in the island. Before the revolution, Cuba was virtually a colony of the U.S. and a playground for the mafia and the rich and the famous of America.

As Cubas first Finance Minister, Che initiated radical reforms of the kind unheard of in Latin America and the Caribbean at the time. Though without any formal training in economics, Che had a fine grasp of the subject and presided over the liquidation of American capital in the island.

There is a story surrounding the circumstances of his appointment to the post. Immediately after the revolution, Castro, at a meeting, asked whether any of his comrades was an economist. Che was the first to raise his hand and was immediately appointed Governor of the Central Bank. He casually signed the new banknotes as Che. A couple of days later, Castro told Che: I did not know you were an economist. Che answered, I thought that you were asking whether I was a Communist.

Ches sense of humour is exemplified by another story this correspondent heard in Havana. Che, who was asthmatic, was told by his doctor to restrict his smoking to one cigar a day. Che immediately agreed and from then on started smoking a cigar that was a foot long.

By 1964, Che was restless with his desk job. He had also become convinced that the Cuban revolution could only thrive if like-minded governments emerged in Latin America and other parts of the world. In his farewell letter to Castro, written on April 1, an emotional Che wrote: I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory, and I say farewell to you, to the comrades, to the people, who now are mine.

Che was nostalgic about his relationship with Castro. I have lived magnificent days, and at your side I felt the pride of belonging to our people in the brilliant yet sad days of the Caribbean Missile Crisis. Seldom has a statesman been as brilliant as you were in those days. I am also proud of having followed you without hesitation, of having identified with your ways of thinking and of seeing and appraising dangers and principles.

After Che left on his mission to Africa and Latin America, there was feverish speculation in the Western media about alleged differences between Castro and Che. It was only after Ches death that it became clear that his mission was undertaken with Castros full support and knowledge.

Che ended his last letter to Castro by emphasising his identification with the foreign policy of our revolution. Wherever I am, I feel the responsibility of being a Cuban revolutionary, and I shall behave as such. I am not sorry that I leave nothing material to my wife and children; I am happy it is that way. I ask nothing for them, as the state will provide them with enough to live on and provide an education.

In a speech delivered on Ches 30th death anniversary, Castro said that as long as injustice, exploitation, poverty and hegemony continued to expand, Ches image would only grow. Che, he said, was a paradigm of a revolutionary and a communist.

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