Ernesto "Che" Guevara was murdered on October 9, 1967 — shot in the head by a Bolivian soldier in the presence of the CIA. When the world's powerful cheered the brutal murder of the anti-imperialist and revolutionary socialist fighter, they hadn't considered that his murder would transform Che into a symbol of the global struggle against injustice. Since then his ideas and example have inspired countless others to join the struggle. Nowhere is this more clear now than in Venezuela.
The success of the recent film the Motorcycle Diaries, based Che's journey across Latin America as a young medical student, is a testament to his ongoing appeal. The film traces some of the key events in Che's life that transformed him into an angry rebel.
A central leader of the Cuban revolution, Che fought for the liberation of the oppressed, poverty stricken and exploited for the rest of his life. He opposed the Vietnam War, and supported the civil rights movement in the United States. In Cuba, the revolution brought a dramatic increase in equality, democracy and living standards. With free education and health care, Cuba is still a world leader in fighting poverty.
It isn't hard to see why Che retains his relevance. Across the world, the gap between the mega-rich and the poor majority has worsened. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development report on global inequality, the richest 225 people in the world have a combined wealth the equivalent of the combined annual income of the poorest 2.5 billion.
War for profit, and US global domination, once again threatens. The US is repeating the crimes it committed in Vietnam in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there is also struggle. In Venezuela, the elected government led by President Hugo Chavez is leading a popular process that is engaged in a life and death struggle to do away with poverty and to create a system of popular power, where the poor majority have real control.
Venezuela is a resource-rich nation. It is the fifth largest supplier of oil in the world and, according to the February 1 Wall Street Journal, the US depends on Venezuela for 11% of its oil imports. Despite this, by the time Chavez came to power in 1998, 80% of Venezuelans lived in poverty.
This was because Venezuela's oil industry, while nominally nationalised, had been, in effect, run as a private company. Its main beneficiaries were a tiny, corrupt elite inside Venezuela and the US oil corporations — for whom Venezuela was little more than a reliable source of cheap oil.
All this has begun to change. The government has begun an ambitious program to redistribute the nation's oil wealth to eradicate poverty. At the same time, the poor majority, encouraged by Chavez, who has repeatedly insisted on the need for "direct democracy", have begun organising on a mass scale in grassroots committees and popular assemblies so as to begin to win real control over their communities.
Health clinics are operating in the poor neighbourhoods for the first time; more than 3000 new schools have opened; illiteracy has been eradicated; 2 million people have access to fresh water for the first time; more homes have been built for the poor in two years than the previous 20 combined; and hundreds of thousands of previously landless peasants have won land titles to farm.
This has also been enabled, in part, by close collaboration between the Venezuelan and Cuban governments. In particular, 15,000 Cuban doctors have been brought in to staff many of the clinics.
Washington and the local elite have opposed this process from the start. On April 11, 2002, a group of military officers launched a coup that overthrew Chavez and installed the head of the Chamber of Commerce in power. The US government openly supported the coup and documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act and posted at the site <http://www.venezuelaFOIA.info> reveal the CIA was fully aware of the planned coup.
In the most inspiring example of people's power in recent times, loyal soldiers and the poor majority took to the streets in a popular uprising that, in just two days, forced the restoration of Chavez as president.
The evolving revolution in Venezuela faces many problems, and has plenty of contradictions. But it unquestionably has the support of the majority. This was confirmed in August, when a referendum on whether to recall Chavez was defeated, with 60% supporting the president. Poor neighbourhoods erupted in celebration at the results. An August 25 article on the Venezuela Analysis website quoted 28-year-old garbage collector William Rivas as saying: "I'm with Chavez until death. No other president has ever done so much for me."
Che's iconic image is seen across Venezuela, second only to Venezuela's national hero Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of South America from Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. Che's image adorns banners and flags at the mass demonstrations in support of the revolution and in popular assemblies across the country. Chavez regularly refers to the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ideas of Che Guevara to help explain the aims of the revolutionary process.
Speaking to a mass meeting of Spanish workers in Madrid on November 23, Chavez referred to the inspirational role of Che Guevara in the Venezuelan revolution and for him personally. Chavez spoke of his kidnapping during the 2002 military coup and how it was only the loyalty of the soldiers assigned to kill him that saved his life, saying "There, facing the death squad, I thought of Che...how men die".
As Washington's threats against Venezuela intensify, Venezuelans may have to also look to Che's example of guerrilla struggle. A February 16 article by Alan Woods on the Hands Off Venezuela website reports that the Peasant Conference in Defence of National Sovereignty and for Agrarian Revolution, held in early February "discussed the need for armed self-defence as well as the possibility of guerrilla warfare if there is a US invasion".
Che's determined opposition to US imperialism — to the domination of Latin America by US corporate interests — fits in perfectly with the aims of the Venezuelan revolution, which include achieving a continent-wide alliance against US domination. Chavez hammered this point home when speaking in January at the World Social Forum in Brazil. According to a January 20 Associated Press article, Chavez addressed tens of thousands of forum participants "sporting a red t-shirt embossed with a picture of the revolutionary Che Guevara".
Referring to Che as, "that Argentine doctor that travelled through the continent in a motorcycle and who was a witness of the US invasion of Guatemala in 1955, one of the many invasion of the US empire in this continent", Chavez reiterated a point that Che made time and again when he was alive. Chavez declared "capitalism can't be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism".
Chavez also joined Che in arguing for a humane socialism, not the grey bureaucratic dictatorship that went under the banner of "socialism" in the Soviet Union. Chavez stated, "We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything." These comments strongly echo the points made by Che in his famous article "Man and Socialism in Cuba".
It is most of all in this sense that Che is alive in Venezuela. It is not his symbol that is important, but his ideas, his courage and his belief that nothing is as important as human liberation. These are the ideas and sentiments that imbue the struggling Venezuelan people.
As the Venezuela revolution goes forward, it proves every day the old truism that you can kill the revolutionary, but never the revolution.
[Stuart Munckton is a member of the national executive of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, which is affiliated to the Socialist Alliance.]
From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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