Who was the real Che Guevara?

Issue 

By Chris Atkinson

His image is widely recognised, but most people know little about his incredible life. This is no accident. Che's life is a story of a commitment to fighting all the values that capitalist consumer society imposes. Che's image evokes a bold, determined rebelliousness in people around the world. Unable to bury that sentiment, corporations have attempted to repossess and commodify Che and thereby tame him. They haven't yet succeeded.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara's youth was one of adventure and discovery. Although he grew up in a relatively affluent family in Argentina and studied medicine, he spent much of his youth travelling across Latin America.

When Che finished his medical degree he left Argentina, ostensibly to go to Venezuela to work in a leper colony. He was really searching for deeper answers to the questions that were nagging at him. His travels had shown him the misery and poverty that were the daily experience of so much of Latin America. Could one doctor cure all these people?

Towards the end of 1953, political storms were brewing in Guatemala. In 1950 a leftist military commander, Jacobo Arbenz, had been elected president and started to carry out political reform. He liberalised labour laws, raised minimum wages, ended repression of political activity and started a policy of land reform. The United States was worried.

In 1953 Arbenz expropriated hundreds of thousands of hectares of uncultivated land owned by the US United Fruit Company. US response was swift. An arms embargo was established and technical assistance withdrawn. By November 1953, all ships docking in Guatemala were being searched by the US army.

On June 18, 1954, a military force equipped with US fighter planes invaded from Honduras. Revolutionaries in Guatemala called on Arbenz to arm the people to repel the aggression, but he refused. Instead Arbenz used the Guatemalan standing army to drive out the invading force. Its success did not alleviate tensions in the country.

With the mercenary force collapsing, the US turned to right-wing elements in the military and began agitating for a coup. On June 27 Arbenz caved in and resigned as president. He was replaced by a right-wing military figure, Colonel Monzon.

Che's political activities in Guatemala brought him to the attention of the CIA, which put him on its list of dangerous communists to be liquidated. This information was leaked to the Argentinean embassy, which offered Che asylum.

From the failure of the Arbenz government in Guatemala, Che learned two important things. He realised that US imperialism was the chief enemy of the people of Latin America and that revolutionaries could not rely on the state machine or capitalist governments, even progressive ones like that of Arbenz.

The Guatemalan tragedy convinced Che of the need for revolutionary solutions to the problems of Latin America. He now described himself as a Marxist and argued that Arbenz should have armed the people against US-sponsored aggression.

Che fled the failed revolution and went to Mexico. There he met the exiled Cuban revolutionaries Fidel and Raul Castro. They talked all night, and by the morning Che had agreed to join Castro in a revolutionary 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", he said.

In 1956, 82 militants crowded onto a small sailing yacht, the Granma, and headed for Cuba. Their landing in the southern Oriente province was supposed to coincide with an uprising. But the expedition seemed like madness. Eighty-two roughly trained and poorly armed guerillas, crammed into a 12-person boat, hoping to take on the might of the US-backed Cuban army. How could they hope to win?

Cuba was seething, ripe for revolution. Fulgencio Batista had come to power in Cuba through a military coup in 1952; he was Uncle Sam's man in Havana.

US corporations dominated the Cuban economy. US companies controlled 80% of Cuba's utilities, 90% of its mines, 100% of its oil refineries, 40% of the sugar industry and 90% of the cattle ranches. This brought little wealth to the Cuban people: 50% did not have electricity, 40% were illiterate, and 95% of the children in rural areas suffered from poverty-related diseases.

Batista did his best to crush any worker, peasant or student opposition. Between 1952 and 1959, 20,000 Cubans were assassinated by Batista's henchmen.

The Granma was attacked as it landed by Batista's army; only 12 of those on board survived. Castro, Che and the others fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains and established a base camp. There they started to rebuild the Rebel Army and a new political party, the July 26 Movement.

Castro's strategy relied on winning support from the local peasants and building a base of opposition first in Oriente. As the rebels started to win more battles against Batista's army, the peasants started to lend their support. The Rebel Army's program of land reform won it much admiration. By 1958 peasants had started to join the ranks of the Rebel Army, swelling its numbers.

While the Rebel Army's strongest supporters were amongst the peasantry, the movement also sought to win support from the urban working class and from agricultural workers. The July 26 Movement infiltrated the cities and began organising the workers in secret. In April 1958 it called a general strike but the rebels had neither sufficient support, nor were they sufficiently organised, and the strike failed.

Taking advantage of the popular demoralisation that followed, Batista amassed an army of 10,000 at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in May 1958 in a final attempt to exterminate the rebels. Castro commanded 300 troops. For 36 days Batista's soldiers pushed the Rebel Army back. By August 18, however, Batista's offensive had collapsed. The guerillas were unbeatable in the mountains, and Batista's soldiers just didn't want to fight any more.

The rebels counterattacked, sending two guerrilla columns to capture new ground. One was led by Che. By October the rebels had established a base in the Escambray mountains, in the middle of the country, under Che's command. They also held another base in the Sierra Cristal mountains, where Raul Castro implemented land reform and liberated an area with half a million inhabitants.

By 1958 the rebels had grown from a guerilla unit into a mass army. In November Castro's troops came down from the mountains and struck out for Santiago, Cuba's second largest city. In December Che marched into Santa Clara, greeted by a popular uprising organised by the July 26 Movement.

On January 1, 1959, Batista saw the writing on the wall and fled Cuba with US$7 million in his suitcase. His military officers declared a new government. Castro responded by calling a second general strike. This time the strike was complete, showing strong working-class support for the rebels. On January 2 Castro marched into Santiago and Che marched into Havana. Cuba was liberated.

In the new revolutionary government, Che was in charge of reorganising industry and agriculture. Just five months after the overthrow of Batista, Che introduced a law ordering all properties larger than 990 acres (400 hectares) to be redistributed amongst landless peasant cooperatives and compelling all landowners to work their land themselves. He helped set up free schools across Cuba and launched a voluntary literacy campaign that gave Cuba a higher literacy rate than the US.

Che stressed the importance of young people in the revolutionary struggle. Speaking to the Union of Young Communists in 1962, he said, "You, compañeros, must be the vanguard of all movements, the first to be ready to make sacrifices demanded by the revolution, whatever they might be".

He became the international spokesperson for the revolution, actively helping to build revolutionary movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He made a number of visits to the USSR, but was not afraid to publicly criticise its government's bureaucratic nature.

The extent of Che's commitment to internationalism was most clearly demonstrated in 1965, when he formally resigned from his government positions and went to assist new revolutionary movements in person, first in the Congo and then in Bolivia.

It was there, in 1967, that Che was captured by the CIA-backed Bolivian army and murdered at the age of 39. But by then his name and reputation had been established, and his face was to appear on flags and placards from that time on as a personification of revolution.