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Mike Gonzalez

The Resurrections of Che Guevara

(December 1997)

From International Socialism 2 : 77, December 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Y aquí se queda la clara
la entrañable transparencia
tu querida presencia
comandante Che Guevara

(Carlos Puebla)


And here we see it clearly
your much loved visibility
your dear presence
commander Che Guevara

The beloved presence

Che lives, not only in the memory of those who lived through the 1960s, but in the imagination of many people who know little or nothing about his life or his politics. His present incarnation is full of ambiguities. In Cuba the return of his disinterred bones was celebrated in a carefully staged ceremonial. Che’s face is everywhere – on every public building, lit up in neon profile and on huge hoardings on the intercity highways, accompanied by slogans urging sacrifice and firmness in the face of the enemy. In almost every Cuban house garish water colour versions of Che’s face are often the only picture on blue-washed walls – sometimes he sits beside the Virgen de la Guardia, patron madonna of Cuba. At the same time his face is a commodity in a tawdry market of cheap souvenirs, gracing T-shirts and mugs, wooden mosaics and leather purses. Those who wear the pins and badges with such obvious delight have bought an image of Cuba, not a political symbol. In this latest resurrection Che is an icon taken out of his time.

Yet in other incarnations there is a political resonance embedded in the bearded face capped by a beret with a single star. The Zapatista rising in Mexico adopted Guevara as a precedent and an example. [1] In Caracas in the early 1990s Guevara reappeared among the banners carried in a series of urban riots against price rises. In Italy political demonstrations in 1995 and 1996 carried Che’s image.

What he represented for this new generation of disaffected youth was hard to establish. Whereas the resurgence of Malcolm X as a symbolic figure was reflected in Spike Lee’s film, as yet there has been no obvious media reappropriation of Che. [2] In the 1960s Guevara was associated with a wave of anti-colonial struggle, especially its most popular representatives, Vietnam and Cuba. Among Western intellectuals Che came to represent an idealised anti-imperialist, a fighter of exemplary purity. But his fate in the intervening years was uneven; he was not a constant symbol, and even his role in Cuban iconography varied greatly.

Today, when Che’s image occupies every vacant public advertising space, it is easy to forget that for a decade his memory was quite systematically underplayed by the Cuban government. Why it was reborn in the 1990s is the theme of what follows – but it can be asserted that the official rehabilitation of Che has had much to do with the ideological needs of a Cuban regime under siege. To some extent (and a limited one) his reappearance on the international scene was an echo of what was happening inside Cuba; but Cuba’s impact on the world was far more limited in the 1990s and its authority was significantly weakened. So the rediscovery of Che beyond Cuba has other origins, perhaps in the search among new movements of resistance robbed by the collapse of Stalinism for a political tradition which could provide a symbolic language of resistance.

In that political vacuum very few figures have been rediscovered who for one reason or another were not associated with that discredited past. Malcolm X was recuperated; so were ignored feminist revolutionaries from Sojourner Truth to Louise Michel. And Che Guevara emphatically returned. It is now clear from John Lee Anderson’s exhaustive biography that Che did consider himself a Marxist and place himself in a revolutionary tradition. [3] At first sight that might disqualify him from the list of uncontaminated fighters. But over time Che has been progressively disengaged in popular thinking from his role in the Cuban Revolution and from his responsibility for a failed strategy of guerrilla warfare; he has been relocated on a terrain of pure rebellion, individualistic and informed in the first instance by moral rather than political considerations. [4]

He has come to represent – albeit in a highly abstract way – a rage against a cynical imperialism prepared to oversee massacres even after the official ‘end of history’, against a capitalism that has consigned a whole generation to the social margins. Yet if the image of Che is both a symbol and a symptom of a rebellious yearning, its generality inhibits any consequent political debate on the tactics and strategies of revolutionary movements. Guevara’s image is an icon of revolution but, paradoxically, it is also a testament to the absence of a revolutionary socialist project.

Yet the resurrection of Guevara could provide an opportunity to place the political debate at the centre of things again. For that to happen, however, the argument must first move from the realms of heroes and martyrs back to the terrain of history, where the class struggle is conducted by living men and women in pursuit of conscious ends informed by a clear sense of the past and of the biography of the movement of which it is a part. And as far as Che is concerned, that means placing him again within his own real history – and demystifying the young Argentinian medical student who became a minister in a revolutionary government and died, sick and isolated, in Bolivia just eight years later. Che Guevara’s life and politics were too full of unresolved contradictions to offer a substitute for the discarded remnants of the Stalinist past. He is not a simple model but he was a revolutionary, and his internal conflicts, errors and misdirections represent an attempt to address the material questions thrown up by a commitment to the socialist transformation of the world. For that reason, an exploration of them will yield understanding that can inform the rebuilding of the revolutionary tradition.

A restless traveller

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was born on 14 May 1928 to a bourgeois family somewhat down on its luck. His formative years were spent in an Argentina dominated by Peronism (Peron came to power in 1946, though he entered the government in 1943). What is significant is how little direct impact that seems to have had on Che’s life – even though Peron’s rise to power represented, in however contradictory a way, a significant social upheaval and the entry onto the Argentinian political stage of a mass movement of workers. For those of Che’s class, Peron was a threat – and indeed the extremely right wing Communist Party of Argentina made a clear bid for the support of the middle classes on the basis of a shared hostility to Peron. Guevara’s mother, Celia, was in contact with those ideas – but there is no evidence that the young Guevara was much influenced in either direction. In fact his own class had little engagement with society, and Ernesto was restless and frustrated by that. The recently published Motorcycle Diaries show us a bohemian, an individualist and a free spirit bent on exploring Latin America with a friend on a motorbike. As travel writings go, it is light and wittily written; a desire to find here the future revolutionary guerrilla will find little satisfaction. From time to time Guevara does comment acerbically on imperialist involvement in the continent – and the passage when he visits the Inca ruins at Macchu Picchu is genuinely moving. [5] But there is no indication that the 23 year old considered himself part of a liberation struggle. Two years later, in 1954, Guevara found himself in Guatemala City at a turning point in its history and, so we are told, in his own.

Guatemala had a crucial significance for all Latin Americans at the time. [6] In the late 1940s a new regime brought a promise of democracy and progress under Rafael Arévalo; in 1952 the election of a young army officer, Jacobo Arbenz, as president marked one further step. He had promised to nationalise the huge landholdings of the US based United Fruit Company, offering compensation against its declared value, for redistribution among the landless peasantry. The peasant unions were led by the Communist Party and the right to form independent trade unions was another of Arbenz’s undertakings. For the US government at the height of the Cold War, two of whose key members (the Dulles brothers) were directors of United Fruit, this was intolerable: they financed a military coup against Arbenz, who resigned as soon as the presidential palace was strafed by aircraft. There was little resistance, but the appalling repression after Arbenz’s defeat earned Guatemala an early reputation for savagery.

Guevara was present in Guatemala with a large number of Latin American exiles – one of whom, Hilda Gadea from Peru, he was to marry. Che was not present in the capital at the time of the coup – he was actually exploring Maya ruins near the Honduran border. But when he returned to the city, he noted in his Diaries how angry he was that there had been no organised armed resistance. There is no evidence that he addressed anything other than military questions – the politics of the situation did not constitute a key element in his view. The point, of course, is not to criticise Guevara for his lack of political education, but to emphasise that many of his subsequent actions and the political strategy with which he was associated – the theory of guerrilla warfare – reveal a lack of political analysis and understanding. To claim for him an analytical perception that he did not have smacks of retrospective adjustments of reality, but also clouds the argument about that strategic programme.

Discovering Cuba

Like many other exiles who had taken refuge in Guatemala, Che moved on to Mexico. Many of those he had met in Guatemala later reappeared in the leadership of the guerrilla movements that arose throughout the continent after the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. [7] In Mexico, Hilda introduced Che to Fidel Castro.

Castro had arrived in Mexico under an amnesty that released him from jail and into exile. Two years earlier, on 26 July 1953, he led a disastrous armed assault on the Moncada barracks. His subsequent trial is best remembered for his long and defiant tirade from the dock in which he announced, ‘History will absolve me.’ Castro’s background was in the landowning class (Anderson describes him as a ‘blueblood’); as a law student in 1948 he had already been involved in a failed attempt to mount an armed assault on the Dominican Republic. In the 1952 elections he stood as a candidate for the Ortodoxos, led by the popular radio announcer Eddy Chibas. When Chibas committed suicide, on the air, Castro swore at his graveside to avenge him, or so the story goes. The important thing is that Cuba’s ruler, Batista, sabotaged the democratic process and convinced Castro that the only way forward was an armed assault on the dictatorship.

The Cuban Communist Party had in fact collaborated and colluded with the regime for some time. Castro’s unremitting opposition to Batista included opposition to the corrupt and compromised Communists. His political influences came from the student based Directorio Revolucionario, founded in the 1930s, whose political strategy was also based on spectacular armed propaganda. [8] Thus Castro, like Guevara, spurned the Marxist working class tradition in favour of a politics of small group military action. Although there were some who saw themselves as Marxists in Castro’s small group of exiles and some still in Cuba (in particular Fidel’s older brother, Raúl, who had university connections with the Communists), it was the politics of revolutionary nationalism expressed in the Moncada trial speech, and the methods of armed confrontation that dominated the organisation. [9] Clearly, Che and Fidel had in common a political background which was as resolutely anti-imperialist as it was contemptuous of the concept of working class revolution. They thus shared a conviction that the first task was to raise a military oppositional force. [10]

Under the eye of an ex-Spanish Civil War soldier, the Cubans and Guevara began military training at an estate in Chalco, Mexico. Che himself had no military background at all, and nor did most of the others; yet from a very early stage Che was instrumental in imposing a rigid military discipline in the camp. Castro managed to buy the motor vessel Granma, and the group sailed for Cuba in November 1956. The trip was a disaster, and when the 82 men finally landed they were met by a group of Batista’s soldiers who mowed them down on the beach. Only 18 survived, among them a wounded Guevara who was also suffering a bad attack of his recurring asthma. [11] The catastrophe of the Granma landing was the result of a misunderstanding between Castro and his urban contacts within Cuba, mostly members or ex-members of the Directorio. The relationship, in any case, was a difficult one; even at that stage there was an argument over political leadership which continued and grew more intense as Castro and Guevara established themselves in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. To the extent that a movement existed at all, it was among students; there was trade union agitation, but there is no evidence that either the 26 July Movement or the Directorio had anything more than a marginal impact on it.

What is very clear is that even at this stage the key issue for both Che and Fidel was that the guerrillas in the mountains should have the political leadership of the resistance to Batista. Both were convinced that political organisation was secondary to military considerations, and saw the task of mass organisations in the cities as essentially one of support and supply. In the sierra Che’s execution of Aristidio, a peasant recruit who had ‘misused guerrilla funds’, was arbitrarily carried out. Indeed the largely sympathetic Anderson acknowledges that ‘Che’s trail through the Sierra Maestra was littered with the bodies of chivatos (informers), deserters and delinquents whose deaths he had ordered and in some cases carried out himself’, emphasising at a very early stage the moralism and rigid internal discipline of the group, but also signalling to the city organisation that Castro would fight long and hard for the leadership. [12] The emissaries from the Communist Party (PSP) who came to the sierra were told much the same thing.

Early in 1957 the Directorio attempted to assassinate Batista in the Presidential Palace in Havana; they never reached the first floor. The group were gunned down, among them the Directorio’s leader José Antonio Echeverría, whose reputation at the time was far more solid than Castro’s. Those who survived turned to Castro in the mountains, a definitive shift in the balance of power which the 26 July Movement leaders, including Che, quickly exploited.

It is centrally significant, however, that this shift was not simply a change of location but a profound political transformation. While the Directorio was impelled by an adventurist militarism, it nevertheless did have a social base in the cities and a tentative relationship with sections of workers. Castro had neither. What support they had in the mountains tended to come from the most alienated and isolated group – the landless land workers called precaristas – who had no political expression of their own. The relationship between the leaders of the 26 July Movement and the precaristas was not organic; they were, in a sense, their self proclaimed representatives. The political generalisation of that relationship expressed itself therefore in the autonomy of the revolutionaries from any class base, and in the programmatic priority of agrarian reform, a peasant demand, over any demands that could mobilise and reflect the interests of organised workers in general. The effective demise of the Directorio ended any possibility that the guerrilla leaders might have to adjust to the discipline of an organised relationship with a revolutionary class. The failure of the 1958 general strike, and the death of Frank País, their most able urban organiser, symbolised that crucial change of orientation. [13]

This is not simply an exercise in historical verification, but the explanation of why Guevara became the key political spokesman and analyst of the Cuban Revolution – for he represented a political model, a command model whose central dynamic was military effectiveness. After the revolutionary victory in 1959 that model would provide the basis for the construction of the new state, and shape the relationship between the leadership and the supporters of that state. The source of that political method was a narrative of the experiences of the pre-revolutionary period, and in particular the two texts in which Guevara described the building of a guerrilla group or foco.

The rush to power

Power came unexpectedly quickly to the guerrilla fighters of the 26 July Movement. In early 1958 there seemed sometimes to be more journalists than revolutionaries in the mountains. Certainly Fidel’s interview with Herbert Matthews of Life magazine gave Fidel a reputation and a projection greater than his successes or his numbers deserved. [14] What Matthews’ fulsome portrait of the guerrillas did reflect was the growing distance between the US establishment and an increasingly corrupt and repressive Batista. It was significant that Matthews should have seen Castro as the future alternative – for Castro’s emphasis in that interview was on his anti-Communism. It would be comforting to think that Castro was being diabolically Machiavellian – a capacity he had in large degree – but it would be more accurate to note that Castro’s personal history entirely supported that position, as indeed did the response of the Communists when they denounced him as a ‘petty bourgeois putschist’. In April 1958 the general strike call was a failure; in August of that year the guerrillas could claim 500 members in all, distributed among three columns. The actual territory under guerrilla control was minimal; the first revolutionary decrees on the expropriation and redistribution of land were in that sense a statement of intent rather than an indication of what could actually be done. Yet within four months Batista had fallen and left the country, and the three columns were moving in a victorious parade towards Havana.

In reality it was a spectacular collapse of the government, as the US withdrew support and arms to Batista’s forces, though the guerrilla war did serve to precipitate matters. The role of the urban working class in the victory over Batista was minimal: after all, the 26 July Movement had neither the inclination nor the organisation to mobilise them. While Anderson suggests that the Communists were now giving Castro some degree of support, it seems unlikely to have been much more than a token reinforcement coupled with a continuing deep suspicion of the guerrillas. In any event, they had lost the decisive political battle before the revolution and were in no position to challenge the new leadership.

As the victory columns converged on Havana in early January 1959, it was Che who reached the capital first. And it was he who was given the critical role of creating a state security apparatus, G-2, and dispensing revolutionary justice through the public tribunals at the La Cabaña fortress and elsewhere. Approximately 100 people were executed in the first weeks of the revolution. Much has been said about that, but with a history of brutality and persecution like that of the Batista regime, the revolutionary tribunal can be said to have exercised some considerable restraint in its treatment of Batista’s people. And there was a process of law, and an officially constituted public trial – though Raúl Castro summarily executed another 70 people at the same time. No matter how hard the right works to prove it, this was not a reign of terror but a revenge that was largely demanded by public outcry. Furthermore, the new state in this way established a new legality. Local revolutionary tribunals were set up to administer a ‘people’s justice’, essentially a resolution of local problems by public argument. This was very good for Cuba’s international libertarian reputation, but reality was rather different. For the decisions affecting the state power and the shape and direction of the society as a whole were made by new and often secret organs which were never, at any stage, available for public scrutiny. Guevara, of course, was central to the construction of the scaffolding of a new regime – and he carried out his task with dedication and integrity, but also with considerable ruthlessness.

The echoes of revolution

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the Cuban Revolution on the rest of Latin America. Only five years earlier the United States had crushed a less radical government in Guatemala with consummate arrogance. The fall of Peron in 1955 removed one major irritant to imperialist plans; the rest of Latin America was governed by complacent allies enjoying the fruits of the commercial relationship with the north. While there was some intellectual debate about the nature of dependent development, it did not generate hostile political expressions. And the Cold War provided the ideological cement for this comfortable hemispheric alliance.

The march of the guerrillas into Havana and the ignominious collapse of a key link in the chain of compliant leaders did cause shock in the United States and elation in Latin America. The promise of shared prosperity in a world of income substitution industries was already failing; in Mexico the trade unions were becoming active and confrontational; in Argentina workers’ resistance to the new military governments was growing. And on the international economic scene, the United States was beginning to face potential challenges to its control of the world market from its erstwhile enemies in Germany and Japan. In that context, the Cuban Revolution was politically significant; the imperialist giant had lost control of one of the links in the chain closest to it just as more distant ones were beginning to show the strain. What John Gerassi called ‘the great fear’ [15] referred precisely to the effect of the Cuban Revolution in the United States, where a great debate began as to why the US had ‘lost’ Cuba and what it should now do to arrest a further erosion of its authority and influence. [16] The debate resolved itself extremely quickly; the cold warriors triumphed over the cautious liberals and, after an initial hesitation, the US government set out to destroy the new Cuba by economic and political means. It spent the next two years tying its allies down to a combined joint programme of military alliance through joint security arrangements and a compensating package of economic aid through the Alliance for Progress. The price of both was an agreement to isolate and destroy Cuba. At the same time the United States imposed a ferocious economic blockade on an island whose economic lifeblood had always flowed from the United States.

The rapid radicalisation of the Cuban regime was in many ways a response to this pressure. While the state created after 1959 was a strong machine of control, its role in the economy was not yet clear – and indeed Guevara was centrally involved in those early months in defining how it should or could intervene. The immediate popularity of the new regime within Cuba was beyond doubt, however, as it resisted every attack by the United States with new measures of consolidation. The half a million Cubans who left Cuba in the first two years of the revolution were largely those who lived from the American connection, whether businessmen, or croupiers and pimps. Others were the members of Batista’s army and police, the landowning classes responding to successive land expropriation decrees, and lawyers and doctors as well as technical staff working for American firms. The political opposition to Castro thus absented itself. The Cuban state needed a new professional class, but this was more easily said than done; it takes years to educate a doctor or a skilled engineer. The literacy crusade of 1960 both endeared the Cubans to a Latin America where rates of illiteracy were in fact far higher than Cuba, and created a direct relationship between the young urban professionals and students and the rural population. At the same time, the foundations of a health system were laid with the introduction of a series of measures of public hygiene which brought dramatic and immediate results at relatively little cost by an extensive use of voluntary labour.

Crucially, change was achieved by actions taken from the state. The new organs of social organisation were created by the state; the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), a key to the new apparatus, functioned as the eyes and ears of the state – their role was centrally one of vigilance, as it became clear that the United States was prepared to support counter-revolutionary guerrilla actions within Cuba to complement and reinforce the mounting pressure from without. At this stage there was no doubt of the level of popular support these new institutions enjoyed; but that is a very different thing from popular or democratic control.

The visit by Castro to Washington in April 1959 and his more dramatic attendance at the UN in September 1960 won continental attention and gave the Cuban Revolution an enormous political and moral authority. Latin America, mesmerised until then by the overpowering presence of the mighty northern neighbour, was now debating an agenda of national liberation. Young Latin Americans went to Cuba to train for the establishment of their own guerrilla focos – a training that included political education and the assimilation of the Cuban experience and its informing ideas. The consequences would be disastrous.

The Latin American revolutionaries who arrived in high euphoria in Havana after 1959 were young and deeply committed. Like the leaders of the Cuban Revolution they were largely middle class in origin and nationalist in their politics. The small group from Nicaragua, who would later form the FSLN, had a more orthodox Marxist political education; the Peruvians were mainly dissident members of nationalist youth organisations grown weary of the compromises and corruption of their own leadership; the Argentinians represented factions of a divided Peronist resistance. Very few of them had been educated politically in a proletarian tradition. [17] They went to Cuba, therefore, not just for military training, but to learn a political method, a theory and practice of revolution.

In the post-revolutionary mythology the Cuban Revolution was represented as a great military victory. In fact, the struggle had not thrown up any new mass organisations; there were no soviets or forms of new democracy born from the assault on power by a whole class. [18] Castro and Guevara moved quickly to forge the institutions of a new state, but they were created from above. Castro was still vying for political leadership with the Communists, and intent on placing the cadres of the 26 July Movement in all the key posts. In the case of the new trade union organisation, the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), this meant a direct confrontation with the Communists; in the case of the peasant organisations, the field was clearer. But in any event, the newly created structures derived from the ‘guerrilla’ political model – they transmitted decisions downwards, and mobilised support.

The founding political text of the new state was, unlikely though it may seem at first sight, Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. [19] Ostensibly it is a manual on how to conduct and organise a guerrilla war – but embedded in it is a conception of revolutionary politics whose implications for the Cuban Revolution were multiple. First it presumes that guerrilla war, as the central revolutionary strategy, can be initiated and conducted by a group of revolutionaries without reference to the social or political conditions prevailing in the society [20]: ‘We have demonstrated that a small group of men supported by the people and without fear of dying were it necessary, can overcome a disciplined regular army and defeat it’. [21] Secondly, the success of a revolution becomes essentially a technical matter, a question of military skill and preparedness. Thirdly, it follows that it is the revolutionaries who make the revolution on behalf of – or indeed in place of – the classes in whose name the revolution is given legitimacy: ‘We have the rebel army and this should be our primary instrument for the struggle’. [22] The determining factor then is not the balance of power or the degree of organisation or participation of the masses, but rather the determination, consistency and integrity of the revolutionaries themselves.

Politics and economics

Che is repeatedly represented as the most developed Marxist-Leninist in the leadership of the revolution [23] – yet he denied the suggestion. [24] He was certainly willing to negotiate with the Communists in the sierra, and was impatient with Fidel’s open hostility and suspicion to them. Yet his attitude to Fidel as ‘the special feature of the Cuban Revolution’, added to his more general analysis of the revolution, suggested that Marxism had been overcome. For Marx, classes are the central actors in the historical process; for Guevara, they are absent from the historical stage and replaced by their representatives or substitutes – the revolutionaries. Guevara drew on two aspects of Marxism in his writing. He used Marxist categories in his discussions of the economy. His later writings, and in particular Man and Socialism in Cuba, drew on Marx’s early writings, and especially the 1844 Manuscripts, to provide his ideas with a philosophical underpinning.

What is absent is dialectical materialism – the understanding of the historical process in which the principal actors are classes locked in struggle. [25] Marxism is not simply a collection of scientific categories and analytical tools: it is a theory and practice of revolution, in which those scientific insights inform and guide the revolutionary class – the proletariat. The conscious subject of history in Che’s version is the new state, the ‘collective guerrilla’, and it approaches the construction of the new power in exactly the same spirit as the creation of a guerrilla foco or cell. In Cuba in 1959 this meant that the continuing political battle with other internal forces was conducted from the highest echelons of state power, that the organs of mass mobilisation were created from above, and that their new leadership was appointed, not elected.

There can be no doubt of the absolutely central role Guevara played in the early years of the revolution: not only was he a key figure in the political consolidation of the Cuban Revolution, and in the construction of the central organs of the new state, he was also central to the formulation of its economic strategies. Castro was a pragmatist who responded to events but had no long term objectives beyond the consolidation of his own power base within a powerful independent national state.

Guevara was uneasy about Castro’s pragmatism, and immersed himself with some desperation in the only texts that were available: Eastern European handbooks on planning. [26] He clearly knew that industrialisation and economic growth were the key to Cuba’s survival – and that the situation was not ideal for those things to occur. In his speeches on the economy between 1959 and 1965, his recurrent themes were the urgency of planning, the need to industrialise and diversify, and the consequent necessity of winning workers over to the idea that they must postpone their expectation of an immediate material improvement in their lives.

Guevara’s first major speech, Social Projections of the Rebel Army, revealed an unresolved contradiction in his thinking that recurs in subsequent speeches and articles. On the one hand, his conception of economic planning at this early stage was influenced by Soviet thinking; at the same time he was emphatic that the foundation of such a policy must be the nationalisation of basic services and resources, and an attack on the privileged sectors. The rebel army becomes the state; the encircling empire, by analogy, is the market, and the picture is of an embattled nation state defending its survival against the marauding marketeers. Yet Che was always clearly and keenly aware of the dangers of isolation, and actively pursued a version of internationalism which acknowledged the problem of Cuba’s encirclement and incapacity to escape a new relationship of dependency. But internationalism was only part of the equation. Given that Cuba existed in a global context and that the balance of forces had to be assessed on a world scale, by what political methods could that balance be altered? For Guevara, the answer was consistent with his analysis of the Cuban Revolution, and did not involve the creation of mass organs of struggle elsewhere. All that Cuba could export was its own practice, and its own model of social and political organisation.

Guevara was clearly charismatic and persuasive; his disregard for material things and his absolute dedication, despite his obvious ill health, evoked the fierce loyalty of others. At this stage his relationship with Fidel seemed close and honest. His early nomination to the Directorship of the National Bank placed him at the centre of economic policy. Later it was Guevara who organised the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), designed to be the instrument of economic transformation. Significantly, the Industrial Ministry which Che headed was a department of INRA (directed by Fidel). This implied that agrarian reform was the foundation of change and the peasants were ‘the first liberating army’. [27] From a more efficient agriculture, and the ending of unemployment, Cuba could look forward to becoming an industrialised country. Within five years, he argued, Cuba could become self sufficient in textiles, develop nickel, iron and manganese production, and have its first (Czech financed) car plant up and running. [28] Given Cuba’s real economic structure, its dependence on sugar (comprising 95 percent of its exports in the mid-1950s), its lack of spare parts, machinery and industrial plant, and the catastrophic drain of its professionals and technicians, Che’s projections were clearly wildly utopian. Politically, however, they encapsulated a clear truth – that Cuba could not function autonomously for very long, that creating an island of socialism in a hostile capitalist sea was a dream.

That was the background against which Che embarked in mid-1960 on a series of foreign trips designed to win support for Cuba’s economic take off. In Eastern Europe he argued for the opening of a market for Cuban sugar. The visit in February 1960 by a Soviet trade delegation followed the imposition of the US economic blockade in January and signalled the readiness of the Russians to sustain the Cuban Revolution, though always with reservations. After all, the youthful leaders of the revolution were declared anti-Communists (at least in Fidel’s and Camilo Cienfuegos’s cases), the Communist Party was discredited and marginalised and Che Guevara, while happy to employ Soviet planning manuals, was still far from being within the ambit of the Stalinist old guard. It was also becoming clear that Che was influenced, and would be increasingly so, by the ideas then prevailing in China, especially the notion of the ‘great leap forward out of backwardness’. [29]

In Cuba itself the US blockade was met by a hardening line and a second wave of expropriations of US property. In April 1961 US-financed mercenaries botched an invasion at the Bay of Pigs. This revealed the direction of US policy. Cuba in turn purchased arms from Russia for its defence. When Che Guevara rose to speak at the special meeting of the Organisation of American States at Punta del Este, Uruguay, however, his analysis was sharp, combative and extremely confident. [30] He predicted a 10 percent rate of growth, the production of 30 percent of the world’s nickel by 1965, of some 2,600 metric tons of cobalt, and sugar harvests of between 8 and 9 million tons. [31] It has emerged recently that Che met privately at the conference with Kennedy’s representative Richard Goodwin and offered to discuss a quid pro quo – that if the United States agreed to a modus vivendi with Cuba (essentially a suspension of its support for the Cuban counter-revolutionaries on the one hand and a relaxation of the embargo on the other) then Cuba in turn ‘would agree not to make “any political alliance with the East”.’ [32] He hinted too that Cuba might also be willing to ‘discuss the activities of the Cuban Revolution in other countries’. Che’s promises were vague, and his attitude as reported by Goodwin was defiant; this was a negotiation, not a surrender, though Goodwin took it as a sign of weakness. It was also almost certainly a sign of Che’s (and Fidel’s) suspicion of the Cuban Communists and indeed of the Soviet Union. Che’s confident predictions in his speech, on the other hand, can only have been made on the premiss that aid in many forms would flow easily from Eastern Europe to Cuba.

Che repeated his predictions in an article published in March 1962, though there was an edge of urgency and frustration in it. [33] It also introduced a concept always identified with Guevara – ‘socialist emulation’. Besides the difficulty of finding spare parts, the absence of basic technologies and the lack of raw materials, the urgent need to raise productivity could only be realised by an intensified exploitation of labour. Guevara resolved the contradiction by arguing that it could be achieved ‘in the spirit of fraternal competition [rather] than in a cold bureaucratic manner; the contest [emulation] is shared by all’. [34] He returned again and again to the issue, most comprehensively in his famous 1965 essay Man and Socialism in Cuba.

The Missile Crisis of October 1962 exposed Cuba’s vulnerability to the United States; more importantly, for the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, it exposed the shallowness of the Russian commitment. The crisis was resolved by direct contact between Khrushchev and Kennedy, while Cuba looked on. Clearly the Soviet Union would not go to the brink for Cuba. Fidel began to distance himself from the Soviet Union and the Cuban Communists; and he turned again to the question of the revolution in Latin America. Briefly, Che and Fidel shared their suspicions of the Soviet Union. But there were other influences on Fidel, particularly his brother Raúl who was close to the Communists.

For Che it was clear that an escape from sugar dependency was the indispensable precondition for political independence from the Soviet bloc, towards which his attitude was becoming increasingly critical. Against Bureaucratism (February 1963) was a thinly veiled attack on the new bureaucracy which had grown up under the patronage of the increasingly influential Soviet economic advisers. [35] When Che recalled the spirit that had prevailed during the Missile Crisis, it escaped no one that this was the time when the relationship between Castro and the Soviet Union was at its most distant.

The debate about the economy that erupted in mid-1963 was often obscure and technical – but its foundation was political. Guevara had recognised at an early stage that Cuba could not escape dependency without diversifying the economy – his confident predictions that the whole thing would take five years were both an expression of his economic naivety in the months after the revolution’s victory and a recognition of the urgency of the task. In any event, the argument took place against a background of deepening economic integration with the Eastern bloc and a consequent shift in the political balance within Cuba itself. The technical arguments about the economy must be read as a text written on two levels; the second of these was an argument about the political direction of the revolution.

Che, taking his arguments from Charles Bettelheim, argued for an internal distribution of resources according to need in managing the economy, and for a policy of ‘socialist emulation’ that would raise productivity without additional costs. In reality, of course, this was exploitation by another name; but in the early 1960s it could at least be presented in the context of revolutionary enthusiasm and against the backcloth of a continuing movement elsewhere in Latin America. [36] The emphasis on the continental revolution and on the spread of the guerrilla war in the mid-1960s only rarely reflected reality; its significance was internal, in sustaining popular enthusiasm within Cuba. Against that were set the arguments of the Soviet planners, for whom each industry and plant should render a surplus; this was a managerial model, based on incentives and penalties, and simply mimicked the Soviet economy. In Che’s view, the adoption of this model could only result in a renewed concentration on sugar production and a reinforced dependency. [37]

The argument was resolved, as always, pragmatically. Castro was uneasy about the role of the Communists in his government, and kept the flame of guerrilla warfare alive as a warning to them. But the reality was that he was becoming increasingly integrated into the Soviet orbit; he clearly acknowledged that Cuba’s survival was inescapably interwoven with Russian support, which would not be selflessly given. The maintenance of his regime had become the central priority. And this was the source of the growing rift between Che and Fidel.

A separation

By mid-1965 Che Guevara had resigned all his government posts and left Cuba. His decision has produced endless and continuing speculation; but the context of the time leaves no room for doubt. Che’s articles and speeches return again and again to his recognition that the revolution could only survive if Cuba could break out of its economic straitjacket. His initial hope that the Eastern bloc would assist Cuba in the enterprise turned quickly to disillusionment as it became clear that it would not play that role. Che’s last speech, in Algiers in February 1965, was an explicit and frontal attack on the Soviet Union for its lack of internationalism and its cynical manipulation of the Cuban Revolution – but it was only the last in a series of increasingly angry discussions of the same issue. Fidel Castro for his part had clearly accepted that relationship without conditions – he had become an instrument of that manipulation. Che’s letter of resignation, written in 1964, was not made public until 1967. The letter itself was valedictory. It gave no hint of disagreement. However, Che’s departure was not the culmination of a policy of party building, nor did it signal the existence of a rising revolutionary movement in Latin America. In fact Che’s conduct was in many ways bizarre. He described himself as a modern Don Quixote, riding off on his old mare Rocinante in search of giants to fight. The metaphor has a certain literary charm, but politically it smacks of despair.

The publication of Che’s Man and Socialism in Cuba coincided with his departure from Cuba. [38] In that context the essay, while it picks up on many of the ideas articulated in his articles and speeches of previous years, should be read as a kind of political testament, a visionary document rather than a practical intervention in the revolutionary process. The kind of transformation he suggests there – a society of absolute equality of responsibility where new socialist values prevailed – was in any event utopian in the context of a rising managerial class and the reintegration of the Cuban economy into an international division of labour. But it was a critique of the Cuban process too.

In a sense, Guevara’s Algiers speech severed his relationship with the Cuban government. Of course, he was still an important representative of the Cuban Revolution, to which he too remained committed. There was no public split. But he left for Africa with a clear perspective that his political role would no longer be in Cuba. In the early years of the revolution, guerrilla groups had been formed elsewhere in Latin America after training in Cuba. In Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, young revolutionaries seized upon the optimism at the heart of Guevara’s theory and formed guerrilla focos. In almost every case they failed immediately, and a generation of political leaders died in the application of a misplaced theory. Guevara’s particular concern was Argentina, which he saw, rightly, as a key to growth of a revolutionary movement in Latin America. The reason it was so central was because of its large concentrations of workers and the combative experience of its workers’ movement. The guerrilla theory, however, did not connect with that experience. Nonetheless, Che worked to build a guerrilla group there. The attempt failed again and again – but Guevara’s explanation of that rested on the personal incompetence of those he had selected to lead the new guerrilla army. In other words, the strategy was not at fault, merely its application. To make the point, Che went to the Congo.

Che’s experience of the Congo was both tragic and revealing. Anderson gives an exhaustive account of this episode not previously very well documented. [39] It is impossible not to find the narrative sad and desperate, though Anderson himself does not seem to reach that conclusion. Che arrived with a small group of Cuban volunteers in the Congo; his reasons for going there were never very clear, except that a number of armed groups existed and that there was an uprising of sorts under way. But it is impossible not to be impressed by the Cubans’ ignorance of local conditions – they had no idea what the origin of the various groups was, nor their relationship to one another – and by the extraordinary lack of preparation. Che clearly was unable to understand either local culture or the local language, and seemed unaware of the nature of the terrain. He was delirious with fever for one month of the three they spent there, no fighting was done and the Cubans only just escaped across Lake Tanganyika after a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations.

The point was not that the enterprise failed, but the incredible arrogance and foolishness that characterised it. Yet the theory of guerrilla warfare allowed it; there was no need, according to the theory, for the revolutionaries to have social and political roots, no need to be part of the mass movement, no need to make sense of the specificities of that society at that moment of its history, no need to understand its class composition. The will to make the revolution was the only requirement. The Congo offers a stark and shattering example of the real implications of a theory of revolution which substitutes the revolutionaries themselves for the revolutionary class. [40] Yet it was a lesson that Guevara and the advocates of the guerrilla war theory of revolution simply ignored. [41] After the ignominious expErience of the Congo, Che moved on to Prague and elsewhere before returning secretly to Cuba. The confident Jacobin, disguised as a bald middle aged businessman, now returned to Cuba without an identity, political or personal, and without a purpose. [42] There was a curious aimlessness about Che’s journeyings at this time; there were contacts with the Venezuelan Communist Party, but no agreement could be reached about where and when to establish a guerrilla group there. There was talk of going to Guatemala and Peru. In retrospect, no one seems very anxious to claim responsibility for selecting Bolivia. The most convincing reasons have to do with the existence of a small group in Bolivia and Che’s continuing preoccupation with building a guerrilla army in Argentina, across the Bolivian border. The key feature of the discussions as reported is that they revolved entirely around the logistical conditions for the guerrillas, yet paid scant attention to the political realities. Fidel apparently suggested Bolivia but it seems to have been based on skeletal information. Indeed there is a suggestion that Fidel had asked Regis Debray, a philosophy graduate from the Sorbonne (of whom more later), to assess the conditions for reVolutionary organisation in Bolivia. In fact, the Bolivian experiment would expose all the weaknesses of the guerrilla strategy and prove the burial place of its most famous strategist.

While Che wandered abroad, curious things were happening in Cuba. The reason for the selection of the Congo may have had more to do with Soviet foreign policy than with any sober assessment of the conditions for revolution. In 1964–1965, the Soviet Union promoted a series of armed movements in Africa, with an eye to its expanding influence in the continent. [43] In the Congo, the Soviet Union and China were vying to win over some of the guerrilla groupings and the Soviet Union was happy for the armed struggle to grow well away from Latin America in an era when it was beginning to seek some kind of post Cold War rapprochement with the United States. [44] Whatever the reasons, it was ill advised.

Paradoxically, the Congo fiasco and its aftermath coincided with the elaboration of the ‘heroic guerrilla’ as a symbolic representative of the Cuban Revolution, particularly among the new radicals of Europe and North America. In 1965 a young French intellectual, Regis Debray, a member of the generation seeking authentic revolution outside a European working class it deemed both incorporated into the system and Stalinised, arrived in Cuba. Whatever the reasons, Fidel gave him several long interviews and charged him with the task of spreading the message of guerrilla warfare among the student radicals of Paris and beyond. The result was an essay, The Long March in Latin America [45], and a book, Revolution in the Revolution, which globalised the Cuban political method as the new alternative. [46] Debray’s role in the creation of the Guevara myth was important, since he translated Che’s theory of revolution into the language of a 1960s radicalism which sought a revolutionary method outside the tradition of working class internationalism. In the end, his journey to Bolivia in search of Che almost certainly, albeit inadvertently, helped the Bolivian army to find Guevara’s group, since Debray proved fairly easy to identify in the small Bolivian mountain village where he was arrested and jailed.

Clearly, the decision to generate the Guevara myth was made by Castro, not Debray. In the conditions of Cuba in 1965, it served several purposes. In the rise and fall of Castro’s vexed relationship with the Soviet Union, this was a period of distancing. The Latin American revolutionary movement was not particularly promising. The guerrillas in Peru were easily crushed, the Guatemalan movement was dangerously divided and the Sandinistas were merely surviving. In Brazil the left was facing an authoritarian government and in Argentina it would be several years before the workers’ rising in Córdoba signalled a new and higher level of class struggle. In reality, Cuba was drifting inexorably into the Soviet ambit but Castro was uneasy and resisting. The Guevara myth enabled him to generate a connection with a new radical left which could create a solidarity movement and perhaps pressure social democratic governments to work more actively with Cuba. Yet the reality is that even as Western intellectuals were travelling to Cuba in solidarity, and Che was becoming the icon of a new age, the Cuban economy was in crisis, production falling and industrialisation as distant as it had ever been. And further, the development of guerrilla war was itself failing badly. When Che’s famous letter calling for the creation of ‘one, two, three, many Vietnams’ was read aloud at the OLAS Solidarity Conference in February 1967, it was a principle, and an absolutely fundamental one, represented as reality. [47]

The iconography of the heroic guerrilla was not the reflection of a concrete reality; its function was ideological. And that function was as much internal as international. In 1964 Castro had signed an agreement with the Communist parties of Latin America approving the armed struggle. It ensured Cuba’s allegiance to the Soviet Union in the splits with China; but the Communist parties were hardly like to change their historical trajectory overnight. In 1965 the Soviet Union signed agreements with several Latin American governments which were themselves facing armed resistance, like Venezuela and Chile. And while Castro too signed a three year trade agreement, he was again growing suspicious of Soviet intentions. It was time to re-establish Cuba’s moral and political authority independently of the Soviet Union; at the same time any possibility of achieving a degree of autonomy would rest upon Cuba’s ability to achieve economic freedom of movement.

The return to some of Che’s economic ideas was ironic, and in 1966 it became increasingly clear that Castro was planning some ‘great leap forward’ of his own, a sugar harvest large enough to provide a surplus to finance industrialisation. For that to happen, of course, the exploitation of labour must be intensified again; Che’s theories of ‘socialist emulation’ and the ideas enshrined in Man and Socialism in Cuba were rediscovered. Cubans were called upon to give their labour, to accept the sacrifice of material benefits of all sorts, and to place their shoulder to the wheel for the nation state. Che became the living symbol of self-sacrifice and social discipline when the Cuban state required of its own people a maximum, and unpaid, effort. In return the Cuban workers were given a brief taste of direct democracy. Trade union officials could be elected (after 74 percent of the existing officials were replaced the experiment was not repeated). The promise of poder local (municipal power) was stillborn, since democracy did not extend to any of the organs of state power or their occupants.

The climax of this campaign was to be the Gran Zafra, the 10 million ton sugar harvest that would be Cuba’s take off point. In fact, the harvest reached only some 6.3 million tons, but in the course of the mobilisation of labour that it entailed, the rest of the economy suffered neglect, shortages and disorganisation, deepening the impact of the shortfall in sugar production. The rhetoric of the ‘revolutionary offensive’ was counterposed to a rapprochement with Moscow that began with Castro’s speech of support for the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the attack on Solidarnosc and the establishment of political relations with the military reformists Velasco in Peru and Torrijos in Panama. And indeed the ‘revolutionary offensive’ itself was not all that it seemed; the introduction of the ‘labour file’ in 1969 suggested that ‘socialist emulation’ and the idea of ‘moral incentives’ were merely masks for intensified labour discipline and political authoritarianism. The dramatic rise in absenteeism in 1970 produced a new and draconian Labour Code.

The process over those years between Che’s departure and the new line in foreign policy that began to emerge in 1968 was contradictory. Its ideology was internationalism, a critical attitude towards the Soviet Union and the creation of an independent national economy. Its reality was an early recognition by Castro that this perspective was utopian; consequently he sought a rapprochement with the Soviet Union while conserving a degree of political space within Cuba that would ensure his continuing control over the state. In that sense, the portrait of Che was the mask that Castro wore.

An unmarked grave in Nancahuazú

Che had placed his life and his career at the service of the Cuban Revolution; he had been its symbol and among its most popular figures. But he had insisted from the outset that one of the particular features of the Cuban Revolution was the figure and personality of Castro himself. It was, after all, consistent with his conviction that the characteristics of the individual revolutionary shaped the course and the outcome of every struggle. Che was also the ideologue of a political strategy which laid no particular store by mass organisation, except in support of the revolutionary army, and which did not understand society as a site of class struggle. He was, for all his personal commitment and integrity, the leader and instrument of a state; his key political activity was to build the apparatus whereby that state could defend itself. His evident popularity did not translate itself into any tangible organisation or social base which he represented or led. It was, after all, no part of his political vision that such a relationship needed to be built. When the political tide turned, Che’s integrity would not allow him to bend to the prevailing wind; but his opposition could only be an individual decision. Rather than draw around him those who might have supported him had he taken a public stance, he preferred to distance himself from the state in which he now no longer had a role to play and leave it unchallenged. His critical views were articulated only indirectly, and from a distance, in the Algiers speech and his essay on Man and Socialism in Cuba.

That was the backcloth to the last act in this tragedy of the revolutionary hero – a tragedy made doubly ironic by the use that was made by others of his unnecessary and sad demise.

The Bolivian venture was ill conceived, ill prepared and terribly misguided. [48] The original decision to select Bolivia came after a number of other alternatives had been proposed and rejected. While Castro supported the decision, his reasons for doing so were quite different from Che’s. Castro had established a close relationship with the Bolivian Communist Party and appeared to find its commitment to the armed struggle convincing enough. Yet no Latin American Communist party had shown any intention of changing its historical spots, and he might have surmised that the Bolivian Communists were primarily concerned with outmanoeuvring growing Trotskyist and Maoist organisations. Another and more powerful reason might have been the long history of working class struggle in the country and the rising tensions in the mines of the high Altiplano but this reason was never adduced. It looked very much as though Castro’s approval of the Bolivian guerrilla project was designed first and foremost to give credibility to the Bolivian Communists. [49] For Che the particular conditions of Bolivia seemed a matter of little concern; his vision was altogether more ambitious. Che planned a continental network of guerrilla organisations with Bolivia as its geographical centre. According to Anderson, Che told the members of his group in Bolivia that ‘Bolivia must be sacrificed so that the revolutions in the neighbouring countries may begin’. [50] Clearly he had learned nothing from the Congo.

The choice of Nancahuazú was a bad one. ‘It would have been harder to find in all Bolivia an area less well suited to the fighting of a guerrilla war, especially by the foco method’. [51] It was an area of deep ravines, hard to travel through at the best of times and offering little in the way of natural food sources. Its population was sparse and consisted largely of peasants with little sense of the wider reality of Bolivia. In fact, and with tragic irony, it was less than 200 miles away from the mining area of Siglo XX.

The guerrilla group numbered 40 at its maximum, half of them Cuban. They were discovered at an early stage and forced to move constantly across a hostile terrain; illness, betrayal and desertions dogged them; the group split in two and were never able to find one another. And the Bolivian army, with its US trained counter-guerrilla officers, threw many of its forces against the depleted guerrilla band. Che’s Bolivian Diary describes the day to day life of the guerrilla; its tone of desperation is unmistakable. The final days, when Che was so sick and undernourished that he had to be carried on the back of a young miner, are heartbreaking. A final tragic note comes in the summary for the month of June, when Che mentions the fragmentary news of a month long miners’ strike. Though he probably never knew the details, only 160 miles away the Bolivian army had perpetrated one of the most appalling massacres in the long history of its repressions of the miners on the night of San Juan, 24 June. Che was captured on 8 October at the village of La Higuera. [52] On the 9th he was dead, killed by an army sergeant under the watchful eye of several officers and a representative of the CIA, Gary Prado. The last photograph showed the haggard face and naked torso that were reproduced in so many forms for decades thereafter. Wrenched from its material context, the image became that of a martyr, passive and isolated.

Born out of the flames

The death of Guevara was in every sense a turning point. It marked the definitive end of the foco theory of guerrilla war. The groups that held to those ideas would soon be destroyed. [53] The armed struggle did not end of course but its vanguard was now in Argentina and Central America, where it found new and more class based forms. In Cuba itself the iconic guerrillero still appeared decorating the stage at party meetings. The irony that Che’s farewell letter had been read at the first Congress of the Cuban Communist Party had not yet struck home. That was partly because Castro used the image of Che to legitimate the harsh labour discipline and increasing centralisation of power that characterised the years of the great sugar harvest. At the same time, the face of Che concealed Castro’s increasingly close relationship with the Soviet Union internationally and the Communist Party at home – the twin guarantors of his hold on power. According to François Maspero, ‘1967 marked a rupture ... the definitive transformation, although it began much earlier, of the group led by Fidel Castro; it passed from the status of a revolutionary movement in a constant process of development to the government of a state whose priority, again by definition, was to ensure its permanent hold on power’. [54] Within a year of Guevara’s death, and while maintaining a token support for the guerrilla organisations still in existence, Castro began to establish state to state relationships in Latin America, with Velasco in Peru and Torrijos in Panama, with the new government of Ecuador in 1971 and, most importantly of all, a close rapport with the Allende government in Chile. Indeed Castro’s visit to Chile in November 1971, while it sent the Chilean bourgeoisie into paroxysms, in fact provided the opportunity to formally renounce the armed struggle and welcome the reformist strategy for change in the continent.

The figure of Che acquired a life of its own, carried in song and poster. Clearly the reality of his final years would not sustain the heroic image; thus the history faded and the personal qualities remained to inspire others to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of revolutionary change. But those who adopted the symbol often pursued very different strategies – the Tupamaros urban guerrillas in Uruguay, the mass armed organisations in Argentina in the 1970s, the Central American resistance which assimilated some of the consequences of the isolation of the revolutionaries from the exploited classes.

By then Che’s star was dimming in Cuba. As Cuba was fully integrated into the Soviet ambit, it employed its internationalist reputation to legitimise its military presence in Africa, where it served Soviet geopolitical interests erratically but faithfully. If Che represented a spirit of revolutionary internationalism, a critical attitude to the Soviet Union and the Communist parties, and the renunciation of personal ambition in favour of the greater cause, then his icon was no longer appropriate to a nation state seeking to survive in a hostile world. By 1970 it became clear that both growth and output had fallen in the previous five years, as had living standards. The rhetoric of sacrifice and the vision of a collective goal convinced fewer and fewer people when it was combined with sanctions directed at workers and where collective discipline and people’s power were reinforced by coercion and an increasingly repressive atmosphere.

By 1970 the reintroduction of material incentives signalled the end of the ‘revolutionary offensive’ and a growing material and social differentiation within the working class. Consumer goods and access to the lower levels of power were restricted to ‘advanced workers’ designated by the Communist Party according to their work discipline and ‘enthusiasm’. Unlike the 1965 trade union elections, those held in 1970 were characterised by the prohibition of public debate and candidate lists made up by the party and the government; the result was a high level of abstention. The year 1970 marked the so called ‘institutionalisation’ of the revolution – effectively a recognition that Cuba was a weak national capital whose survival in the world economy required that it resume a place in a wider economic system over which it had no control. The next five year plan was drawn up in 1970 by JUCEPLAN, the joint Cuban-Soviet Commission; in 1972 Cuba joined Comecon and by the following year 67.5 percent of its foreign trade was with the Soviet Union. It became once again a sugar producer, importing its machinery from Eastern Europe and depending on Russia for its oil and energy.

The growth of a bureaucratic managerial class reflected the emphasis on the profitability of each enterprise which Che had so vehemently opposed. [55] Those who argued a Guevarist case on wages at the CTC (Cuban Workers Confederation) congress in 1973 were dismissed as ‘petty bourgeois egalitarians’ by its general secretary, Lázaro Peña, a veteran Communist trade union leader – one of those to whom Fidel had expressed such vehement opposition just 15 years earlier. The whole process culminated in the 1976 Constitution which confirmed the extreme concentration of power in Fidel’s circle and the centrality of the Communist Party which he now headed. [56]

There was no place for the heroic guerrillero when accumulation and the integrity of the state shaped the dynamics of Cuban society. And Che virtually disappeared in Cuba, except as a historical monument, a figure at Castro’s side.

The selfless spirit rediscovered

And then came glasnost and perestroika. By the early 1980s there was a flourishing small scale private enterprise in Cuba and foreign capital was permitted to own up to 49 percent of Cuban joint enterprises. While a high world sugar price brought some degree of prosperity, it benefited above all a managerial and bureaucratic class, a class which had been given effective control over the economy by a 1982 law which gave them full powers of decision, including the right to dismiss workers. While the much vaunted education and health systems remained among the best in Latin America, public sector spending in general had fallen continuously in the previous decade. The immediate effect of the changes in the Soviet Union was a sudden and brutal end to the economic relationship which in one sense had kept the Cuban economy afloat but in another had locked it in the role of sugar producer and consumer of Eastern European goods, reinforcing internal and external inequalities.

Castro’s response to the changes in Eastern Europe was in some sense pre-emptive; he announced a ‘rectification campaign’, denouncing corruption, inequality, the existence of prostitution and differential access to consumer goods. Fearing the emergence of protests from below, Castro articulated, with consummate and characteristic temerity, the long standing anger of Cuban workers. Rectification was to have a twofold purpose: first, to ensure that Castro would not be swept away in some unexpected protest movement from below – instead he would lead it from above, sacrificing his erstwhile colleagues as and when necessary. [57] Secondly, ‘the national leadership turned to ideology to help to legitimate policies that it had material reasons to implement ...’ [58] Those policies looked to the survival of the Cuban state in the post-Stalinist world. Castro knew that that would involve scarcity, serious shortages, and a reversion to some level of primitive accumulation under the most isolated and unfavourable of circumstances. [59]

This was the situation in which Che Guevara was brought back again from the dead:

Che Guevara symbolised the values guiding the ‘rectification process’. Newspaper and journal articles (as well as books) appeared on Che ... In a speech marking the 20th year since Guevara’s death, Castro commented that the country was rectifying all that was a negation of Che’s ideas, Che’s style and Che’s spirit. Castro mentioned that [Cubans] were to rectify those things – and there were many – that strayed from the revolutionary spirit, revolutionary work, revolutionary virtue, revolutionary effort and revolutionary responsibility. [60]

This required an enormous suspension of disbelief on the part of his audience. Was Fidel Castro, simultaneously prime minister, commander of the armed forces and first secretary of the Communist Party, and standing at the heart of an intelligence operation created by Che and run with absolute ruthlessness ever since by Manuel Piñeiro, unaware of the corruption, the inequality, the repression in Cuban society? Could it be true that the lack of revolutionary spirit, so obvious to those who walked past the special shops where people with gold or dollars could buy everything that was unavailable to the general population, came as a surprise to the uncontested leader of this authoritarian state? In any event by 1989 that ‘revolutionary spirit’ had been translated into a new labour code, new flexibility of labour which included an end to the basic wage, and the introduction of voluntary (ie unpaid) labour to maintain the minimal social provisions. So the Cuban working class paid over and over again for their survival – through wage cuts, intensified labour discipline, shortages of all goods, and the demand that they pay with their labour for their own inadequate services.

What had this to do with Guevara’s idea of an absolute equality of sacrifice, or his recognition that the Cuban Revolution could not survive in isolation? His revolutionary internationalism was not simply idealism: at its heart was a recognition of the necessity of permanent revolution in some form. There is no evidence that Guevara had taken that notion from Trotsky – but his writings of the early 1960s leave little room for doubt that his concrete analysis of the circumstances of the Cuban Revolution led him to this conclusion, that without a far wider economic and material base, Cuba’s fate would be either a new dependency or the defence of an isolated and impoverished economy that could not be viable. And of course he was right: the Cuban state continued to exist, but the revolutionary process did not occur. Che’s analytical conclusions were manifestly proven by subsequent events, but they were enshrined in a political method which could not generate a revolutionary internationalist alternative to the theory of guerrilla warfare. Che’s insights could only be invested in a futile struggle distant from the class forces that could have transformed the Cuban experience into a revolutionary impulse, as Bolivia had so poignantly shown.

In a sense it could be argued that Che Guevara found himself once again constrained, even in this second coming, by the inheritance of the Cuban Revolution. Che was still a recognisable symbol for an earlier generation, and his relative youth and courage and his barbarous murder enabled his example to be translated for a younger generation too. But there was a further reason why the image of Guevara still had such a powerful resonance. In the conditions of economic crisis that followed the end of Stalinism his arguments about the necessity for sacrifice could be mobilised and given an extraordinary moral force by the circumstances of his life and death. More importantly, and here the ironies are multiple, his iconic impact was reinforced by the fact that he could not be tarred with the Stalinist brush; he had died before the rhetoric of revolution (whatever its reality) had faded away in Cuba, and his life and ideas plainly did not in any way represent that corrupted tradition. Indeed, much of his life seemed to have followed paths that led him away from Stalinism. To that extent he was all that could be saved from the debris of Eastern Europe.

Yet that symbol of struggle and revolutionary integrity remained attached to a political method which legitimates authoritarian bureaucratic rule by analogy with a substitutionist theory in which the revolutionary subject is the self proclaimed guerrillero. And the symbolic language of the heritage of Che Guevara is claimed as the property of a state which falsifies its own purposes by its use – bending the insights and the contradictions in Guevara’s life and ideas to its own purposes. As Habel put it ‘... this confusion between immediate needs and ideological justifications, this method of masking every twist and turn, is one of the characteristics of Fidelismo ...’ [61]

It is a deliberate confusion, whose effect is to identify Fidel with Che and thus to cleanse Fidel of his involvement with, and responsibility for, the now ‘rectified’ past.

Ideology can distort reality, but it cannot entirely replace the concrete day to day experience of Cuban workers. They hear the repeated mantra of sacrifice, yet they see a Cuba which in the late 1990s has distributed that scarcity unevenly, so that some are forced to live a life of shortages and unfulfilled needs while others – business people, taxi drivers, prostitutes, government bureaucrats – have continuous access to the life of plenty available to anyone with dollars to spend. They hear the chorus of praise to the people and the masses who are the protagonists of history, and yet they see a state in which the concentration of power is absolute and where the people are forbidden any real debate on, or involvement in, the future direction of their society. They hear the self congratulatory declarations that Cuba stands alone, untouched by the values of a capitalist society which Che so forcefully rejected, yet they live in a world governed by accumulation, power, the allocation of resources for profit and the transformation of their most precious achievements (medical research, education, culture, indeed the image of Che itself) into commodities for sale on a world market symbolised by the real circulating currency in the Cuban economy – the US dollar.

To attach the name of Che Guevara to such a reality and claim that it is one more painful step on the road to revolution is a grotesque parody that convinces few. And yet there is a picture of Che in every Cuban home. Perhaps they have invested it with another, secret, meaning – just as for centuries the saints of the Catholic church were invested in Cuba with the secret and infinitely more powerful names of the gods of popular religion (orixas). If that is so, then perhaps the image of Guevara can yet be disengaged from its unwanted identification with a powerful and repressive state.

If the revolutionary spirit is to be salvaged, it will be because the hero of an earlier struggle is reappropriated by history, his errors understood, his project judged for its insights and its failures. Religions need saints to persuade people to invest their own potential in a power outside themselves; revolutions are made by human beings of flesh and blood who take from the past the practical lessons, for good and for ill, that will enable them to understand and exercise their own collective power the better the next time around.


1. L. Selfa, Mexico after the Zapatista Uprising, International Socialism 75.

2. In the 1960s Guevara was subject to major commercial manipulation; a boutique was named after him and in 1968 three films were made about his life.

3. John Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: a Revolutionary Life (London 1997) is certainly the most complete biography of Guevara ever written. Its political weaknesses are many but the detailed information it provides is without equal.

4. The publication in 1996 of Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries (London 1996) represents the resurrection of Guevara in the mould of Jack Kerouac, the restless traveller of the Beat generation. This Guevara ‘on the road’ may not be the creation of a deliberate conspiracy to depoliticise him, but that is its effect. It may be testimony to the historical amnesia or the historical ignorance of those who edited these journals.

5. Motorcycle Diaries, op. cit., pp. 93–6.

6. The prehistory of the coup, and the role of United Fruit, is set out in S. Schlesinger and S. Kinzer, Bitter Fruit (New York 1983), and exhaustively analysed in J. Dunkerley’s monumental Power in the Isthmus (London 1988). On the history of US intervention in Central America, J. Pearce’s Under the Eagle (London 1981) remains the standard text.

7. See J.L. Anderson, Che Guevara: a Revolutionary Life, p. 159, and R. Rojo, My Friend Che, op. cit. (New York 1969), and T. Borge’s memoirs, La paciente impaciencia (Managua 1989).

8. On the early period of 20th century Cuban history, see J. O’Connor, The Origins of Socialism in Cuba (Ithaca 1970).

9. Raúl was and remains a shadowy but crucial figure in Cuban politics. Formally, he remains Fidel’s designated successor in all his leading posts – though it is unlikely now that he will succeed his brother.

10. It is worth noting that while Castro repeatedly claimed his inheritance from the great nationalist revolutionary José Martí, political leader of Cuban independence, Martí raised an army after decades of patient political and trade union organising among Cuban workers in exile.

11. It is a great mystery, to me at least, that in the mythology of the Cuban Revolution the 18 became 12, a more significant figure in terms of biblical precedent but with no particular resonance in the revolutionary tradition!

12. J.L. Anderson, op. cit., p. 283.

13. Anderson provides the detail for this part of the story in his Che Guevara: a Revolutionary Life, chs. 15–18, and see in particular pp. 318–319. Though Anderson provides exhaustive detail, the readers of this journal will have to analyse their significance themselves, since Anderson rarely steps outside the mental universe of his subject.

14. And earned Matthews the apoplectic rage of the US conservatives, who saw him as a representative of the ‘pinko’ conspiracy inside the State Department – a bizarre concept at any time, but particularly in the middle of the Cold War.

15. John Gerassi had been an associate editor of Newsweek in Latin America before writing this exposé of US actions in the continent. He later edited Che’s speeches and writings in Venceremos: the Speeches and Writings of Che Guevara (New York 1968).

16. See in this respect Scheer and Zeitlin, Cuba, an American Tragedy (New York 1960), C. Wright Mills, Listen Yankee (New York 1960) and Huberman and Sweezy’s Cuba: Anatomy of of a Revolution (New York 1960) among others.

17. There were exceptions, prime among them Salvador Cayetano Carpio (’Marcial’), leader of the FPL of El Salvador.

18. This is not simply an obvious reference to the soviets created in Russia in 1917: in Cuba itself the mass struggles of 1933 had thrown up just such organs of power. See D.L. Raby, The Cuban Revolution of 1933 (Glasgow 1975).

19. This has gone through hundreds of different editions. It was first published in 1963, in an edition of 50,000 copies. It was written in 1960.

20. It is interesting to note how the latest and most important of the Guevara biographies, by J.L. Anderson, employs the same method in addressing Guevara’s life, and thus confirms the theory implicitly through the life of its formulator.

21. This is set out in a very early and very important speech Guevara made, on 17 January 1959, called Social Projections of the Rebel Army. Quoted in J.L. Anderson, op. cit., p. 393.

22. Ibid., p. 392.

23. By Anderson repeatedly, and by many others including most of the Trotskyist and non-Communist left.

24. See K.S. Karol, Guerrillas in Power (London 1971), p. 45.

25. Michel Lowy addresses the political, ethical and economic components of Guevara’s thinking in his The Marxism of Che Guevara (New York 1973), which curiously doesn’t rate a mention in Anderson’s bibliography. It is an interesting piece of work, but fundamentally uncritical; significantly it fails to connect the three components of his thinking, celebrating Guevara’s readiness to revise Marx without saying in any sense what direction that revision took.

26. He told Karol that there was no alternative to using those texts and trying to adapt them to Cuban circumstances: ibid., p. 44.

27. Che Guevara, Cuba: Exception or Vanguard, in John Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 196–206.

28. Che Guevara, On Economic Planning in Cuba, a television talk reproduced in J. Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 207–224.

29. These ideas came to Guevara indirectly, through the influence particularly of Rene Dumont (who later became a bitter critic of Cuba) and Charles Bettelheim. From 1963 to 1965 the debate about alternative strategies for economic growth became public – at this stage it remained an internal discussion, and one shaped as much by political considerations as economic ones, and in particular by the shifting relationship with the Communist Party.

30. Che Guevara, On Growth and Imperialism, in J. Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 225–263.

31. This was a huge figure. When Castro attempted his own ‘Great Harvest’ (Gran Zafra) in 1967–1968, the objective was 8 million tons. Despite the mobilisation of massive human and material resources to achieve it, the results fell short of the target by nearly 2 million tons.

32. See J.L. Anderson, op. cit., p. 519.

33. Che Guevara, Our industrial tasks, in J. Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 275–293.

34. Ibid., p. 288.

35. In J. Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 314–321.

36. The distance between the reality of that revolutionary movement and the claims made for it was enormous, of course – in a way Che’s death in Bolivia was the moment when the myth met reality, and was found deeply wanting.

37. Che’s exposition of his ideas on economic planning are set out in On the Budgetary System of Financing, in J. Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 409–441.

38. The essay was not published originally in Cuba, but in the Uruguayan left wing magazine Marcha in March. It later appeared in the magazine of the Cuban armed forces, Verde Olivo.

39. See J.L. Anderson, op. cit., pp. 664–669.

40. See L. Trotsky, On Substitutionism, in Party and Class (London 1996).

41. I recently saw in Cuba a new Cuban publication entitled Che was Never Beaten in the Congo. It might have been better to ask why he did not and could not fight there at all!

42. It was the brilliant Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano who called Che ‘the Jacobin of the revolution’.

43. N. Miller, Soviet Relations with Latin America 1959–87 (Cambridge 1989).

44. J.L. Anderson, op. cit., p. 611, claims that Guevara saw the involvement in the Congo as the first step in the building of ‘a Cuban-led international anti-imperialist alliance’ that would eventually force the Soviet Union and China to mend their fences. If it is true – and I find the idea less than convincing – then it points to some extraordinary delusions of grandeur on the part of both Fidel and Che!

45. Published in New Left Review 33, September/October 1965; pp. 17–58.

46. R. Debray, Revolution in the Revolution (Penguin, London 1968). The book was attended by maximum advance publicity; copies were snapped up by the 1960s generation. My copy was the last of 15 bought earlier that morning by the local university bookshop – most had been stolen!

47. The impact of Cuba on Latin America and its subsequent involvement in the development of the armed struggle is discussed in ch. 3 of Jorge Castañeda’s rich analysis, Utopia Unarmed (New York 1994). See too on this period M. Gonzalez. Can Castro Survive?, in International Socialism 56.

48. On this episode see J. Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins (London 1984), pp. 136–153. See also Che Guevara, Bolivian Diary. J.L. Anderson (in his Che Guevara: Life of a Revolutionary), devotes the final chapter to Bolivia under the bizarre (and ultimately unexplained) title Necessary Sacrifice.

49. J. Dunkerley (op. cit., pp. 136–137) reports that Castro prevented an influential Bolivian independent left delegation from attending the OLAS conference in January 1966.

50. J.L. Anderson, op. cit., p. 701.

51. J. Dunkerley, op. cit., p. 140.

52. See J.L. Anderson,op. cit., pp. 733–739.

53. See J. Castañeda, op. cit., p. xxx.

54. F. Maspero, Introduction to J. Habel, Ruptures à Cuba (Paris, 1989), later published in English (but without Maspero’s introduction) by Verso as The Revolution in Peril (1991). Maspero, the radical publisher, was one of the many foreigners who arrived in Bolivia at the time of Che’s capture – and was immediately expelled. According to him, the book could have been called The Revolution Betrayed. Habel’s book is a careful account of developments in Cuba from the 1970s onwards from the perspective of the Fourth International (Mandel), which supported Cuba until the late 1980s.

55. See Che Guevara, On the Budgetary System of Financing, in J. Gerassi (ed.), op. cit., pp. 409–441.

56. On this period in general see J. Habel, op. cit., ch. 2, Les Réformes Économiques. See too A. Zimbalist (ed.), Cuban Political Economy (London 1988).

57. The official execution in 1989 of Arnaldo Ochoa, an Angolan veteran and a long standing friend of Castro’s, for involvement in drug running, was determined and executed in a matter of days – as a demonstration of the new purity.

58. S. Eckstein, Back from the Future (Princeton, New Jersey 1994), p. 60.

59. It is doubtful, neverthless, that Castro or his advisers could have foreseen the depth of the crisis that began to develop after 1989 in what came to be called the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’. In 1992 people in provincial towns were cooking over wood fires in the street, an epidemic of neuritis signalled serious and widespread malnutrition, prostitution proliferated and sexual diseases reached unprecedented levels. The fall of the Berlin Wall simply exposed the reality of the Cuban economy to public view. But at another level, what was perhaps unforeseeable was the ferocity of the reaction of the American right, closely followed by the president, expressed in the Helms-Burton Amendment to the absurdly named Cuban Democracy Act. Where the original act sanctioned all acts designed to bring down Castro and reinforced the economic siege in force since 1960, Helms-Burton introduced draconian sanctions against anyone trading directly or indirectly with Cuba. The purpose, quite clearly, was to starve Cuba into submission. If the EC commissioners balked at this new US barbarism, it was only because the boycott of economic relations with Cuba had allowed a range of European enterprises and institutions to take control of the key sectors of the Cuban economy – tourism, oil exploration, nickel production etc.

60. S. Eckstein, op. cit., p. 62.

61. J. Habel, op. cit., p. 141.

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