By the time Ernesto Che Guevara (1928–67) was executed on October 8, 1967, in La Higuera, Bolivia by soldiers under the direction of an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, he had become a kind of ideological “fetish” for his Washington adversaries. For them Guevara was not simply some “terrorist” or “insurgent”—words used to describe him and his Cuban revolutionary comrades then, just as they are used to describe those who resist Western imperial designs today. He was something new in the context of the post-Second World War Cold War. The United States and its clients claimed they were engaged in a struggle to staunch “Soviet aggression” Moscow saw itself as engaged in a contest of competing systems: capitalism versus socialism. But from the outset of his political life, Che’s perspective was burnished in and energized by the immiseration and oppression he confronted in the “Third World.”
Traveling through South America and witnessing its poverty and oppression in the 1940s, resisting the overthrow of Guatemalan democracy and fighting in Cuba’s revolutionary war in the 1950s, and joining a futile campaign to resist the imposition of neo-colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa in 1965, Guevara developed a profound understanding that economic exploitation, political domination, and their consequences—violence and racism, disease and starvation—were integral to the “world system” of the West, led by the United States. Three decades before it became a central mantra of progressive and radical struggle, Che challenged the globalization of wealth as a rip-off of “this great mass of humanity” as he called the numberless inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and “his” America in his speech to the United Nations in 1964. Responding for them he cried “enough!” (During this visit he met with, among others, MR’s Harry Magdoff who asked what socialist intellectuals could do. Not untypically Che responded “teach us.”)
In the days that followed, Che returned to Havana where, with Fidel Castro’s support, he resigned all of his government positions—he had been minister of industry and president of Cuba’s national bank—and quietly joined the anti-imperialist struggle, first in Africa and later in the poorest part of Latin America in the Bolivian highlands. Both of these campaigns failed, the latter resulting in his murder. One would have thought that the State Department could have successfully gloated. But confounding the U.S. propaganda machine, the worldwide response was first to mourn (and in some instances mythologize) and then to celebrate Guevara’s life: to make good use of his words and his image to mobilize multitudes in the decades-long struggle against imperialism.
It wasn’t only relatively privileged university students who hung Che posters on their walls. Cuban photographer Alberto Korda’s resonant image could also be found in rude dwellings without electricity or plumbing whose occupants understood the terms of the struggle as well as Che did. Indeed, in his final hours, to one of his captors who wanted to know why he fought, Guevara responded, “Can’t you see that state in which the peasants live? They are almost like savages, living in a state of poverty that depresses the heart, having only one room in which to sleep and cook and no clothing to wear, abandoned like animals….Just as he is born [the peasant] dies without ever seeing improvement in his human condition.”
One should not forget that Che was a prolific writer, trenchant as well as elegant. His essay, “Socialism and the New Man in Cuba,” was first published in the Uruguayan left-wing magazine Marcha, in 1965. In that piece, considered by many to be his defining statement on the nature of socialism, Che argued that it was not the case that the individual disappears under socialism; rather, he asserted, the individual is at the moral heart of the revolutionary struggle, an ongoing undertaking in which even one’s life can be given.
He also wrote Guerrilla Warfare (1960), a handbook for armed struggle but also widely read by student revolutionaries in the first world who saw it as a metaphor for the ongoing fight for social justice even in the face of apparently insuperable odds. And he is widely remembered for his “Create Two, Three…Many Vietnams, That Is the Watchword,” written for the January 1966 opening conference of Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL, also referred to as the Tricontinental, founded at Guevara’s urging). In that letter Che called for worldwide support for the Vietnamese revolution as but one form of the kinds of struggles necessary in the battle for socialism. He concluded with the ringing statement,
If we, on a small point on the map of the world, fulfill our duty and place at the disposal of the struggle whatever little we are able to give—our lives, our sacrifice—it can happen that one of these days we will draw our last breath on a bit of earth not our own, yet already ours, watered with our blood. Let it be known that we have measured the scope of our acts and that we consider ourselves no more than a part of the great army of the proletariat. But we feel proud at having learned from the Cuban revolution and from its leader [Fidel Castro] the great lesson to be drawn from its position in this part of the world: “Of what difference are the dangers to a man or a people, or the sacrifices they make, when what is at stake is the destiny of humanity?”….
Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear, if another hand reaches out to take up our arms, and other men come forward to join in our funeral dirge with the rattling of machine guns and with new cries of battle and victory.
Nearly four decades later, in 2006, Evo Morales, a coca farmer, the son of indigenous peasants, and newly elected president of Bolivia, remembered Che and “the millions all over Latin America who have fallen” and promised that “We will carry on fighting for the liberation of Bolivia and the Americas….The struggle that Che Guevara left uncompleted, we shall complete.”