The living legacy of Che
Forty years after his death Che’s ideals are very much alive in Latin America and especially in Cuba argues Francisco Dominguez
October 9 this year marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
As is well known, he was assassinated on October 9 1967 by his captors, the Bolivian military, following orders form the CIA. Ever since his image, especially Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph, has become an extraordinary symbol, easily identifiable everywhere on the planet.
More importantly, he is seen by millions the world over as the embodiment of the Cuban Revolution, as well as the epitome of the struggle of the oppressed.
Many a commentator will be racking their brains again on 9 October, looking for a credible anti-Cuban Revolution interpretation of the endurance of the powerful myth. Yet it is impossible to divorce the charged symbolism of the iconic figure from the aspirations for a better world that a large part of humanity longs for, nor is it true to suggest that it has become just another fashionable brand, as some detractors have suggested.
The reason for the longevity of the legend - Che died at 39 - is not so much that Che was prepared to give his life for his convictions, something which he did, but because of the values broadly associated with his objective of building a new society and its enduring legacy in the Cuban Revolution. This legacy, of course, refers to free universal education, free health, and the raft of social rights that all Cuban have enjoyed since 1959, but it goes well beyond that.
Was it not in the spirit of Che that Cuba made the highly risky undertaking to send tens thousands of their young to fight against the military invasion of Angola by the racist South African Defence Force in the 1980s?
Was it not in the spirit of Che to send hundreds of Cuban doctors to Pakistan to save thousands of lives following the devastating earthquake in 2005?
Is it not the ethos of what Che symbolises and represent that leads Cuba to have more health professionals deployed in the Third World than the World Health Organisation?
Is it not in the spirit of Che that Mission Miracle was established by Cuba (and Venezuela) and has restored the sight of 700,000 patients from poor backgrounds form all over Latin America and the US, totally free of charge in just four years?
Ernesto Guevara became Che precisely because he identified and took the side of the wretched of the earth. We can already see strong glimpses of this in his Motorcycle Diaries where he gives full vent to his sense of outrage at the racist oppression, exploitation and abject exclusion of the indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia during his by now famous journey of discovery through Latin America. In one famous note he writes: “I am no longer I, at least am not the one I was.” Guevara was becoming Che.
In that journey he saw the full brutality of underdeveloped capitalism: copper miners suffering from silicosis, the squalor of shanty town dwellers, the desperate plight of the peasant, the appalling state of health of the masses, the neglected colony of lepers in the Amazon, but also the arrogance and blissful indifference of the Latin American elites for the people and the ruthless arrogance of US imperialism in Guatemala in 1954.
His conclusion for these experiences would be summed up by him with his characteristic contained fury: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.”
Actually Che did not live long enough to see the worse of the actions of US imperialism in alliance with the Latin American oligarchies. Was he not right in thundering against US imperialism and launching a world cry to battle against its crimes the world over: “Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people’s unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America.”
History bears Che out. US imperialism is responsible of having endorsed, supported, financed, and trained the murderous regimes and their henchmen in the region in the last three decades. The figures are an eloquent confirmation of this: 5,000 murdered in Chile, 30,000 in Argentina, 50,000 in Nicaragua, 60,000 in Peru, 80,000 in El Salvador and over 120,000 in Guatemala.
The seeds he sowed are today bearing extraordinary fruit. Revolutionary tidings are sweeping the region from the Rio Bravo to Patagonia. Government and revolutionary processes have erupted in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, ‘por ahora...’
Those indigenous wretches who Che saw in the 1950s, the officially despised ‘indians’ have now become the government in Bolivia. Che would have been delighted with these developments. Back in the 1900s this is what was said about the indigenous people: “Some of them give the impression that they go on living because it is a habit they cannot give up” “they are no longer the proud race of people who soared up against Inca domination”. How things have changed. Evo Morales, an aymara, is the president of Bolivia, the very country where Che wanted to plant the seeds of the continental revolution.
Likewise, the wretched of the earth have taken over the reins of power in Venezuela. The millions in the barrios have embraced the Bolivarian Revolution, and they are the driving force pushing it ever further towards a fairer society. It was they who defeated the US-orchestrated coup that briefly ousted Chavez in April 2002. It is them who have defeated every reactionary offensive against their government and their revolution organised by the Venezuelan oligarchy. Che’s political conclusion about the mass of the poor was that it is precisely among them that the highest forms of human solidarity and loyalty find expression.
In his message to the 1967 Tricontinental gathering in Havana in April 1967 - a few months before his tragic death - he famously called for the creation of one, two, many Vietnams, signifying the creation of as many concentrations of struggle against imperialism. Latin America is responding by creating one, two, many societies based on human solidarity as Che wanted. Cuba is no longer alone.
As for Cuba itself, mainstream commentators are fond of focusing on the contradictions and tribulations brought about by the unavoidable adjustments made to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
However, a Cuban leader said once that it must be understood that the revolution that Fidel, Che and the barbudos wanted to make back in 1959 is not the revolution they ended up making because of the capitalist encirclement, the US blockade and the constant aggression faced by Cuba since its very inception. But, he went on “we still want to make the revolution that Che and Fidel dreamed up when they were in the mountains”. Yes, as young children are taught in Cuban schools: Cuba still wants to be like Che.