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Che books reviewed

Ideology & struggle:
Che in his own words

[The Che Guevara Reader, edited by David Deutschmann, Ocean Press, 1997. 400 pages, with index. $21.95.]

By John Catalinotto

In the 1960s, Ernesto "Che" Guevara became the hero of those struggling and dreaming of a world without oppression. A new collection of Che's writings and speeches will prove valuable to a generation that may know Che only as a symbol but has developed its own hatred of today's exploiters and wants to build the popular struggle.

For those who recently bought a Che T-shirt or hung a Che poster in their room, this new book offers an opportunity to move beyond the warrior icon to the revolutionary thinker and fighter.

A flurry of publicity here greeted the 30th anniversary of Che's October 1967 murder by CIA-backed Bolivian officers. After vilifying Che all his life and 30 years beyond, some ruling-class media are now presenting Guevara as a romantic adventurer.

Just as they try to take the fight out of Karl Marx, they try to take the ideology out of Guevara.

The best antidote to this more subtle assault on Che is to examine his own analysis of the events that shaped his life.

From Guevara's many writings, David Deutschmann has chosen those representing three broad periods of his life: the revolutionary guerrilla war in Cuba from 1957-1959; his role in the Cuban government from 1959 to 1965; and his solidarity with oppressed nations fighting for liberation and socialism.

Che was no 'Rambo'

Excerpts from Guevara's history of the revolutionary war in Cuba--his "Guerrilla Warfare"--show that the guerrilla is no adventurer, no Rambo-style war machine who laughs at danger.

Guerrillas must be willing to risk their lives, even to expect they won't survive the war. But the social conditions in the country are pre-eminent.

The guerrilla program must express the interests of the masses of people. And the guerrillas must nurture their ties with the population.

The soldiers fighting in Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista's reactionary army had no interest in risking--let alone sacrificing--their own lives to defend the tyrant and his puppet masters in the United States. That guaranteed their defeat, despite their far superior equipment.

Today the Pentagon has troops in 100 countries worldwide, threatening the peoples of the world with weapons of horrible destructive force. Yet the deaths of only 18 Marines in 1993 drove U.S. forces out of Somalia. What might Guevara write about the morale in the imperialist U.S. military today?

Mincing no words at Punta del Este

At a meeting of the Organization of American States Inter-American Economic and Social Council in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1961, the U.S. government tried to rally every capitalist regime in the hemisphere against socialist Cuba.

The Kennedy administration used the meeting to announce its so-called Alliance for Progress--a $5-billion program of "aid" to Latin America that in the long run allowed U.S. banks and firms to suck out $20 billion in profits.

But thousands of Uruguayans came out to greet Guevara with cheers and applause when he arrived, representing the Cuban government. His message was clear: U.S. imperialism's domination of the continent must be ended.

Che spoke frankly of the crimes of U.S. imperialism--something much harder for any country to do today, now that the United States is the only superpower.

Guevara made it clear to all Latin Americans that they had but two choices: subservience to Wall Street or socialist revolution.

How to strengthen socialism

As head of Cuba's Ministry of Industry, Che was concerned that the system of economic management being developed conform to Cuba's socialist goals. Guevara contributed to a debate going on in the worldwide socialist movement when he urged emphasizing raising consciousness over economic rewards to individuals.

His views on political economy are reflected in a February 1964 article explaining Cuba's "budgetary finance system" in the light of Marxism.

In an Aug. 20, 1960, address to medical students, this former doctor who dropped his stethoscope to pick up ammunition discussed his own youthful idealism and the illusion that one can be effective as an individual. To be a revolutionary doctor, Che said, you cannot act alone.

In the Cuban revolution, the entire population became mobilized, united, learned to use weapons and was ready to fight.

The book also has a section containing 20 of Guevara's letters, a glossary of terms, a chronology of events and a bibliography of Che's writings and speeches.

A wealth of info but...
A revolutionary can't be understood out of context

[Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson, Grove Press, 1997. 832 pages. $35.00]

By Key Martin

Perhaps we should be grateful to Jon Anderson for bringing us, for the first time in English, many previously unknown details of Che Guevara's life. This book is difficult to put down because it uses Che's diaries, letters and many other personal accounts to which the Cuban government and Che's family gave Anderson access. The author also tracked down and interviewed CIA agents who helped assassinate the great Latin American revolutionary.

To the extent that Anderson follows Che's diaries and letters and interviews his companions, he does a good journalistic job of recounting Che's life. A reporter might be forgiven for concentrating on events and charismatic leaders and not noticing the underlying context--the subterranean economic forces driving those events to higher and higher levels.

But that forgiveness should not be extended to the author's mistakes later in the book. They have to be understood.

Where it falls apart

Anderson's account really falls apart when he fails to see Che's role in the context of the pervading sense of crisis and turmoil in the capitalist world that began in the mid-1960s.

Even though a capitalist economic expansion was under way, it was driven to some extent by the growing U.S. war in Asia against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Later came a bloody CIA coup in Indonesia in which a million people died and the rivers literally ran red with blood.

After the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, there was a marked shift to the right throughout Latin America. It could be seen in the number of military coups and a dramatic increase in both the penetration of U.S. capital and repression against workers' movements.

In Vietnam the National Liberation Front was poised at the gates of Saigon to liberate the city and the country, only to be forestalled by a huge U.S. invasion and massive bombings.

Everywhere revolutionaries were trying to figure out how to react to these events and organize a resistance. Many were directly inspired by the example of the Cuban Revolution.

One such group, Youth Against War and Fascism, met with Che around this time when he was at the United Nations. We had just held a series of protests against the CIA, which was sending white mercenaries to massacre the mostly unarmed movement inspired by the assassinated leader of Congolese independence, Patrice Lumumba.

The civil rights movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam were already part of every waking moment of our political lives. The U.S. ruling class feared a war on two fronts--Vietnam and Black America--and that led to the FBI's "Cointelpro" and government by assassination.

Malcolm X was assassinated a few days after he spoke of intervening in the historic Selma civil-rights struggle and leading resistance to the war. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he was organizing a giant Poor People's March on Washington at the height of the Tet offensive in Vietnam.

As the body bags came back each week from Vietnam--with disproportionately high numbers from the Black, Latino and Native communities--the mood of the times became one of crisis, rebellion and resistance.

This was the context for the murder of Che Guevara by the CIA. And it is the most important omission from Anderson's book, which shows little comprehension of what was happening in the mid- and late-1960s.

Pombo's view of the book

Harry Villegas, now a general in the Cuban Armed Forces and known affectionately as "Pombo," was very close to Che in the Sierra Maestra, in the Ministry of Industries and in the Congo, and is one of the five survivors of Che's group in Bolivia.

Last summer at the World Youth Festival in Havana, I asked Pombo about Anderson's book. On videotape, Pombo replied: "I really believe it was a great disillusionment because Anderson was given many opportunities to really interpret our reality. He is extraordinarily partial or biased, more linked to the interests of imperialism than to the interests of the workers.

"Che's call to the Tricontinental was for the creation of one, two, three, many Vietnams," Pombo told us, "creating regions where imperialism would have to in one way or another invest its resources to stop all these revolutionary presences. We were helping the Vietnamese people, [diverting] part of the power the Americans were employing in Vietnam."

Anderson's most significant mistake is to be oblivious to this underlying world context for Che's intervention in the struggles in the Congo and Bolivia. He leads the reader to question the fruitfulness of it all, rather than to understand it as a strategy to awaken a struggle against the wave of violence and war emanating from the United States at the time.

"Regarding Che's participation in the war in Bolivia," Pombo said, "I believe it can only be seen in the social situation that existed at this time--not only in Bolivia, but in the world, in the Third World, in our America, where there was an extraordinary degree of illiteracy, where more than 40 percent of the Latin American population was below the mean poverty line ... where thousands of children died without medical care ... And all these elements required a change or transformation of society.

"This was exactly what Che was fighting for, for the creation of a more just society to help the people to a better life."

Anderson's book does convey the close friendship between Che and Fidel Castro to the very end on Oct. 9, 1967, when Che was murdered. And it details the constant support he had from the Cubans during the Bolivian guerrilla war.

But Pombo's account is more loyal to Che and the way he wanted to be remembered.

"The weakest point at that time was precisely Bolivia," Pombo said. "And I don't consider it was an adventure. There was an analysis in the economic and military point of view, which was a very deep analysis that would have allowed victory if we had been able to count on all the forces that had committed themselves to participate in our struggle."

Che's sacrifice was a turning point for the resistance in Latin America. Anderson misses this point and leaves the reader demoralized at the end, making us wish some other reporter had been selected to bring all this valuable information about Che's life to the world.

[Key Martin was chairperson of Youth Against War and Fascism during the 1960s.]

The little minds of the FBI

[Che Guevara and the FBI, edited by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, Ocean Press, 1997. 213 pp. $18.95.]

By Deirdre Griswold

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is supposed to concern itself with domestic criminal matters. However, it is testimony to the ballooning role of the political police in this country, especially beginning with the Cold War, that the FBI compiled a significant dossier on Che Guevara long before he became known to the world as a revolutionary hero.

Not that the FBI was sharp in recognizing Che's potential. The reports reproduced in this book are generally small-minded and often inane.

Racist characterizations of Latinos--"they dance to their native rhythms" is a mild one--were evidently considered standard enough to pass the censors' marking pens. They, however, do black out any phrase that might identify a police source.

Guevara visited Miami briefly in 1952, before he was very active politically--but that was the beginning of his FBI file. Although he didn't come back to the United States for more than a decade--and then as a Cuban representative to the United Nations--his dossier began to grow, fed largely by reports from the CIA.

Attorneys Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith of the National Lawyers Guild acquired the documents in this book under the Freedom of Information Act. They are reproduced as they appeared in FBI or CIA files, and the publisher "therefore makes no claim to their accuracy. The documents frequently contain lies, distortions and errors."

This is always good to keep in mind when reading any government document, but especially those that claim to convey the thinking or political relationships of revolutionary leaders.

The book contains 109 documents covering the last 16 years of Che's life. Some are nothing more than summaries of his speeches or writings. Others are interesting because they convey the mentality of the CIA and the White House, and show to some extent how they go about evaluating their political adversaries.

There are some wonderful moments. As when Richard Goodwin, President John F. Kennedy's aide, reports on an encounter with Che in Punta del Este, Uruguay, four months after the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion.

"He then went on to say," reports Godwin, "that he wanted to thank us very much for the invasion--that it had been a great political victory for them--enabled them to consolidate--and transformed them from an aggrieved little country to an equal."

Many of the CIA documents purport to seize on "rumors circulating recently in Havana" that Fidel Castro and Che were on the outs with each other, or that the population was becoming restless, or that the leaders were growing dissolute, drunken and fat. These so-called reports sound exactly like CIA wish lists--or the kind of deliberate disinformation that Ivy League agents cut off from reality cook up in their offices in between launching paper airplanes.

In fact, documents recently released by the House Committee on Assassinations show how in this period the CIA wrote leaflets, supposedly from "freedom fighters," depicting Fidel in just these terms, complete with faked photos. So the agency was reduced to "reporting" on rumors it itself had tried to start.

It didn't work. The Cuban Revolution has survived anyway--despite all their nasty tricks, invasions, threats of nuclear annihilation and tons of police paperwork.

How true today!

"So long as the economically dependent peoples do not free themselves from the capitalist markets and, in a firm bloc with the socialist countries, impose new relations between the exploited and the exploiters, there will be no solid economic development. In certain cases there will be retrogression, in which the weak countries will fall under the political domination of the imperialists and colonialists."

[Che Guevara to the United Nations General Assembly, Dec. 11, 1964]

First things first

"We understand--and we did it this way in our country, distinguished delegates--that the precondition for real economic planning is for political power to be in the hands of the working class.

"That is the sine qua non of genuine planning for us. Moreover, the total elimination of imperialist monopolies and state control of the fundamental productive activities are necessary. Having those three points well nailed down, you then proceed with the planning of economic development. Otherwise, everything will be lost in words, speeches and meetings."

[Che Guevara to Organization of American States conference, Punta del Este, Uruguay, Aug. 8, 1961]

When to turn to guerrilla war

"The guerrillas, as an armed nucleus, are the fighting vanguard of the people, and their great strength is rooted in the mass of the population. The guerrilla should not be considered numerically inferior to the army against which it fights, although its fire power may be inferior. That is precisely why guerrilla warfare is turned to when you have majority support but possess an infinitely smaller number of arms with which to defend yourselves against oppression."

[Che Guevara, "Guerrilla Warfare," 1960]

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