History: Che Guevara – revolutionary fighter

"SHOOT, COWARD, you are only going to kill a man." According to legend, these were the last words of Che Guevara, just before his execution at the hands of the Bolivian army, who were in league with the CIA, on October 9, 1967, aged 39.

THIRTY-FIVE years ago the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara was murdered in the Bolivian jungle by his CIA interrogators. PAUL HUNT and DAVE CARR review the life and times of this icon of anti-capitalism and social liberation.

Che Guevara – revolutionary fighter

Thirty-five years after his death, Che lives on in the minds of young people struggling and fighting against the same inequalities that he dedicated his life to getting rid of – poverty, racism, and ultimately capitalism and imperialism.

Ironically, capitalist companies, seeing the popularity of Guevara, use his image to sell products.

But who was Che Guevara and more importantly, what lessons can we learn from his life in order to fight for and achieve the socialist world that he and other revolutionaries gave so much for?

Ernesto Guevara (only later did he pick up the nickname ’Che’) was born in 1928, in Argentina, into a middle class background. Throughout his life he suffered a crippling level of asthma.

Che developed a keen interest in literature and philosophy, and his time at University studying medicine allowed him to broaden his horizons even more, where according to his own accounts he read Marx and Engels. At this stage he wasn’t a member of any political grouping, but was known as a radical, although he apparently had no ambitions other than to be a doctor.

On a motorbike he travelled through many countries of Latin America witnessing at first hand the devastating effects that capitalism was having on the vast majority of the population – the excruciating poverty, lack of education and the generally dire state of peoples lives.

Cuban Revolution

UNDOUBTEDLY THE piece of history most closely associated with Che Guevara is the victorious Cuban revolution of 1959. But how did the wandering Argentinian get involved with the Cuban struggle against US imperialism?

It was another adventure, that took him to Bolivia and Guatemala, that made a lasting impression on his life and changed his direction to that of a self-sacrificing revolutionary fighter.

In Guatemala, a left-wing government led by Jacobo Arbenz was carrying out policies that were benefiting the poor and the working class. In 1952 the Arbenz government nationalised the United Fruit Company, a US multinational company that had bled the country dry. This was a measure too far for US imperialism and the CIA plotted to bring down Arbenz.

Amongst the revolutionaries and political activists that had been drawn to Guatemala to witness the struggle against imperialism were Cuban exiles who were involved in the struggle against the US-backed Batista government. But in 1954, with CIA help, Castillo Armas overthrew the Arbenz government, forcing Che and other left-wingers into hiding or exile. From here Che ended up in Mexico, where he would meet Fidel Castro in 1955.

His experiences in travelling Latin America, witnessing the dreadful poverty, and seeing first hand the destructive role of US imperialism and its stooges, compelled him to become not just a witness to great events but to actively involve himself in the struggle.

July 26 Movement

Che joined a group called the ’July 26th movement’ which was led in part by Fidel Castro, and had the aim of removing Batista from the government. But after the overthrow of Batista, what should happen then? What sort of regime should take the place of the hated Batista?

By this time Che was a committed socialist, but remained a minority in this movement, many of the participants were intellectuals and students whose programme for a ’democratic’ Cuba didn’t go beyond the bounds of capitalism. This included Castro.

On 2 December 1956 this small, badly organised group of 82 fighters, including Che, landed in Cuba and launched a guerrilla war against the hated Batista regime.

After several setbacks, this guerilla force gained more and more support amongst the peasants, and coupled with the brewing anger amongst the urban working class, it meant that the Batista regime was drawing to an end.

In the struggle between the US-backed government and the rebels, Che stood out as a disciplined, determined and courageous fighter. Despite the effects of his dilapidating asthma condition he showed himself to be a principled leader who the other rebels admired and looked up to, and he was given command of his own column.

"Che’s overall maxim was to lead by example, never to ask those under his command to do what he would not undertake himself…..he also refused all privileges." (Symbol of Struggle, Tony Saunois, p31)

Class forces

MEANWHILE THE debates raged within the July 26th movement between the liberal democratic elements and the more radical socialist leaders such as Che and Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and a young Communist. Who would lead the movement? What role would the urban working class play in relation to the rural guerrilla fighters and the peasantry? Should there be an alliance (popular front) with the liberal capitalists such as the Autentico and Ortodox parties?

The July 26th movement was initiated by Fidel Castro rather than the Cuban Communist Party (PSP). The Movement took its name from the date in 1953 of a failed assualt on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago, Cuba. The PSP denounced this attack as a "bourgeois putsch".

In fact the Cuban Communist Party (PSP), which had previously supported Batista as a ’progressive capitalist’, still promoted a popular front policy of submerging the workers’ movement with the national capitalist class in an ’anti-imperialist struggle’.

This ’two-stages’ policy (first a democratic-capitalist society, second, at a later stage, a socialist struggle), which proved to be so disastrous to the workers’ movement in Germany and Spain in the 1930s, relegated the PSP to playing a minor role in the unfolding Cuban revolution.

US imperialism was becoming increasingly worried with the situation and feared that Batista would be removed by a movement hostile to US dominance in the region. Before the revolution of 1959, Cuba was something of a ’rich boys’ playground’ for rich US businessmen, complete with casinos, prostitution and drug dens. It was also a key economic market for the US, especially in sugar. As a victim of imperialism, Cuba suffered widespread unemployment and general deprivation amongst the majority of the population.

Reaction defeated

ON 1-2 January 1959 after just two years of fighting, the rebels poured into the major cities. Che himself arrived in Havana where the workers had staged a successful general strike to mark the fall of the hated Batista regime.

Despite attempts by imperialism to destroy the new ’socialist’ Cuba, (including the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961 when an armed invasion of US-backed Cuban mercenaries was repulsed), they failed to dislodge Castro and the new regime.

Although Castro had come to power speaking of a "humanist" national revolution which was neither "capitalist" nor "communist" the revoltuion developed through a series of blows and counter-blows between US imperialism and the Cuban regime backed by the poor masses.

As a counterweight to oppose imperialism, the Cuban regime increasingly became drawn into the orbit of the Soviet Union and took more and more decisive measures against capitalism.

Eventually, the revolution in Cuba swept away landlordism and capitalism, establishing a planned, nationalised economy. It was on this basis that Cuba took huge strides forward which had been impossible under capitalism.

Illiteracy, commonplace under the old regime, was eradicated; education and health care were made freely available to all. Life expectancy increased rapidly and the Cuban masses made major social gains.

Che was against privileges and bureaucracy and did his share of manual labour amongst the workers in agriculture. Compare this to the Stalinist bureaucrats of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, who drove limousines and enjoyed huge privileges.

Despite the material gains of the masses through the revolution, we are not uncritical of the Cuban regime unlike some on the Left. Although there existed a plan of production, a nationalised economy and capitalism had been snuffed out, society was controlled by a layer of Communist Party officials, although the scale of their privileges didn’t match that of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.

"Che reacted with hostility to what he saw in the Soviet Union. On one visit, invited to dinner in the apartment of a government official, he ate his meal on the finest imported French porcelain. During the dinner he turned to his host and sarcastically quipped: "So the proletariat here eats off French porcelain, eh?" (Symbol of Struggle, p52)

While a system of workers’ democracy was present in Russia after the revolution of October 1917, (until the isolation of the revolution and the rise of Stalinism extinguished it) the system in Cuba was different due to several factors.

"There was undoubtedly an element of workers’ control in the factories in the first period of the revolution and every neighbourhood and street had a ’committee for the defence of the revolution’. …But at the same time the masses had no control or management of the state machine." (Cuba, Socialism & Democracy, Peter Taaffe, p105)

Unlike the Russian Revolution of 1917, the predominant force in Cuba was the peasantry that had been led by the guerrillas, the working class had played a secondary role. The other major factor was the absence of a mass revolutionary workers’ party armed with a socialist programme, which would introduce a system of workers’ democracy.

Flawed socialism

IN BOLIVIA, 1967, Che attempted to organise another ’Cuba’, but failing to base his movement on the country’s working class and failing to win any real support amongst the peasantry, the mission was really doomed from start to finish. With the help of the CIA, the Bolivian military captured Che, and eventually shot him – much to the delight of the capitalist class in Latin America and internationally.

Che’s socialism was flawed because of his underestimation of the role of the working class in changing society. This was partly a reflection of his class background and because he was not an active member of any organisation in the workers’ movement.

He was also heavily influenced by earlier nationalist movements led by people such as Simon Bolivar in the 19th century and the peasant armies of Zapata and Pancho Villa during the 1910-18 Mexican Revolution. These struggles took place in a period when the workers’ movement was in its infancy. He failed to appreciate the central role of the working class in leading the 1917 Russian Revolution insisting instead on the primacy of the peasantry engaged in guerrilla struggle.

But as Marx pointed out, the peasantry are a class in themselves but not a class for themselves. This lack of a clear class consciousness means they can act as a revolutionary but also a reactionary class. While some will align themselves with the working class others will aspire to becoming small capitalist producers.

Yet Che dismissed the working class as the leading revolutionary force in Cuban society. "It is no secret that the strength of the revolutionary movement was primarily among the peasants, and secondarily among the working class… Cuba, like all underdeveloped countries, does not have a powerful proletariat", he said in June 1960. This despite the fact that the Cuban working class in 1959 was far greater than the Russian working class was in 1917, in percentage terms.

Che was a revolutionary but without a worked out Marxist programme which led to his wrong approach toward building revolutionary forces and, ultimately, his death.

He died a revolutionary hero and, rightly, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people look to him as a symbol of struggle against imperialism.

We will learn the lessons of Che’s heroic life, the need to base the struggle on the working class and for a mass party of workers and poor, and carry out the task that Che dedicated his whole life to – the victory of the socialist revolution.

Is Cuba socialist?

AFTER THE 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro’s regime overthrew capitalism and landlordism, nationalising industry and the land. This was not part of a conscious socialist strategy but a response to the movement of the masses and a riposte to the counter-revolutionary pressures of big business and US imperialism – who retaliated to a government tax on sugar companies by imposing an economic blockade which lasts to this day.

In 1960 Castro declared Cuba "socialist". In fact Cuba was run by a bureaucratic caste as in the Soviet Union – a military/police state resting on a bureaucratically planned economy. Those elements of workers’ democracy which existed in the factories and neighbourhoods were short-lived.

Without workers’ democratic control and management of a planned economy, gross distortions in the supply and demand of goods and services (regulated under capitalism through the brutal mechanism of the market), inevitably occur. Ultimately, these distortions caused a massive wastage of resources and economic stagnation leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the states of eastern Europe.

And without political accountability, in a situation of economic shortages, inevitably the ruling caste from their position in the state apparatus draw higher salaries, enjoy better housing and many other privileges.

Working class gains

But despite bureaucratic mismanagement and a US-imposed blockade, the planned economy has meant big gains for the working class, especially in the field of health and welfare.

There is much in Cuba today that compares favourably with the situation facing workers and poor people in the capitalist world, especially in neighbouring central America and the Caribbean.

With 7,000 GPs there is one family doctor for every 500-700 people in Cuba compared to 1,800-2,000 in Britain. Average life expectancy before 1959 was 48 years for men and 54 years for women. Now male life expectancy is 74 (the same as in the UK) and for women 76 (79 in the UK). Infant mortality is 7.1 deaths per 100,000 live births, similar to Britain.

However, the ending of heavily subsidised oil imports in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, devastated the Cuban economy. This has been partly offset by striking a favourable oil importation deal following the visit in October 2000 of Venezuela’s ’radical’ president, Victor Chavez.

Nonetheless, the shortage of goods and spare parts has created a black economy. Moreover, Fidel Castro’s regime has been forced to open up the ailing economy to foreign tourism, resulting in the development of a parallel ’dollar’ economy.

This ’tourist apartheid’ has exacerbated the growing inequalities between those engaged in the dollar economy and other Cuban workers. Prostitution, largely eradicated after the revolution, has reappeared and crime is also growing.

Cuba at a crossroads

At some stage, the contradictions between this nascent capitalist economy and the faltering state-owned economy will lead to the restoration of capitalism similar to what occurred in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s – unless the limitations of ’socialism in one country’ are overcome through an international socialist revolution.

If not, the island economy will be slowly throttled by pressure of the capitalist world economy and US imperialism. As US Vice-President Dick Cheney declared: "I don’t think there is any prospect for lifting those sanctions as long as Fidel Castro is out there."

What is needed is the democratic control of Cuba by the working class.

A programme for workers’ democracy requires an end to one-party rule and free elections for parties who accept the planned economy. It also means trade unions independent of state control.

What exists in Cuba today is not a ’healthy’ socialist society but a ’hybrid’ whose transition to a workers’ democracy or regression back to capitalism will be determined by the struggles of the working class internationally.

With the onset of the world capitalist crisis, a renewed wave of successful socialist revolutions throughout Latin America would regenerate the Cuban revolution.

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October 2002