In November 1956, eighty-two aspiring revolutionaries—including Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara—sailed from Mexico to Cuba aboard the Granma, a leaky second-hand cabin cruiser. The crew spent the trip seasick, throwing up, and ‘lying immobile on the deck in strange positions’. After landing, the unseasoned troops left a trail of sugarcane peelings behind them, before being ambushed. During the firefight, Che was perplexed at seeing one comrade trying to hide behind ‘a single sugar cane stalk’, and another who, for no apparent reason, kept ‘yelling for silence in a din of gunfire’. Of the eighty-two who landed, most were dead before the end of the first week.
This is how Che begins his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, and yet these amateurs not only survived but actually went on to defeat the Batista military dictatorship. Che became an icon, and various political traditions now cherry-pick his ideas for their own purposes. Che’s writings complicate such caricatures, revealing charm and tenderness, as well as an absolute political commitment to finding out how we can win, and keep, a world run by and for the people.
Che grew up in Argentina, studying avidly and filling notebooks on thinkers including Marx and Lenin. From 1950, aged twenty-two, Che began keeping proper diaries, first of his exploration of Argentina on a bicycle to which he’d attached an engine, and later, of his trips through the whole continent, sometimes on the back of a motorcycle.
In 1960, in a lecture to young doctors, Guevara said during his travels he encountered many people who had a ‘stupefaction’ provoked by ‘continual hunger and punishment’, which convinced him they needed more than what he could give them as a doctor.
A significant culmination of his travels was going to the Guatemala of the newly elected reformer, Jacobo Árbenz. On the way he ruminated on the economic forces that were strangling the continent, writing coyly to his beloved Aunt Beatriz: ‘I swore before a picture of the old and lately lamented Compañero Stalin, not to rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated.’ After a brutal US-coordinated coup began on 18 June 1954 (one of the estimated sixty-four US-backed coups and attempted coups during the Cold War), Che witnessed atrocities, writing to his mother that ‘a plane machine-gunned the lower neighbourhoods of the city, killing a two-year-old girl.’
In his 1961 book Guerilla Warfare, a short manual and philosophy of revolution, Che explained why he thought armed struggle was the best way to confront these evils. Guerrillas are a small, dedicated group of fighters who ‘share the longing of the people for liberation’, and after peaceful means are exhausted convert themselves into an armed vanguard.
Because they need the support of the masses, guerrillas are strategically ethical, paying for what they need, and where possible treating wounded enemies with ‘care and respect’. For Che, guerilla war was more than an expedient way to win power—it was a key tool to forge an organisation with a real base and status among the masses, with solid and developed cadres.
Two years after the foiled Bay of Pigs invasion, Che wrote an article for a popular magazine in which he explained the Marxist idea of cadres. Cadre are both specially trained personnel and revolutionary leaders, who interpret directives from the leadership and make them their own. A cadre, just like Che and Fidel, must be someone people look up to—who gets no special privileges in the forms of gifts or a higher salary—and understands the innermost desires of the masses.
Despite finding and developing these new leaders while fighting the war, in Che’s article, he says one of the biggest problems the Cuban Revolutionary government still faced was a ‘lack of cadres to cope with the enormous tasks which had to be carried out in the state apparatus, in political organisation, and on the entire economic front.’
This was because the political and economic situation of Cuba was adverse in the extreme: it was blockaded by the US, and fettered agriculturally to a monoculture of sugar. Legend has it that in one mid-siege late night meeting, Castro asked for ‘a good economist’ to take over the presidency of the National Bank. Guevara, half-asleep, raised his hand, thinking Castro had asked for a good communist.
As Helen Yaffe shows in Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, Che was actually a visionary economist, who stayed up late studying Marx’s Capital with an economics professor the USSR had sent. Through study, Che decided Cuba could avoid internal market competition (like the USSR had reintroduced in 1921) by stealing the model of the capitalist mega-corporations, which had central planning systems based on budgets. This Budgetary Finance System (BFS) didn’t just derive from Che’s critique of Soviet political economy, but also from his firm belief that we need to continually develop socialism among the people, and rigorously transition away from capitalism, if we’re to achieve communism.
In the famous Socialism and Man in Cuba, he describes how the law of capitalist value operates on us, and why this requires mass education to create a new consciousness. But Che also knew that building these new economic forms wouldn’t be easy in a world overseen by a mercenary United States.
In one of his final statements, Message to the Tricontinental, Che excoriates US imperialism as the world’s single great enemy, and goes against the official Soviet policy of ‘Peaceful coexistence’ to evoke a vision of the third world rising up in armed socialist revolutions to destroy the US.
Unfortunately his final campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia were catastrophes, and his final two diaries recount in brutal detail what went wrong. In the Congo they completely misunderstood the political situation, and lacked good cadre among their own troops and the Congolese.
The Bolivian campaign had these same failings, and proved more fatal, sadly prefiguring many Guevara-inspired guerilla attempts. In Bolivia, the US was determined to stop another revolution happening in what, since the Monroe Doctrine, it considered to be Washington’s ‘backyard’. They sent elite green berets to train and command the Bolivian forces, who turned the masses against the guerillas, and actively cut them off from support.
After Che was captured and executed at the command of the C.I.A., his Bolivia campaign diary was smuggled out. While it is a morbid testament to errors that were made, its pages also show that the attempt seemed a justifiable gambit in order to divert the US’s attention away from Cuba, and potentially create new allies.
Today, there are many revolutionaries, organisations, and governments that draw inspiration from Che’s legacy. The Zapatistas in Chiapas and the YPG in Rojava have both cited his work during their fights for autonomy.
In the late twentieth century, there was a ‘pink tide’ of democratically elected socialists in Latin America, some which have survived coups to pursue agendas which aren’t aligned with the US. Che didn’t think this was possible, but by then the political contours of the world had been reshaped by neoliberal crisis and US foreign policy pivoting to wars in the Middle East.
Hugo Chávez, who regarded Fidel as a mentor and Che as a hero, was elected as president of Venezuela in 1998, and Evo Morales, who helped build MAS from the trade union movements of coca growers, was elected in Bolivia in 2006. Morales held a ceremony that year at the place where Che was murdered, on 14 June, to commemorate what would have been his seventy-eight birthday. With ambassadors from Cuba and Venezuela standing at his side, Morales vowed ‘we will never betray the struggle of Che Guevara, Fidel, or of Chávez’.
The best form of struggle for our freedom from capitalism remains an open question, but this confluence of leaders at Che’s remembrance service suggests that the social revolution he dreamed of is still possible.
Happy birthday Che, on the day you would have been 94! ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!