Che from Rebel to Icon

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Christophe Chataigné spoke to author Mike Gonzalez about Che Guevara's life and legacy.

Why another book on Che, when there are so many already?

We imagine that Che has been around all the time, that that image has always been there, but actually that's not quite true. There have been long periods when the image of Che Guevara was still around but not everywhere as it is today. The motive behind the book is quite simple: on every anti-war mobilisation, on every activity that has happened since Seattle and the beginning of the anti-capitalist movement, one image seems to define that movement, one image seems to be an international symbol of this new generation - the image of Che Guevara.

So the starting point is this curious fact that a revolutionary who died in 1967 - probably 20 years before the majority of people involved in this movement came into politics - is still relevant. This image has a meaning for them well beyond the life and the historical reality of that man. This book is a response to what I think is a question embedded in the icon. Why do they carry an image of somebody whose political life and career they probably know little of? What does it mean?

Admittedly I think five or six major biographies were published around 1997, 30 years after his death. But they were very weighty biographies, really directed at the generation of people who remembered Guevara and for whom the politics of the Cuban Revolution were significant. I wanted to write a book for a new generation - to ask, where do we go from here? What does it mean to be a revolutionary? And to try to explore why the face of this long dead revolutionary somehow enshrines and encapsulates the spirit of a new generation.

A film about Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries is to be released this summer. Is this the point when Che became a revolutionary, or at least developed a revolutionary consciousness?

It is an interesting question and quite a difficult one. The Motorcycle Diaries are the records of a young man who undertakes an adventure. It's not to say that he is completely without any sense of politics. For example, he's a Latin American, and to be a Latin American is to automatically know and understand that the history of your continent is overshadowed by the presence of a great power to the north, which shapes and directs what affects people's lives directly. There are politics in Che's background, but all the people who knew him as a young man insist that he was somebody who by and large avoided politics.

He lived in a very political time and in a very political society. Argentina when he was growing up was full of turmoil, lots of class conflicts. His parents were closely associated with the Communist Party of Argentina, which has a rather curious and dark history. So there was politics in the 'milieu' he grew up in.

He undertakes this trip as an adventure and he is quite clear about that. He wants to see Latin America. The ideas of this young man slowly begin to change as a result of his experiences.

It is very important to be able to say to people that political understanding doesn't come because you are born with it. You do not have this miraculous sudden awareness, where you read Marx at three and by the time you're five you've read all three volumes of Capital and so on. There are precious few of this kind of revolutionary but there are many other revolutionaries who've seen the world, experienced things, begin to feel anger, discontent. They then transform this discontent into a political understanding and then a revolutionary understanding.

What is interesting about Guevara's motorcycle trips is how he slowly comes into contact with things that will change his way of seeing the world. He goes to the great beautiful Inca city of Machu Picchu high up in the Andes. And there he sees what other revolutionary thinkers of Latin America have also seen, the reality of this extraordinary world, which was destroyed by an act of conquest - the discovery of another Latin America, which is not a colony, not a conquered oppressed nation, but something else that could have been. This reinforces a sense of how far Latin America was shaped and defined by the interests of great empires.

The Motorcycle Diaries are the beginning of a journey of discovery. Now the big debate is, does he suddenly become a revolutionary in Machu Picchu? The answer is no. He goes back to Argentina and then undertakes a second journey.

By then he is a doctor, and he comes face to face with some of the diseases that arise from poverty. Again there isn't an immediate sense that he sees leprosy - which is rampant in the Amazon - and says, 'This is because of capitalism.' But he sees the poor and he sees the suffering. And all of these become components of a growing revolutionary understanding.

Guevara is a human being and from a normal background. He's not a saint. He's not somebody who has a flash revelation overnight. He's somebody who reaches political understanding through experiences.

He then goes to Guatemala in 1954, which is a key moment not just for him but also for other revolutionaries. It is when an elected reforming government is overthrown cynically, explicitly by a military coup engineered and financed by the US government, particularly by the Dulles brothers. They were respectively Secretary of State and head of the FBI, but also executive directors of a major multinational, the United Fruit Company, which had huge interests in Guatemala.

The combination of the interests of the US state - suppressing what is seen as communism, which is at the time any kind of progressive movement - and the defence of the interests of a major corporation combined and merged to crush a movement for reform in Guatemala.

The mythology says Guevara participated - in reality he only took part in a very brief resistance. But when he left Guatemala one question was in his mind. Why was the government of Guatemala so easily defeated?

Is it fair to say that after Guatemala Che was a strong anti-imperialist, although not a revolutionary?

After Guatemala, Che marries a woman who is a very active revolutionary. A lot of revolutionaries come to Guatemala at the time because what is happening there is hugely exciting. It's the first time in many years that the US's interests have been taken on by a national reformist government which is attempting to carry through land reforms, trade union reforms, and so on.

At that point Che begins to read and to see himself not only as an anti-imperialist but also as somebody moving towards socialist thinking, towards Marxism. So 1954 to me is the point at which the political Guevara begins to emerge out of that earlier experience.

In your book you mention Mexico. Is this where he meets Cuban dissidents and shares his ideas about guerrilla warfare?

Drawing conclusions from Guatemala, Guevara says, 'We should have fought harder. We should have resisted.' The problem for Guevara was a military one - the people were not armed, not prepared to resist. Guevara has grown up as an anti-imperialist but not with the tradition which says that the real power for change lies in the mass of working people. It is an idea not really present in his political education despite his parents' involvement in the Communist Party.

He didn't see himself as connected with a mass movement. Perhaps it is because he is an Argentinian, having seen Peronism mobilising mass movements of workers and using them as instruments of power.

So this is at the same time as he starts to read Marx?

Yes, that's right. He meets Castro in Mexico and he is absolutely overwhelmed by him. It's funny because his early contacts with Cubans include several people with much more ideological backgrounds. Castro himself is a revolutionary nationalist with very little visible training or background in socialist or Marxist ideas. He is a leading member of a broad nationalist resistance to the dictatorship in Cuba.

What Castro and Che have in common when they meet is a sense that Latin American dictatorships are manipulated by imperial interests and must be confronted. But they also share a sense, even though they come from different backgrounds, of distrusting mass movements as a force to change the world: Castro because of his experience of a deeply discredited Communist Party in Cuba, and Guevara through his experience of Peronism.

During those discussions there aren't any obvious alternative ways of thinking. There is Stalinism, the Communist Parties making compromises with corrupt governments and dictatorships, on the one hand, and on the other hand there is the idea of revolutionaries as a small, determined group of people who make the revolution - and above all a vision of a revolution as a process conducted and won in the countryside. So the urban working class doesn't figure in their thinking, except as a kind of support mechanism for the revolutionaries in the countryside. The conclusions drawn by Che and Castro are the idea of the necessity of an effective, tight military organisation. They see it as a war.

How did they go from this idea that you need an elite revolutionary military force to take power to the one about a Socialist Cuba?

The actual period of the Cuban Revolution is two years. Batista falls very quickly. After all there were few revolutionaries. There are only 18 surviving revolutionaries in December 1956 after the rebels' ship lands and comes under assault. They are in the mountains, quite isolated though with a series of contacts.

The battle is very quick. Although they've won a series of important battles, you can't explain the Cuban Revolution without recognising the rottenness, the corruption, of the Batista regime. Its brutal repression of the mass of people led to a widespread support for the revolutionaries, at the level of symbolism and political support.

At the same the US begin to see Batista as a liability. They start to withdraw support from him, particularly in 1958 when the action against the revolutionaries and against their supporters becomes more and more brutal and savage.

Was this small group of revolutionaries the only alternative?

Not strictly speaking. There were other forces, even other guerrilla groups. One of them, the Revolutionary Directorate, had a long history. The 26 July Movement around Castro and Guevara had many disagreements with them. The Communist Party was extremely hostile to the revolutionaries in the mountains, yet it maintained a relationship with them, with one of its leaders spending a great amount of time through 1957-58 in the mountains with Castro.

Very quickly the 26 July Movement established itself as the leadership of the movement. The 26 July Movement existed in the cities, especially among radical students. It had sections among radical wings of the armed forces but they were very quickly crushed. When those sections were crushed - and I tried in the book to look at some of the complexities of those relationships - you have a small group in the mountains which established itself as the central symbol of the struggle against Batista, compounded by a very deliberate strategy of drawing all these groups under the general leadership of the 26 July Movement. By the end of 1958 and the fall of Batista there is really no question that the resistance to Batista is symbolised and led by the 26 July Movement.

What is the 26 July Movement and what is its relationship to the other forces - middle class forces, the Communist Party? Immediately after 2 January 1959, the victory of the revolution, those relationships appeared to be quite fluid.

It's certainly not a revolution that declares itself to be a socialist or a communist revolution on the first day, not by a very long way. Writers have tried to say that Castro was always a socialist, always a Marxist - he just hid it. I think that's naive in the extreme. The three major leaders of the revolution at that moment are Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is a radical nationalist, very popular indeed. Guevara is a foreigner, a revolutionary who reads avidly and begins to define himself as a socialist. Castro doesn't define himself as a socialist, not for some considerable time. He's trying to settle relationships with the Communist Party but they are still very hostile. He is also working with other political forces.

I would say that it takes two years and a series of events for the Cuban Revolution to call itself socialist. We can debate some writers' views whether it was a secret socialist revolution. But a secret socialist revolution is a contradiction in terms. It's either a socialist revolution or it isn't.

In the meantime the US government mobilises intensively against the Cuban Revolution, undertaking all sorts of activities to try to undermine it, culminating in the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. It's after that invasion that Castro declares the revolution to be communist and socialist. So in a sense the revolution radicalises. This is partly because there are internal currents - Guevara is undoubtedly already an internationalist, already somebody who sees there should be no compromises with imperialism. Castro is much more of a negotiator, seeking alliances, trying to protect the Cuban Revolution by making alliances with all sorts of forces.

You mentioned in your book Che's admiration for Castro. How much did this prevent Che from imposing his ideas?

That's a very interesting question. The revolution takes power in 1959 - by 1964 Guevara has left Cuba. So in those five years Guevara goes from being what is described by many writers as the key ideological influence on the revolution and on Castro, to becoming increasingly disillusioned and discontented with the direction the revolution has taken, until he finally leaves Cuba. Although he goes to make the revolution elsewhere, it is perfectly clear that a gulf is growing between him, Castro and the other major actors of the Cuban Revolution. For instance Raul Castro - Fidel's brother - is designated as the next leader if Castro dies.

Guevara very quickly becomes restless and becomes hostile to the increasing influence of the Soviet Union through the Communist Party of Cuba. He thinks it will not allow Cuba to develop and diversify its economy, and will compromise the revolution because Cuba will always be subordinated to the international interest of the Soviet Union. He is sometimes described by the orthodox Communist parties as pro-Chinese - he visited China and he was interested in the 'great leap forward', this idea that with one great act of consciousness you can leap out of underdevelopment.

Castro himself is uneasy with the relationship with Russia but feels he needs it. The missile crisis of 1962 shows Castro that when it comes to the crunch the Russians will not defend Cuba. On the contrary, as he finds out later, they will use it as a pawn in an international game. That leads Castro to share some of Guevara's suspicions and thinking that maybe the answer is developing other revolutions in Latin America. But the Soviets say that they will only give Cuba support if Castro reins them back.

That's the tension in which Guevara becomes increasingly distant from Castro. But there is always something else - the endless declaration of admiration for Castro, his reverence for him. In a letter published a year after leaving Cuba in 1965, he describes Castro as a man who is closer to the pulse of the Cuban masses than anyone else. This is a bit odd when you know that Castro comes from a wealthy landowning family, was an educated man studying law.

Guevara is an odd mixture. He's a profoundly arrogant, determined, absolutely convinced revolutionary but at other times he seems extremely modest and willing to accept a very important but not a necessarily public role in the Cuban Revolution. He was an influence, but Castro is the indisputable leader.

You mentioned that Che went on to try to make the revolution elsewhere. How successful was he, bearing in mind that armed struggle was his only solution?

We have some insights into what was in his mind at this time. There is no question about his determination, his selflessness. He was in the revolution to make the revolution, but he had one strategic understanding of what that meant in a period of imperial warfare. In the heart of this strategic idea is the notion that revolutions occur or don't occur because of the presence or absence of committed, organised and disciplined revolutionaries. In other words it is revolutionaries who make the revolution.

The idea that it could be done on behalf of the masses by a small group of determined people is a dangerous, misguided idea. Firstly, because a small group can't make revolution. It's a giant social process. But much more importantly because revolution is above all the moment in which workers are transformed in their relationship to the world. Instead of being objects of other people's history they become the subject of their own. This is the essence of revolution. You can't make a revolution while keeping those in whose name you make the revolution on the margins waiting.

Guerrilla warfare was a strategy, not a method. What determines the success or failure of a revolution is, of course, organisation but the organisation of the mass of working people in transforming their own lives.

I think Guevara came face to face with the limitation of his own strategy, an understanding that actually you can't simply introduce revolution as a force outside the real social circumstances. Where that really came home was in the Congo. One hundred and two Cuban revolutionaries arrived in the Congo to gather all the dissidents and different quarrelling groups and make the revolution. But they arrived with no political understanding of the place. They had no roots at all. What they brought was a military force, as if that would tip the revolution. It was a complete failure and Guevara barely got away with his life.

He then goes to Prague in 1965. He is terribly depressed, demoralised, out of touch with Cuba, where he finally returns. The Castro brothers and Guevara spend two days arguing, and it is quite clear that Guevara cannot sympathise with the direction the Cuban Revolution is taking in its reconciliation with Russian interests. He is still committed to the idea of revolution as an international process. He's somebody without an independent base inside Cuban society. He has got sympathisers, people who in 1964-65 agreed with his criticisms, but by the time he came back from Africa they had either been disciplined or no longer existed.

So what does he do?

He turns his eyes to Bolivia to create a revolution. We don't know if Castro approved it or not. I suspect he didn't but Guevara pursued it. In a way he had no role any longer inside Cuba, because he represented a strategy that now had been rejected. Even though later Castro would claim to be pursuing that strategy, it'd always be just a device in bargaining with the Russians. But as far as Guevara is concerned his route of revolutionary internationalism has been abandoned. He has no theory of mass organisation and he has no role in power to transform the world. It leaves him in a very curious and lost situation.

So Che never came to accept the principle of self emancipation and the importance of the working class as a revolutionary factor?

When you look at that last year in Bolivia, it's a tragedy - not just because Che is murdered, but also because Bolivia is a place with a magnificent history of working class organisation. The Bolivian miners are the leading sector all across Latin America. They have a heroic and courageous history. They were the leaders of the 1952 revolution. They have continued to struggle against one nationalist leader after another. They were engaged, albeit in a defensive struggle, when Guevara went to Bolivia. Guevara established a rural hideout near the Argentinian border with a vision of a guerrilla centre. Yet a few hundred miles away the miners were in struggle. In his Bolivian diaries Guevara makes a few references to the miners but he does not see a relationship with the working class in Bolivia as being in any way central. And that to me is a great tragedy.

Since Che died it seems that the Cuban people are still asked to make sacrifices to sustain the Cuban Revolution and Castro still uses Che's image to justify the state of Cuban society. What is Cuba today and what should socialists make of it?

If you travel around Cuba, there are very few images of Castro but images of Guevara are everywhere. You also find Che products like T-shirts, mugs, cigarettes and so on. This leads people to say that he is simply a commercial image. For some people it's true. In 1968 in London there was a big boutique called 'Che'.

On the other hand, the image of Che in the government propaganda, especially at the beginning of the 1990s, was important because people associated it with the idea of sacrificing yourself for the revolution. Che was its living embodiment. Now Cuba was once again asking the majority of people to sacrifice themselves for the revolution on a promise of prosperity to come. But this is 40 years after the revolution.

And the majority of Cubans are living very basic lives, with few material benefits. The growth of tourism and Cuba finding a place in the world market has meant renewed sacrifices for many Cubans. At the same time it means the emergence of a group of people who are wealthy - the entrepreneurs, the agents of foreign capital, the beneficiaries of tourism and so on. So it's true that when you walk in Cuba you can see what you want to see, but if you have your eyes open it's manifestly the case that some people live well and some don't - that expensive new cars are driven around the city while other people live in very poor conditions.

People are very discontented; they see the deepening divisions in their society with increasing anger. What shall we do about that? Shall we say well, it's all imperialism's fault? The key thing is not to say it's all Castro's fault and Cuba would have done differently if someone else was in place. It is to say that for socialists the question we have to ask is, where does the interest of working people lie? Does the society they're in provide them with benefits? Are the resources of that society devoted to the needs of the majority of people? And if they're not, it doesn't matter what this society is calling itself. The distribution of wealth is unequal and workers are not represented. Then the task for socialists is to seek by every means possible to help workers organise in their own interest. And if that means organising against the state, then so be it.

Castro calls himself a socialist. A lot of people call themselves socialists. A lot of people say they act in the interests of the people. The test is in practice. And if I see people growing rich and others poor, and that any form of dissent or criticism is immediately crushed, if I see somebody, however charismatic, staying 45 years in power without a single election, it seems to me something of an abuse of social democracy.

All of those things matter and they are the criteria by which we judge things.

To come back to where we started, a lot of young people see Guevara as embodying something of the spirit that they have, of the feelings that they have about the world, the yearning that the world should be a better place. We all know that another world is possible. Che represents the conviction that the world can be changed, and above all changed by the movement itself.

The life of Guevara is a historical lesson for us that starts with the presumption that revolution can be made, should be made, and the world needs to be changed. So given that, the question is 'How?' The answer is not in manuals, not from handbooks, but from history, from experience. And the life of this great and committed fighter for social transformation should become part of the education of a new generation of revolutionaries.