Everyone knows the image and almost everybody knows the name, but very few know about the politics and the legacy. Tony Bozdagci uncovers the man behind the image
The iconic Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter) photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara is arguably the most recognisable image in the world. It has adorned everything from shirts to bikinis, surfboards and jewellery.
It persists as a statement against injustice and for many represents resistance, revolution, even socialism. But who is the man behind the image, and what can his strategy for change tell us about the fight for socialism?
Ernesto Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928 into a liberal middle class family. Argentina was transitioning towards industrialisation, but retained its old political structure. Landowning families held power, and the law was upheld by vigilante groups loyal to them. Workers had little or no rights.
A young medical student, Guevara travelled around Latin America by motorcycle. He became politically aware through his travels and started to understand life for those who were poor and oppressed. He saw early on that many of the illnesses he treated were preventable, and felt a great deal of compassion towards those who were denied the luxuries he was born into.
In 1953 he travelled to Guatemala. Its major industry was bananas, monopolised by the American multinational The United Fruit Company. At the time, Central American economies were run almost completely in the interests of US imperialism. Each country was headed by a dictator who answered directly to the White House. The one exception was Guatemala where the democratically elected Arbenz government had nationalised the fruit industry and introduced trade union rights. As a result of this Guatemala attracted exiles from other countries. Here Guevara met a circle of revolutionaries with whom he read and discussed the works of Freud and Mao amongst others.
The United Fruit Company took its concerns to the White House, and within months the US bombed the country, killing thousands and decimating its banana plantations. In a letter to his mother, Che wrote: “The bombs are falling from the sky like raindrops and all are ankle deep in blood, and I’m having as much fun as a monkey”. He predicted the Guatemalan government would arm the people to defeat the Americans. Instead, the president surrendered, and a US-backed successor was installed.
Many radicals concluded that Arbenz had brought the coup onto himself through too rapid nationalisation and radical reforms. Guevara and others argued that Arbenz was not radical enough, and that a group of people prepared to go to war must be assembled in order to beat back imperialism. This experience was to shape the way Guevara conceptualised revolutionary change.
Guevara was thrown out of Guatemala, and travelled to Mexico where he met a group of Cuban exiles, among them Fidel and Raul Castro. They too came from privileged middle class families, frustrated by the destructive role of US imperialism in the region. Their aspirations for an independent Cuba put them squarely against Cuba’s pro-US dictator, Fulgencio Batista. They were determined to bring national liberation to Cuba through an armed insurrection. Owing mainly to his medical training and enthusiasm for guerrilla warfare, Guevara was asked to join them.
Batista had come to power through a US-backed coup in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, he established a close relationship with organised crime. Brothels and casinos flourished and Havana became a tourist haven, dubbed the “Latin Las Vegas”.
US companies owned Cuba’s oil industry, almost all its cattle ranches, mines and utilities, and almost 40 per cent of Cuban sugar fields (the country’s primary crop). The US also supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s total imports.
By 1955, unemployment was becoming a major problem for both rural workers who had moved to the cities and new university graduates. Student demonstrations and anti-Batista riots became common. Batista’s army started to splinter. After a coup attempt by one of his generals, hundreds of highly-ranked officers were purged.
This was the context in which Castro, Guevara and their tiny group of guerrillas arrived by boat in 1956 to begin building towards an uprising.
In 1957, a group of students tried to assassinate Batista, but failed. Dissidents were rounded up, tortured, and questioned about Castro’s guerrillas. Up to 20,000 civilians were reportedly killed, many of them in public executions. The brutality of the regime further increased support for the guerrillas, who were staging successful attacks on army garrisons and gaining support from local peasants.
Castro’s guerillas marched into Havana and took power in front of jubilant crowds in January 1959. But it was the result of a power vacuum left as supporters abandoned the crumbling Batista regime whose credibility was exhausted.
The guerrilla strategy relegated the working class to passive spectators. It emphasised the military struggle against dictatorship. An armed uprising was to start in the countryside and engulf the cities, without workers playing any leading role. As Che himself described:
“The campesinos, with an army made up of their own kind fighting for their own great objectives, primarily for a just distribution of land, will come from the country to take the cities… This army, created in the countryside, where subjective conditions ripen for the seizure of power, proceeds to conquer the cities from the outside.”
For Che, subjective factors like courage, determination, bravery and sacrifice could overcome objective conditions: “It is not necessary to wait for conditions to be right to begin the revolution, the insurrectionary guerrilla group can create them.”
Che romanticised the guerrillas as “guiding angels helping the poor”. These intellectual guerrillas were more educated than the Cuban peasants and rural workers. So it fell to them to make the important decisions. This kind of substitutionism is the opposite of what Marxists mean by socialism “from below”, because the mass of workers have no real role, only heroes to watch and applaud.
While the guerrillas undoubtedly had wide support from the Cuban population, this is very different to the mass of Cuban workers themselves having control over the revolution.
Che paid lip service to the role of urban workers, saying that the peasant guerrillas would have to accept “the ideological base of the working class—Marxism”.
But the very heart of Marxism is the fact that socialist revolution is the act of the working class itself, building new institutions of mass popular democracy to take control of society for the majority.
Guevara and Castro—Communists?
Contrary to popular belief, most of Castro’s band of exiles did not identify as Communists or Marxists at the outset of their campaign. At the time, most radicals associated Marxism with Stalinist Russia, which falsely promoted itself as a socialist country.
Initially Castro was suspicious of the USSR, due to the actions of the Stalinist Communist Party in Cuba. Like all Communist Parties at the time, the Cuban party functioned as an unconditional defender of Soviet foreign policy. This led it to join the first government of dictator Batista in 1940.
After taking power in 1959, Castro exclaimed, “Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist! … Capitalism sacrifices the human being; communism with its totalitarian conceptions sacrifices human rights. We agree neither with the one or the other … Our revolution is not red but olive green”. The revolution’s aims were nationalist and anti-imperialist, with the hope of establishing a stronger Cuban capitalism which was not controlled and held back by the US.
The political shift made by Cuba’s new leaders after the revolution, in declaring themselves socialists, signified a partnership of convenience with Moscow rather than any real political conversion.
Before the revolution the Cuban economy was overwhelmingly reliant on exports to the US. After the US imposed its embargo on Cuba in 1960, Cuba became increasingly dependent on the USSR for markets for exports and military aid.
After the 1959 revolution Cuba’s new rulers attempted to build up the national economy. Workers were pushed to be more productive, through working longer hours and weekends. Often Che would show great self-sacrifice by working long hours himself. He believed that leading by example was the best way to show that workers could produce for moral incentives rather than financial ones. But for all the new regime’s popularity, its objectives were not working class, let alone socialist, ones.
In 1965, Che set out to spread the revolution abroad—joining a guerrilla campaign in the Congo, and starting one in Bolivia. But both were disastrous.
The conditions that had allowed the guerrillas to defeat the old Cuban regime were specific to Cuba, and could not exported through the barrels of guns. Che was captured in Bolivia in 1967, handed over to the CIA, questioned, tortured, and killed.
After his death, Che’s image was held up by Fidel Castro as a symbol of revolutionary sacrifice. This became particularly important to the regime after the Soviet Union collapsed, imposing even greater economic difficulties.
Che Guevara continues to symbolise rebellion and fighting back. However Che’s strategy for revolutionary change is a dead end.
The Cuban Revolution saw change led from above. In the absence of the kind of revolutionary workers’ movement capable of bringing about a truly democratic society Cuba has been unable to break with the logic of capitalism and exploitation. Today its rulers are being forced to resort to mass sackings in the public sector and seeking to open up to the free market.
In Latin America today, the new mass movements of workers and the poor in Venezuela, Bolivia and the rest of Latin America are confronted anew with the issue of how to fight for real socialism and workers’ control. Cuba is no model in this new process of radicalisation.