Learning from Che Guevara

Che Guevara was not overly concerned about elections as a means for transforming a capitalist or authoritarian state. But he was extremely concerned about finances, and how to fund the revolution. There is a piece in the film, “Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary,” which is eerie in that it shows Che as part of a Cuban delegation in Moscow begging for funds for Cuba. In the film, the 34-year old Che Guevara is barely able to bite his tongue and check his scathing sarcasm for the Russian bureaucrats, in order to gain funding from them.

Che hated the Cuban revolution’s reliance on the Soviet Union, and went on to devise other means for obtaining funds and dispersing them. As the only one among the victorious guerrilla leadership in the Cuban revolution who had actually studied the works of Karl Marx, Che despised the bureaucrats and party hacks in the USSR as well as in Cuba.

I.F. Stone revealed that how, as early as 1961, at a conference in Punte del Este, Uruguay, Che Guevara — born in Argentina and a student of medicine there — was huddled in discussion with some new leftists from New York. A couple of Argentine Communist Party apparatchiks passed. Che couldn’t help shouting out: “Hey, why are you here, to start the counter-revolution?”

Like many in the emerging new left around the world, Che had first-hand experience with party apparatchiks and hated their attempts to impose their bureaucracy on indigenous revolutionary movements.

Indeed, contrary to the conceptions of many in the U.S. today, the revolution in Cuba was made independent of, and at times in opposition to, the Cuban Communist Party. It was only several years after the revolution succeeded in taking state power that an uneasy working relationship was established leading to a merger of the revolutionary forces and the Party — a merger that provided no end of problems for Che, and for the Cuban revolution itself.

We can learn something for our situation in the US today by examining Che’s approach in Latin America.

One such problem: Cuba’s increasing dependence upon the Soviet Union (in some ways similar to radical organizations’ increasing dependence on Foundation grants and other hoop-providing jumpsters). In its desperation for currency to buy needed items, the government — after strenuous debate — decided to forego diversification of Cuba’s agriculture in order to expand its main cash-crop, sugar, which it exchanged for Soviet oil, using some and reselling the rest on the world market. Despite Che’s (and others) warnings, Cuba gradually lost the capability to feed its own people — a problem that reached devastating proportions with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Similar crises had beset the Soviet Union and other avowedly socialist countries when they pursued industrial models of development and tried to pay for it by producing for and competing in the world market. Che’s response: Don’t produce for the world market. Reject cost/benefit analysis as the measure for what gets produced. A truly new society, Che believed, must aspire to and implement immediately, in the here and now, what its people dream for the future. And to get there, REAL communist revolutions must reject “efficiency” and nurture communalistic attempts to create a more humane society instead.

Che’s contempt for the officials of Marxdom (while considering himself a marxist) and bureaucrats of every stripe broke with the numbing mechanistic economics that Marxism had become. With Che and the new left inspired by him, “Revolution” was placed back on the historical agenda.

Che’s internationalism and identification with the poor and downtrodden every-where, his refusal to recognize the sanctity of national boundaries in the fight against U.S. imperialism, inspired new radical movements throughout the world. Che called upon radicals to transform OURSELVES into new, socialist human beings BEFORE the revolution, if we were to have any hope of actually achieving one worth living in. His call to begin living meaningfully NOW reverberated through an entire generation, reaching as much towards Sartre’s existentialism as the latter stretched towards Marx. Through action, through wringing the immediacy of revolution from the neck of every oppression, of every moment, and by putting one’s ideals immediately into practice, Che hammered the leading philosophical currents of the day into a tidal wave of revolt.

For Che, Marx’s maxim: “From each according to their ability to each according to their needs,” was not simply a long-range slogan but an urgent practical necessity to be implemented at once. The harrowing constraints of developing a small country (or radio station!!!!) along socialist lines, particularly in the context of continued attacks by U.S. imperialism (including a blockade, an invasion, a threatened nuclear war, and ongoing economic and ideological harrassment), on the other hand, militated against Che’s vision and boxed-in the revolutionary society into choosing from equally unpalatable alternatives.

In a sense, many of our organizations face similar “alternatives” today.

It was amid such contradictory pressures that Che tried to set a different standard for Cuba, and for humanity in general. As Minister of Finance, he managed to distribute the millions of dollars obtained from the USSR to artists, and to desperately poor farmers who in the U.S. would have been considered, shall we say, “poor risks.”

The Russian bureaucrats, like any capitalist banker, were furious with Che’s “Take what you need, don’t worry about paying it back” attitude. They leaned on Fidel to control Che and to regulate the “proper” dispersal of funds, just as twenty years later under Brezhnev, and apparently having learned nothing, the Soviet state leaned on Poland to pay back its inflated debt to the western banks, causing cutbacks and hardship and leading to the working class response: the formation of Solidarnosc. Indeed, the Soviet Union at that time was the best friend Chase Manhattan ever had! And in so doing it paid the ultimate price.

In 1959, the guerrillas, headed by Fidel Castro, swept into Havana having defeated the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Although the U.S. government armed and funded Batista, the CIA had its agents in Fidel’s guerrilla army as well.

One lieutenant in the guerilla army, Frank Fiorini, was actually one of several operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency there. Fiorini would surface a few years later as a planner of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, two years after that as one of three “hobos” arrested in Dallas a few moments after President Kennedy was assassinated and immediately released (one of the other “hobos” was none other than CIA-operative E. Howard Hunt), and again as one of the culprits involved with the dozens of CIA assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro.

Fiorini became quite famous again in 1973 as one of the burglars at the Democratic Party Headquarters at a hotel known as the Watergate, under the name Frank Sturgis. Indeed, it was precisely when the Watergate hearings were on the verge of raising serious questions about the Bay of Pigs and U.S. covert operations in Cuba that, suddenly, the existence of secret White House tapes was “unexpectedly” revealed. From that moment on, all we heard was what did Nixon know and when did he know it, and the potentially explosive investigation on the verge of revealing the secret history of illegal CIA interventions in Cuba, the murder of John F. Kennedy and attempted assassinations of Fidel were effectively sidetracked.

And yet it was under the constant threat of warfare by the U.S. — overt as well as the ongoing covert operations — that the Cuban revolution, especially under the instigation of Che, took some of its boldest steps in introducing “socialism of a new type.”

Contrast that with the erstwhile “communist” states, as they sacrificed whatever visionary socialist features they had in order to lure capitalist investment, so that they could compete on the world market. As head of the Cuban national bank, Che going against the tide, as always — made Cuba’s new banknotes famous by signing them simply “Che.” The first question Che asked of his subordinates when he took over the bank was “Where has Cuba deposited its gold reserves and dollars?” When he was told, “In Fort Knox,” he immediately began converting Cuba’s gold reserves into non-U.S. currencies which were exported to Canadian or Swiss banks. (1)

Che’s concern was not so much with developing “solvent” banking institutions in Cuba, but with two things: fighting U.S. imperialism, in this instance by removing the revolution’s gold from the clutches of the United States government (which could all too easily invent an excuse to confiscate it, as it later did with other Cuban holdings. Che was prescient in understanding that this would happen); and, of equal importance, finding ways to foster and fund the creation of a new socialist human being without relying upon capitalist mechanisms, which he understood would end up undermining the best of efforts. Che best put forth his outlook, which came to be that of the new left internationally as well, in a speech, “On Revolutionary Medicine”:

“Except for Haiti and Santo Domingo, I have visited, to some extent, all the other Latin American countries. Because of the circumstances in which I traveled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger, and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money; with the stupefication provoked by continual hunger and punishment, to the point that a father can accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident, as occurs often in the downtrodden classes of our American homeland. And I began to realize that there were things that were almost as important to me as becoming a famous scientist or making a significant contribution to medical science: I wanted to help those people.

“How does one actually carry out a work of social welfare? How does one unite individual endeavor with the needs of society?

“For this task of organization, as for all revolutionary tasks, fundamentally it is the individual who is needed. The revolution does not, as some claim, standardize the collective will and the collective initiative. On the contrary, it liberates one’s individual talent. What the revolution does is orient that talent. And our task now is to orient the creative abilities of all medical professionals toward the tasks of social medicine.

“The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth. … Far more important than a good remuneration is the pride of serving one’s neighbor. Much more definitive and much more lasting than all the gold that one can accumulate is the gratitude of a people.

“We must begin to erase our old concepts. We should not go to the people and say, `Here we are. We come to give you the charity of our presence, to teach you our science, to show you your errors, your lack of culture, your ignorance of elementary things.’ We should go instead with an inquiring mind and a humble spirit to learn at that great source of wisdom that is the people.

“Later we will realize many times how mistaken we were in concepts that were so familiar they became part of us and were an automatic part of our thinking. Often we need to change our concepts, not only the general concepts, the social or philosophical ones, but also sometimes our medical concepts.

“We shall see that diseases need not always be treated as they are in big-city hospitals. We shall see that the doctor has to be a farmer also and plant new foods and sow, by example, the desire to consume new foods, to diversify the nutritional structure which is so limited, so poor.

“If we plan to redistribute the wealth of those who have too much in order to give it to those who have nothing; if we intend to make creative work a daily, dynamic source of all our happiness, then we have goals towards which to work.” (2)

Che’s love for the people took him first to the Congo and then to Bolivia, where he organized a band of guerrillas to serve, he hoped, as a catalyst in inspiring revolution. Che once again had to battle Official Marxdom: He struggled with the head of the Bolivian Communist Party for leadership of the guerrillas. The question: “Who should set policy for the guerrillas, Che and the guerrillas themselves or the head of the Bolivian Communist Party?” The guerrillas voted for Che perhaps the only election Che was ever involved in. NOT anybody was allowed to vote, not those who happened to live in the area, for example, but only people who were actively engaged in the struggle. Once Che won that election against the Communist Party attaché — an election that was not only about the individuals but a plebiscite on completely different revolutionary strategies — the Communist Party abandoned the guerrilla movement.

Would we view Che’s decision today as the correct one if the Bolivian CP had not been so heavy-handed, irresponsible and doctrinaire? (On the other hand, can there be a vanguard party that does not act in such a manner?) The question still haunts: To whom is the guerrilla responsible? Who sets the framework?

Such questions are not any easier to resolve. In Vietnam, for example, contary to Che’s guerrilla army, the National Liberation Front’s military took their policy from the party’s political bureau, not the other way around.

This was not the case with Che in Bolivia. The relationship of organization to mass-movement is a problem that has always plagued radical movements when they get to a certain stage. To whom is the affinity group, for example, responsible? Or, for that matter, the artist? The radio network?

On the one hand, decentralization is attractive, allowing for the greatest small-group autonomy, individual freedom and creativity. (One’s individual radio show, perhaps. One’s need for a paying job to support the family.) On the other hand, the larger movement must not only be able to coordinate the activities of many local groups but frame the actions of smaller groups who purport to be part of the same movement within a larger collective strategy, thus in some sense limiting their autonomy.

In Bolivia, failure by the guerrillas to be part of a many-pronged social movement led to their demise. Indeed, Che in his last days was rueful and frustrated at the lack of working class uprising in the mines, which he had hoped to incite. (The Communist Party was powerful among mine workers in Bolvia.) An uprising would have enabled the guerrillas to have had much greater impact. Eventually, the miners did overcome the CP reticence and did go on strike, but it was too little, too late. The guerrillas were depleted, Che wished for just 100 more guerrilla troops; that rather small number (he believed) would have made the difference.

These are serious and complicated questions that apply to our social movements today. Resolving such matters is not helped by demagoguery or grand-standing. It COULD BE helped by a transformation at the station itself, into one that consciously tries to develop a revolutionary culture and sees itself as such, and not simply a “job”. Tricky stuff. Not easily reconciled. The world or at least OUR world depends upon whether we are able to resolve (or at least live with) the contradictions implied therein.

In Bolivia in the Summer of 1967, the guerrillas were picked off one by one. Without additional revolutionary forces Che and the others were forced to deal with the reality that, at least in Bolivia at that moment, their strategy for catalyzing a mass-based revolutionary uprising has failed. With the U.S. government under the presidency of the Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, sending military “advisers” and arms to the Bolivian junta, it became only a matter of time, a few months, before the struggle was defeated and the guerrillas wiped out.

A true picture of Che is not that of the flamboyant posters, nor the hagiography of both Hollywood and Stalinism, but of a man dedicated to the poor internationally, trying with a small band of guerrillas to spark a revolutionary uprising of peasants and workers to create a better life for themselves, and meeting frustration after frustration, with only some small successes apart from the tremendous victory of the Cuban revolution itself.

In America, we portray heroes as all-knowing exceptions to the rule, thereby reinforcing our dependence upon the myth of the heroic individual and maintaining the impotence of the multitude. In our culture, we are taught that change takes place not through mass-action but through a single moralistic or righteous figure (think of how Dr. King or Malcolm X is portrayed today) who is able to make the system respond positively to the importance of his or her argument.

We should hold no such illusions. The Bolivian peasants who are still alive and living in the areas in which Che and his guerrilla band were operating were clearly touched by the brush of history. In the film “Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary,” the filmmakers found that many of them were still alive, and interviewed them. They movingly recounted that one world-historic experience of their lives, their encounter with Che. Some remembered his kindness towards them. One peasant woman was an apolitical young teenager in 1967 and had risked her life to bring Che food and look after him in his last hours. Now around 50 years old, she remembers Che’s kindness towards her, and how this profoundly affected her life. Although no one in the film says it in so many words, clearly Che was something of a Christ figure to them, even to those who betrayed him or fired on him. It’s quite a comment on our present condition that human touches that were once quite ordinary seem, in today’s world, exceptional.

As Che put it, in his most famous quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

But back in the Autumn of 1967, Che was thrown increasingly into doubt. He began to question his strategy of the “foco” for Bolivia, which in Cuba had worked so effectively. The guerrillas were faced with the failure of the peasants to join the revolt, contrary to the guerrillas’ expectations. This had a huge demoralizing effect on the guerrilla army, as well as upon Che’s state of mind.

Che was captured, tortured and murdered in Bolivia under the direction of the CIA on October 9, 1967. Thirty-six years have passed. Still Che is remembered, not as some ancient and barely remembered patriarch, but as one who exemplifying the spirit of the times. He inspired so many ordinary people to commit themselves to their vision of a different world, even in the face of bureaucratic intransigence and the enormous power of US imperialism, against all odds.

That such a vision seems extraordinary today, that acting out of one’s love for humanity is almost inconceivable in the US today only makes yesterday’s commonplace behavior seem beyond comprehension. And yet, people act in such ways ALL THE TIME. We just don’t see it, or report it. It’s what makes us human in an era of robots. It’s what enabled the new Bolivian revolution to actually win state power, much to the chagrin of the US government. That, too, is part of Che’s legacy.

And, hopefully, its what inspires us to continue “risking ridicule,” regardless of where it comes from, to make our radical efforts today successful. For many of us, it’s not only the end result that matters, it’s the way we live, living a meaningful life.


1. John Gerassi, “Venceremos! The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevara,” Introduction, Simon and Schuster, p. 14.

2. ibid. This is an edited and abbreviated extract from a 1960 speech by Che Guevara, “On Revolutionary Medicine.” The entire speech can be found in the Gerassi book, pp 112-119.

MITCHEL COHEN is co-editor of “Green Politix,” the national newspaper of the Greens/Green Party USA. He can be reached at: mitchelcohen@mindspring.com


Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City. He can be reached at: mitchelcohen@mindspring.com.