Saturday, 22 August 2009

Reflections On Che, Revolution, Central America and Honduras

[Having recently seen Benicio del Toro’s cinematic biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, I got to thinking about guerrilla warfare in Central America, which I covered as a war correspondent in the 1970s and 1980s, and the current events in Honduras. This led me to put down some thoughts about the world’s most famous revolutionary.]

Since he was tracked down and slain in 1967 by the Bolivian army, with assistance from the U.S., Ernesto “Che” Guevara has become a legend throughout Latin America, indeed, the world.

An American journalist once described him as a “cross between a faun and a Sunday-school print of Jesus.” Che Guevara did have that visual quality, but of course that was not what Guevara was. He was a revolutionary – he lived and died thinking about, living and pursuing revolution.

For the revolutionaries in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico, Che Guevara’s presence was still felt toward the end of the 20th century. His books on guerrilla warfare were best sellers at university bookstores throughout Central America. In Nicaragua, posters of Che were tacked up next to those of Augusto Cesar Sandino, that country’s own rebel hero. Guevara’s face could be seen on walls, doors and sidewalks in the barrios of virtually every Central American city. His face graced T-shirts and car doors, as well.

Che remained a source of inspiration for the dozens of guerrilla groups that prowled the region’s mountains, jungles and urban slums, many of whom I accompanied as a war correspondent at that time. Considered the consummate guerrilla fighter, he was admired by communists and anarchists alike.

Che Guevara was not revered by everyone, of course. For governments threatened by revolution, for the wealthy and much of the middle class, Che was the anti-Christ. He represented destruction, a tearing down of the social order, and with it, everything they held dear.

When Salvador Allende’s left-leaning regime in Chile was overthrown by a military coup, one of the first acts of the new military junta was to blow up a statue of Che that Allende had erected in a working class suburb in 1971, with Castro himself on hand to dedicate the sculptor. Significantly, rather than simply tearing down the monument, the government first blew off the head of the figure. It was the end of Che Guevara in Chile. The revolutionary was dead, both as a major influence and as a symbol.

Che’s influence was due to a number of factors and quirks of history and personality. In the first place, there is his association with a kind of revolutionary purity. Che, the middle class intellectual, descended from a family of aristocratic and military background, who spent his life with the poor and formally uneducated – and paid for his purity with his death. It is a near-perfect, Christ-like image, a martyr who offers his life for his fellow human beings. It is still a powerful image for a continent dominated by the Catholic faith.

For many Guevara also represented idealism. A Cuban university student, a woman in her early 30s, put it this way in 1980: “When we won the revolution, Che didn’t settle down in a big mansion, like some of the other leaders. No, he left Cuba to fight for the poor people of Bolivia.”

Oddly, Che was revered for his realism, as well. He was not an armchair revolutionary, but a man of action, leadership and charisma. Not one to be satisfied spinning out theories, Guevara took to the field to try them out. Yet he was also a thinker and writer.

Guevara’s life, spent in a host of countries in Central and Latin America and in Africa, reflects another trait admired by his followers: Che was always an internationalist, fighting under the flag of change and revolt, roaming the world like a 20th century knight errant, a modern Don Quixote, who tilted at capitalism like so many windmills.

Although among many revolutionaries, Che Guevara is a godlike figure, during his time as part of Castro’s government in Cuba, he was responsible for very human mistakes. Charged by Fidel with reorganizing the economic base of Cuba’s faltering economy, Che had little success in the job, and had a falling out with the Russians over the direction that Cuba’s economy should take. Ultimately, Guevara resigned and left Cuba to lend his talents to Africa’s revolutionaries.

While I was in Cuba on an assignment, I heard a joke about Che’s dismal handling of the economy. Fidel asks Che if he remembers when, after the fall of Batista, he asked his colleagues, “Which one of you is an economist?” Che quickly raised his hand. So, Fidel put him in charge of economic reform. “Do you remember?” Fidel asks Guevara. “Yes, very well,” Che replied. “Then what the hell happened?” Fidel asked. “I thought you said you were an economist.” Che smiled. “I thought you asked, ‘Who is a Communist?’ So I raised my hand.”

Some Cubans as late as 1980 were still unhappy that Che left. In Havana, one young Cuban, discussing her feelings about Che, ironically mused, “Now there was a real revolutionary. We wouldn’t be in such an economic mess if he were still alive.”

Ernesto “Che” Guevara studied medicine in his native Argentina. After graduation in 1953, he travelled to Bolivia, where he became acquainted with leftist ideas and decided to go to Guatemala, where a newly elected leftist regime was in power.
On his way, he visited Costa Rica, where he studied Marxism and for the first time encountered Castro-led revolutionaries who were bent on overthrowing the Batista regime.

On his arrival in Guatemala, he offered his services to the government and was assigned to with indigenous peoples in a health programme. But before he could get started, the regime, whose agrarian reform programme threatened the holdings of the United Fruit Co., was toppled by a CIA-backed coup in 1954.

Che fled to Mexico, where he made a living as an itinerant photographer. It was in Mewxico that he met Fidel Castro, who convinced him to join his band of revolutionafries, who were about to invade Cuba.

After training for months on a ranch outside of Mexico City, the handful of armed men and women left Mexico aboard a U.S.-made yacht renamed Granma and headed for Cuba in November 1956. The rest if history.

Che was a man of action. But he was also a thinker, a planner, a strategist. He was a man who plotted things out, and he wrote down his observations to help revolutionaries benefit from his experience. His major contribution to the theory of armed struggle was his book, “Guerrilla Warfare,” in which he contended that popular forces can defeat an army, and that they can create the conditions for making revolution.

His major contribution to revolutionary strategy was his belief that the countryside is the basic stage on which guerrilla warfare should be played out. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) guerrillas in Nicaragua ousted the Somoza dictatorship while following Guevara’s tactics and strategy. They waged war mostly in Nicaragua’s rural areas, supported by popular uprisings in the cities. The Sandinistas also were careful, in most cases, to follow Guevara’s advice on the treatment of prisoners: “A wounded enemy should be treated with care and respect unless his former life has made him liable to a death penalty.”

Along the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border (which I covered), Sandinista guerrillas frequently handed over their prisoners to the Costa Rican Red Cross. Sandinista field hospitals were filled with wounded guerrillas and Somoza’s national guardsmen.
The guerrillas in Guatemala were also using Guevara’s book as their military Bible. Guevara stressed that “attempts to take the lives of particular persons are to be made, though only in very special circumstances; this tactic should be used where it will eliminate a leader of the oppression.”

In response to the Guatemalan military government’s reign of terror against indigenous peoples, peasants and liberal elements of the Roman Catholic Church, guerrilla commando groups concentrated their efforts on assassinating military leaders and heads of right-wing terrorist groups. They generally ignored local police, minor officials and the general population.

This is a far cry from the tactics that are being used by Muslim insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Although most Central American revolutionaries professed to revere Che and followed his ideas concerning armed struggle, some were involved in activities that Che would not have approved. In El Salvador, for example, military personnel unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the guerrillas were sometimes executed. Guerrillas in El Salvador at times used terrorist methods not only against the government and that country’s ruling oligarchy, but also against the general population. Their attempts at times to frighten the masses into cooperation were contrary to one of Che’s major tenets of armed struggle: “We sincerely believe that terrorism is of negative value, that it by no means produces the desired effects, that it can turn a people against a revolutionary movement...” Without the support of the people, according to Che, guerrillas degenerate into bandits, and are left without a base or a programme.

El Salvador’s small size (8,260 square miles) and large population forced most guerrilla activity into the city. Che felt strongly that urban guerrilla activity was secondary to the war in the countryside. Urban guerrilla warfare alone, according to Guevara, can at best produce a bloody stalemate with the government forces. It cannot bring a guerrilla victory.

Although Che believed that conditions could be created for a successful revolutionary struggle, he was careful to caution against armed insurrection until all peaceful attempts at change had been tried.

“Where a government has come into power,” he wrote, “through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or note, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.”

Guevara’s spirit and his theory of armed struggle are still alive today. But he remains a tarnished figure, partly because he failed in his final attempt to follow his own plan for revolt. There are assumptions in Che’s theories that cannot be taken for granted in the, for example, volatile political climate of Central America. Unity of city and country cannot be guaranteed. Radical groups with the same ends often differ about the means to achieve them. Often, a government is not strong and loathsome; it can be weak and pathetic. It does not inspire affection, but neither does it stir people to revolution.

Until recently, Honduras fell into this category.

Guevara also failed to take into account the native suspicion of outsiders. He understood that revolutions are made from the conditions within a country. Yet he failed to realize that their success is dependent on leadership emerging from among the population itself. Significantly, Che never led a successful – except for his role in Cuba, where the real leadership rested with Fidel Castro, a Cuban.

Still, Che’s theories constituted a road map on which could be traced the progress of revolutionary movements in Central America.

As peaceful means of change are rapidly being exhausted in Honduras, one wonders whether Che Guevara’s ideas for revolution will once again be taken up by people when they feel they have exhausted all possible peaceful means of ousting the illegitimate government in Tegucigalpa.

1 comment:

  1. another great post. you are correct that Che was vehemently against terrorism. I remember reading about some comrades that broke away from the July 26th movement and formed their own party. They were involved in a terrorist bombing that killed a lot of innocent people. (for the love of god, I dont remember where this took place-- I think on a military base during festivities??)

    Che condemned the terrorist bombing.