Che Guevara, Apostle of the Oppressed III

Che Guevara, Apostle of the Oppressed III
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The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, assassinated in Bolivia on October 9, 1967, offers us an opportunity to look back on the Cuban-Argentine revolutionary who dedicated his life to defending the "damned of the earth".

III. An integral revolutionary

How did Che become president of the National Bank of Cuba?

Che was a medical doctor, not a trained economist. Even though he had achieved a certain level of knowledge in the field, acquired through various readings, the world of banking was foreign to him. Yet what was necessary was to have an honest person at the head of an institution which, over the years, had witnessed one rogue actor succeed another, and Che was the ideal candidate. For him this untested responsibility was a revolutionary duty. The new bank notes were signed with his nickname, "Che". He had always had a sovereign contempt for material wealth.

When was he appointed Minister of Industry?

Che was appointed Minister of Industry in February 1961. His charge was to develop and strengthen this sector, so vital to the Cuban economy. With his experience in the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, and particularly in the Department of Industrialization, he was considered to be the most suitable for the position and would remain in it for several years.

Confronted with the reality of power Che became more pragmatic, without however renouncing the principles that constituted the bedrock of all his political thought and action. According to Che, the state must take control of a country's means of production and all strategic sectors, as well as diversify its economy by striving for technical, scientific, energy and alimentary sovereignty.

Che had to carry out his task in a context of intense class struggle against an obsolete and moribund old order which refused to accept the new revolutionary reality. Cuba also had to cope with the shortage of specialists and technicians who, for the most part, had chosen to emigrate to the United States, attracted by the working conditions offered by the US authorities. In its ideological war against Havana, Washington had launched a campaign to empty the country of its human capital. The most emblematic and dramatic case remains that of doctors: of the 6,000 doctors that Cuba counted in 1959, more than 3,000 left the country in the first months of the Revolution, causing a serious health crisis in the country.

As a minister, Che, leading by example, imposed discipline and rigor. Efficiency was his top priority. As a member of the government, Che had certain material advantages. An anecdote illustrates what kind of man the Argentine was. At a public meeting, the purpose of which was to discuss the ration book (la libreta), a member of the audience intervened and brought to Che’s attention the contradiction inherent in his words. “Commandant, you can say these things because your family is not required to use the ration book.” It should be remembered that the ration book was established in 1960 following the economic sanctions imposed by the United States. The objective of the revolutionary government was to provide the entire population with the basic food necessities required for a decent life, as well as to avoid a famine. Che did not answer. But the following day, he sought out the citizen in question and told him: "Until yesterday, you were right." The Argentine, then a minister, had demanded that his family live under the same conditions as all Cubans and be required to use the ration book. This anecdote illustrates Che's great moral integrity.

Why did Che Guevara always keep a diary?

Che was an intellectual and, like any person of ideas, he liked to write down his thoughts in order to develop and disseminate them. He was concerned with the transmission of knowledge. His great priority was to make Cubans an educated and cultivated people. He was convinced that ignorance enslaves men and strengthens established privileges and social hierarchies, that without knowledge, freedom is impossible. The Argentine shared José Martí’s maxim that it is necessary to be cultivated in order to emancipate oneself from the chains of exploitation and oppression. From the beginning of the revolutionary period, in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, he kept a journal. Today it is of great historical value. It illustrates Che's impressive intellectual faculties, particularly his capacity for synthesis. It was on his motorcycle trip through Latin America in the 1950s that he first acquired the habit of writing down his impressions.

What is Che's intellectual heritage?

Che has bequeathed many speeches to posterity, the best known are those he gave in Algiers, at the Tricontinental (also called the Afro-Asian Conference) and his famous speech to youth. He has written numerous essays, including his Cuban campaign journal, a book on guerrilla warfare and his well-known Bolivian journal, among others. He has also written a series of reflections outlining his economic thinking under the title “Critical Notes on Political Economy.”

One of Che’s masterpieces is “Man and Socialism in Cuba”. Published in 1965, it analyzes the behavior of men and women in the development of the revolutionary process, their characteristics and their aspirations. In it, he elaborates the theory according to which the economic development of a country must go hand in hand with the development of revolutionary consciousness among all citizens in order to create a new man whose motivation would consist of moral, ethical and spiritual values, not simply material rewards. The new man would place the general interest above personal considerations and would be moved by generosity, solidarity, altruism, an appetite for effort, a collective sense and disinterestedness. In a word, all the qualities he himself already possessed and which put him ahead of his time. For Che, only this new man would be able to build socialism in Cuba and elsewhere and only deep political, ideological and cultural work could forge this new man.

Was Che at the origin of voluntary work?

Che was a man of thought and action who always preached by example. This was the best way to achieve the moral authority necessary to communicate his requirements to the people. For Che, volunteer work was a social duty and the highest expression of social duty was voluntary work. It was, he felt, the best school for building revolutionary consciousness. The voluntary work program was set up by Che and its goal was to encourage Cubans, once their workday had been completed, to volunteer to carry out tasks for the country without expecting material reward, but simply the satisfaction a job well done.

Che, however, did not reject material remuneration, but he considered that the new man should find nourishment in moral satisfaction. For Che, internationalism was the most advanced form of voluntary work. It was both a duty and a revolutionary necessity. The new man, steeped in all these moral qualities, would thus become an integral revolutionary.

What does Che’s maxim “Study, work, and the rifle” mean?

This watchword, which today is the maxim of the Union of Young Communists of Cuba, was launched by Che in October of 1962 when the institution was created. Simply put, youth should be the revolutionary vanguard in all sectors of society, and form the first contingent of volunteers to meet the needs of the country. Young people should be the most devoted to work, the first in their studies and, especially, the first in the nation’s line of defense.

In what context did Che know Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir?

The meeting took place in 1960 in Cuba in the office of the President of the Central Bank, a position Che held at that time. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had spent a month in Cuba. For Sartre, Che was the symbol of the young Cuban revolution. It should be remembered that in 1960 Fidel Castro was barely 34 years old, yet he was the oldest of the revolutionary leaders. For Sartre, only the youth had the energy and the purity necessary to achieve a revolution. The French philosopher was greatly impressed by the vitality of the Cuban revolutionary process and by the hope and enthusiasm it had aroused among the people. A new, more just society was under construction and the impossible was being defied. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir admired Che's intelligence, but they were struck by the atypical aspect of his position, a position which did not appear to correspond to his personality.

Was Che a revolutionary critic?

Che was always very demanding, first and foremost of himself. He detested dilettantism and work of poor quality. He also had a horror of bureaucracy, which he saw as the scourge of the revolutionary process. With his caustic humor and his outspokenness, he did not hesitate to point out dysfunctionality in the administration and also a disastrous tendency of applying inappropriate models to the Cuban reality. According to him, while drawing inspiration from historical experiences around the world, the Revolution had to create its own model of society but without falling into a destructive dogmatism. He was one of the first to denounce the bureaucratic ponderousness that had become a clear ally of the counter-revolution.

What were Che's criticisms of the Soviet Union?

Che always criticized uncompromising and inconsistent dogmatism. He was, moreover, convinced that the liberation of the Third World would come about only through a radical strategic change in the socialist countries. For Che, the Soviet model led to a dead end because it claimed to be universally applicable, while the construction of socialism depended on the reality of each country. He had also criticized Cuba for importing Soviet textbooks on political philosophy, the main effect of which was to prevent Cubans from thinking for themselves. For his part, Che was the antithesis of dogmatism and a fervent supporter of critical debate, which he saw as the only way to meet the challenges imposed by the building of a new society. Che’s ideas were ideas in action and in perpetual construction.

How was Che perceived around the world?

Throughout his career, Che was the archetype of the revolutionary internationalist. He was a high-level leader, an emblematic figure of the Cuban Revolution, a dedicated and honest man, uncompromising in his principles. He was loyal to Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership and an indefectible supporter of solidarity with those who fight against oppression. Che went to Algiers several times because, in the 1960s and 1970s, Algeria was a Mecca for revolutionaries and a refuge for Third World independence movements, providing material, human, logistical and financial support to all those waging anti-colonial struggles. This is one of the most admirable chapters in the history of Algeria. The governments of Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumediene were faithful and grateful friends of the Cuban Revolution and shared the same ideals.

In his Algiers speech of February 24, 1965, Che recalled that socialism would be achieved only with the abolition of the exploitation of man by man and that the best way to achieve this goal is for the state to seize the means of production. He also recalled that the top priority was the development of agriculture in order to ensure food sufficiency for the people. Che reproached the socialist bloc for imposing capitalist relations on the Third World nations and for exploiting them. He demanded more solidarity from the USSR vis-à-vis countries fighting against imperialism, especially the Congo and Vietnam.

Was there a break between Che Guevara and Fidel Castro?

There was never a political or ideological break between Che and Fidel Castro. On the contrary, there was always a great intellectual affinity between the two men. Each felt immense respect for the other. Che considered himself a fervent disciple of Fidel Castro, something he would recall in his farewell letter. Fidel Castro shared Che's criticism of the USSR. Their destinies were simply different. Fidel Castro had the historic mission of leading the Cuban Revolution. Che’s desire was to create a revolution in Argentina. They had also made a pact at their first meeting in Mexico in 1955. Che had asked Fidel Castro that if, once the Cuban revolution had been won, he would allow him to return to fight for the liberation of his country of origin.

Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg

Doctor of Iberian and Latin American Studies at the Paris IV-Sorbonne University, Salim Lamrani is a Senior Lecturer at the University of La Réunion, specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.

His new book is titled Fidel Castro, Héros des déshérités, Paris, Editions Estrella, 2016. Preface by Ignacio Ramonet.

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