Che Guevara, Apostle of the Oppressed II

Salim Lamrani

University of La Réunion

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".

II. The first revolutionary measures

Was Che Guevara one of the first guerrillas to enter Havana?

In late August, after the June-July 1958 failure of Batista’s offensive aimed at liquidating the guerrilla insurgency once and for all, Fidel Castro decided to launch a counter offensive and extend the armed insurrection to the entire island. Che and Camilo Cienfuegos were sent, at the head of two columns, to Villa Clara in the central area of ​​Cuba. The nearly 500 kilometre journey lasted a month and was made under extremely difficult conditions. According to one historical anecdote, the guerrillas ate only 11 times in 30 days and were even forced to consume "a raw mare without salt". "Only insults and threats of all kinds,” Che noted in his diary, “were able to make the exhausted group advance.” In late December, Che and Camilo’s troops stormed the city of Santa Clara and seized the famous armoured train filled with weapons and ammunition. At dawn on January 1, 1959, Batista surrendered power and fled to the tyrant Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. Fidel Castro then ordered Che and Camilo to march on Havana and for Che to seize the La Cabaña barracks and Camilo, the Columbia military camp.

Who were the great figures of the Cuban Revolution at the moment of its triumph?

The principal revolutionary figure at the January 1, 1959, triumph of the Cuban Revolution was undeniably Fidel Castro. No other member of the July 26 Movement was in a position to dispute his leadership. He symbolized in his person the aspirations of the Cuban people for dignity and emancipation. The other great figure, of course, was Che, who represented the archetype of the solitary internationalist willing to risk his life for the freedom of a land that was not that of his ancestors, and who endorsed Cuban national hero José Marti's maxim,"Fatherland is humanity". The third great figure of the Revolution was Camilo Cienfuegos, who came from the common people. Camilo was endowed with extraordinary courage and was very close to Che. There was a great complicity between the two of them. For the record, he was the only one to dare cut the strings of Che’s hammock as he slept in it. The other undeniable figure was Raúl Castro who, despite his young age, had shown on the battlefield his qualities of fighter, strategist and leader. It should be remembered that Raúl Castro started the war as a private. He, like all the others, had to prove himself in combat. We could also mention Juan Almeida, to whom we owe this famous phrase pronounced during the very first fight against the enemy, "Here, no one surrenders!” And also Ramiro Valdés, among others.

Why is he called "Che"?

The first to call him "Che" was Antonio "ñico" López, a member of the Moncada group, whom he had met in Guatemala. "Che" is a typical Argentinian interjection, corresponding to such English language expressions as “mate,” “pal,” “man,” or “bro”. As Guevara, a good Argentinian, used to start each sentence with “Che," he was thus nicknamed.

What was Che's role in shaping the "revolutionary program"?

Che played a key role in the creation of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform and in the drafting of the Agrarian Reform Law promulgated in May 1959. According to him, "the guerrilla is first and foremost an agrarian revolutionary, one who interprets the desire of the great mass of peasants to own the land, the means of production, the animals and all that for which they have struggled for years”. Che was later appointed Minister of Industry.

Che also supported the creation of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), created on March 2, 1959, by Law 169. From the outset, the Revolutionary Government made culture a national priority. Art was seen as necessary for maintaining balance within a society and as a vector in the transmission of ideas and principles. The 7th art was seen as an instrument of opinion and formation of the individual and collective conscience as well as something that contributes to the diffusion of the values ​​necessary to the construction of a new society, one based on solidarity, the general interest and sharing. It becomes a weapon against ignorance and prejudice when it is used to achieve noble and generous goals.

Why was Che Guevara appointed Procurator of La Cabaña and charged with the revolutionary tribunals?

In Cuba, Che’s prestige and authority are indisputable. He is known for his righteousness, but also for his intransigence. During the revolutionary struggle, he was implacable with the powerful, the executioners, the torturers and the murderers, yet compassionate with the weak, the victims and the exploited and humiliated common people. During the Revolutionary War, Fidel Castro swore an oath to the people of Cuba that criminals would be punished. The dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista had left nearly 20,000 victims in its wake. On January 1, 1959, in his first speech, the leader of the Revolution appealed to the people, begging them not to yield to the sirens of vengeance, assuring them that the culprits would be punished by the revolutionary tribunals. The Cuban people showed great civility during the triumph of the Révolution and did not resort to vengeance and violence. They knew that the hour of justice would come. Fidel Castro kept his word by appointing Che, a prestigious figure in the revolutionary movement, Procurator of La Cabaña.

In all countries of the world, revolutionary justice is always summary and expeditious. Those individuals convicted of blood crimes were sentenced to death. It was a political necessity demanded by the public and a requirement of justice to try war criminals and torturers. There were about 500 executions following the triumph of the Revolution. The convictions were arrived at in fully transparent public trials, that allowed the people to be informed of the progress of the judicial processes.

In the United States, the government and the press launched a campaign to discredit the revolutionary government, denouncing the executions. Curiously, during the bloody dictatorship of Batista, they had - with few exceptions - observed a complicit silence while Cuban women and men were pursued, raped, tortured and murdered.

By way of comparison, during the Epuration (cleansing) in France at the end of the Second World War, more than a million people were arrested and nearly 100,000 sentenced. There were nearly 10,000 executions, including some 9,000 that were extrajudicial.

Was Che involved in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs)?

No, Che was not involved with the UMAPs. In Cuba, military service is compulsory. In the sixties, people who did not wish to perform this service for either ethical, philosophical, religious or personal reasons, were nonetheless required to fulfill their civic duty by performing agricultural work in units in the countryside. Within these UMAPs, homosexuals were victims of discrimination, harassment, bullying and mockery and were therefore housed in separate barracks.

These human rights violations reached the ears of Vilma Espín, wife of Raúl Castro, and above all President and founder of the powerful Federation of Cuban Women. She informed Fidel Castro accordingly. Fidel, who always relied on youth and students, decided to smuggle a group of activists from the Communist Youth League into the UMAPs to verify the facts. After several weeks of observation, they made a damning report confirming the infringement of the rights of these people and the UMAPs were closed in 1968, just under two years after their creation. It must be remembered that the only role Fidel Castro played in the UMAPs was to see to their definitive closure.

Describe Che's relationship to the press?

As an important figure in the Cuban Revolution, Che was regularly solicited by the national and foreign press, curious to question an Argentinian who had dedicated his life to the social transformation process occurring on the island of Cuba. Che was aware of the importance of the media in the political and ideological warfare that it was necessary to conduct against the conservative forces.

He was, therefore, at the origin of the creation of Radio Rebelde in the Sierra Maestra mountains on February 24, 1958. This date commemorated the Baire uprising of 1895 which marked the beginning of the second war of independence led by José Martí. With rudimentary equipment and a home-made antennae system, Che managed to break the media monopoly of the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The magazine Verde Olivo is the press organ of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces which was created in April 1959 by Che, Camilo Cienfuegos and Raúl Castro. In this review, Che published his wartime experiences and a section entitled "Advice to the Fighter", as well as a regular column under the pseudonym "Maverick". The aim of the magazine was to cultivate the historical memory of the struggles in Cuba and to record the testimonies of the combatants.

In the same manner, in June of 1959, Prensa Latina was born. The goal was to provide the country with a powerful news agency that could help to thwart the hostile propaganda campaigns emanating from the United States. Moreover, it brought a Latin-American perspective to Third World reality, and thus helped to emancipate it from the media hegemony of the Western press.

Why, during the triumph of the Revolution, were some newspapers banned and television channels nationalized.

At the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the vast majority of the media was privately held and thus posed a danger to the emancipatory process of social transformation. Most of the media, in the hands of the investment capital of the period, were opposed to abolishing any social hierarchies and privileges, or even to any questioning of the established order. Moreover, they were the natural allies of Washington, which immediately demonstrated its opposition to the revolutionary process by hosting the Batista torturers who had just looted the Cuban national bank reserves. The nationalization of the media was a political and strategic necessity which put an end to the monopoly of powerful money in this sector.

On which occasion was the famous photograph of Che taken?

The photo was taken by Alberto Korda on March 6, 1960 in Havana during the funeral tribute to the civilian victims of the attack on the French ship La Coubre which carried Belgian arms and ammunition to Cuba. On March 4, 1960, as the ship was being unloaded, a double explosion occurred and caused the death of more than a hundred people and left other hundreds wounded and mutilated. The bombing was the work of the CIA which, in 1959, was leading a campaign of terrorism against the island in order to overthrow the revolutionary government. In total, nearly 10,000 attacks were orchestrated by the United States against Cuba and caused the death of some 3,478 people. An additional 2,099 persons were handicapped for life. Washington had lobbied Western countries not to deliver arms to Cuba. The aim was to push the island toward the Soviet fold in order to justify its hostile policy toward Havana. Belgium had refused to comply with the US injunctions. Following the bombing of La Coubre, Belgium decided to interrupt her arms deliveries to Cuba.

The photograph became famous in 1967 following the assassination of Che when the Italian publisher Feltrinelli decided to use it on a poster. Since then, Che has become an international symbol of resistance to oppression.

What role did Che play against the hostility of the United States?

It should be remembered that the conflict between Cuba and the United States is asymmetrical. There exists a hostile and aggressive superpower, Washington, and a victim, Havana. It is the United States that has opposed the legitimate aspirations of the Cuban people to freedom, emancipation, social justice and sovereignty, as well as deciding the destiny of the island and supporting dictatorships in the service of its own interests. It was the United States that supported Batista until the very end. It was the United States, which after the Revolution of January 1, 1959, welcomed, with open arms, the executioners and criminals of the former regime. It was the United States that financed, organized and carried out a campaign of terrorism against Cuba. It was the United States that refused to refine Cuban sugar and oil from the Soviet Union. Apart from the agrarian reform, all of the measures taken by the revolutionary government, from 1959 on, were responses to aggressions emanating from Washington.

What was Che's role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 and during the Missile Crisis of October 1962?

During the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Missile Crisis, Che was in charge of the military command of the western part of the country.

Following the missile crisis and given its resolution, the Cubans became convinced that the defense of their national sovereignty depended solely upon them, and that in case of a military invasion by the United States, the Soviet Union would not contribute to defending their national territory. Indeed, Moscow had agreed to negotiate the withdrawal of its nuclear missiles without deigning to consult the Cubans while the Cubans were in the position of playing with their lives. Fidel Castro, like Che, had specific requirements: Washington had to stop its hostile acts against Cuba, lift economic sanctions against the island, return the Guantanamo naval base, guarantee that there would be no military invasion and stop financing the terrorist groups that raged in the Sierra de l'Escambray.

The final outcome of the missile crisis had plunged the Cubans into a certain bitterness, and Che distanced himself from Moscow, even denouncing in his famous Algiers speech, its lack of solidarity with the anti-colonial movements of the Third World and the unequal relationship between the Eastern bloc and the southern countries. It is worth remembering his famous exhortation: "The socialist countries have a moral duty to liquidate their tacit complicity with the exploitative countries of the West.”

Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg.

Doctor of Iberian and Latin American Studies at the Paris IV-Sorbonne University, Salim Lamrani is 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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