FREEDOM AND JUSTICE
A BRIEF EXAMINATION OF CHE GUEVARA
Heroes are not ordinary humans; they are persons of great courage, endowed with mythical abilities as if God-like beings, who are worshipped without rational judgment of their actual humanity.
In every century, a few individuals rise above the horizon of human commonplace and through a circumstance of extraordinary events, manage to change the course of history and achieve either distinction or notoriety through their deeds. During the last century, a number of such persons comes to mind; Mao Tse-Tung, Gandhi, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Einstein, Khrushchev, Roosevelt, Kennedy and others, but the list would not be complete without two people, whose lives and actions made a lasting impact on the world, and especially the Americas; Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the two most prominent participants in the Cuban revolution.
To analyse the life of Che requires a post-mortem examination of gargantuan quantities of literature dedicated to it; volumes of which have judged him in the light of the pro or con beams that focused on communism in general and on his particular revolutionary ideology especially. To understand Guevara, it is necessary not only to comprehend his formative years in Argentina and the events that shaped his thoughts and actions later in his life, but also the sweeping and far-reaching changes in the political climate of the world during 20th century. The regal masters had at last conceded to give freedom and independence to their former colonies. Dictatorships in the Americas and corruption on inconceivable scales had become the acceptable standard in many of its countries. The Second World War, the communist revolutions in China and earlier in Russia had changed the coherence of the world’s political fabric and caused cataclysmic upheavals in global security. It was in these times that Che Guevara entered adulthood. It was into this turbulent and raging current of political changes, intolerance and US neo-colonialism that he launched the raft that was to carry him into a sea of human fortitude and project him into a sphere of fame that reached far beyond the realm of the reality of his life.
He became a product of his time; promulgating and idealizing what some, at that time, considered the road to a utopian life of equality, which in the end, however, proved to be a less than egalitarian solution to the age-old problem of inequity between the wealthy and the poor, between the rulers and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed. It is through the reality of this time period that we must seek to understand Che Guevara as a person who became obsessed with the idea of revolution to free the poor and the oppressed in the world. Any attempt to understand him from a present day perspective of communism and Cuba would be synonymous to illuminating his personality and his life through the vestiges of something that the passage of 50 years has transformed into a different actuality.
Ernesto Guevara did not achieve distinction as a respected leader nor, in some circles, notoriety as a ruthless guerrilla fighter, by means of inflated rumours or exaggerated reporting on his achievements. The two most essential characteristics of his personality were a complete belief in himself and the ideology of the cause he was advocating and a conviction that faithfulness and honesty were imperative functions in the realm of human interaction. It was these two qualities that propelled him to prominence and gained him respect as well as trepidation, not just in Cuba, but also in many parts of the world, especially where poverty, misery and injustice cried out for help. It is ironic, however, that these same virtues also in part were responsible for his failure to achieve his revolutionary goals and his early demise.
ARGENTINA AND HIS YOUTH
Much biographical material has been written about Che’s childhood; being home schooled, his asthma and studies in his father’s library as a teenager, that may have given him his first introduction to socialism through reading the works of leftist writers such as Karl Marx, Engels and Lenin. It is doubtful, however, that anything particular in his earliest childhood impacted appreciatively on his developing personality. Later, however, in the third school he attended, Colegio Nacional Dean Funes, his passion for reading expanded, as did his intellectual horizon through studies of philosophy and a broad range of fiction and poetry by such authors such as Nerudo, Faulkner, Kafka, Camus, Sartre and many others. (The Biography Project: popsubculture.com)
By the time he graduated from high school, he was quite well read, yet, there is no real suggestion that he had developed any adversarial attitude toward the extant political system in Argentina. He had not yet been smitten by the contagion of communism and leftist ideologies that had spread through Russia and China and become a fashionable subject of discussion and experimentation amongst artists, students and the educated bourgeois in the west, a trend that continued through the fifties and sixties. His family’s economic misfortunes, however, does appear to have made some impact on his attitude toward the upper crust of society and an impending sense of the injustices and inequities that existed within it.
He chose to study medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, rather than following his initially planned engineering career, because of a loving relationship with his grandmother that had endured all his life. She died from ill health shortly before he entered the University. The following quote illuminates this:
“Sin embargo, el estado de salud de la anciana se agrava, por lo que el joven Ernesto decide dejar el trabajo y viajar junto a su querida abuela que fallece unos días después de su llegada. Cuentan que durante los últimos días de su abuela, no se separó de su lecho. Según su hermana Celia, jamás lo había visto tan triste. Después de este suceso comunicó a sus padres que estudiaría Medicina en lugar de Ingeniería. A los pocos días solicitó su ingreso en la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Buenos Aires.” (El Archivo Personal del Che: che.cubasi.cu/cronología)
It is paramount to mention that Che was rejected for military service due to his asthma. The critical issue deriving from this is if military service would have changed his outlook on life. Most people who have served in the military admit it changed their lives and it must be considered a possibility that Che’s philosophy or psyche could have undergone some form of transformation by experiencing the harshness of military discipline early in his life, the result of which might have propelled his destiny in a different direction and thus another conclusion.
In 1949, he makes a 4000-mile long journey through Northern Argentina alone on a moped. During this journey, his encounter with many indigenous tribes and his first-hand experience with extreme poverty made perhaps the first real impact on his feelings toward the inequities that existed in his country.
Two years later, in 1951, he goes on a motorcycle journey with his friend, Alberto Granado. They travel from Buenos Aires most of the way to Venezuela on an old motorcycle. Che kept a diary, describing events and experiences from the trip, which later was published as: The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America, which in 2004 was made into a movie by the same name.
This second journey made a significant impact on him. Again he was exposed to the extensive poverty existing throughout rural South America and he became conscious of its widespread communality. He witnessed mistreatment and exploitation of the indigenous people and the working class, which galvanized his opinion on oppression of the poor. The movie has been subjected to a great deal of criticism, much of which views Che through a mirror, reflecting awareness of his later image as a revolutionary. The movie attempts to portray Che’s experiences on the journey, including the apparent compassionate human side he shows during the weeks he spends in a leper colony in Peru, rather than the later radical, single-minded, revolutionary side of him. Paul Berman an author, journalist and writer critiqued the movie from an interesting point of view and states:
“These weeks at the leper colony constitute the dramatic core of the movie. The colony is tyrannized by nuns, who maintain a cruel social hierarchy between the staff and the patients. The nuns refuse to feed people who fail to attend mass. Young Che, in his insistent honesty, rebels against these strictures, and his rebellion is bracing to witness. You think you are observing a noble protest against the oppressive customs and authoritarian habits of an obscurantist Catholic Church at its most reactionary. Yet the entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America’s Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences.” (Berman: The Cult of Che, sep. 2004)
Berman dredges up some other interesting points about Che, undressing the cultic mysticism that surrounds him in a distinct US anti-Cuba tunnel vision style that fails to se the whole man, yet his devastating critique can not be completely ignored. The movie may well be a hagiographic portrait of Guevara but it shows with lucid clarity Che’s predilection for rebellion during his encounter with the authoritarian nuns, and later on the journey, by stating that he was determined to stamp out this injustice of exploitation perpetrated against the indigenous people, which reiterates the old Arab proverb that idealism belongs to the youth, politics to the aged.
Anthony Daniels, a writer and doctor has a similar negative critique of the movie. He writes:
“In presenting Guevara as a romantic figure, generous and compassionate rather than ruthlessly priggish and self-centered, and by suggesting that he has anything to teach us other than negativity, the director is guilty of mendacity of a very high order. The film is an exercise in moral frivolity and exhibitionism, self-congratulation, of course, opportunism. It should sell as well as Guevara T-shirts.” (Anthony Daniels: The Real Che)
Daniels has compared the film to the book and clearly shows a permissive attitude by the film director in that the ‘facts’ in several scenes in the movie have been changed to create a more romantic and idealistic portrait of Che Guevara.
JEAN PAUL SARTRE AND HIS INFLUENCE ON CHE GUEVARA.
Che’s passion for reading exposed his intellect to many political theories and philosophies, both historic and recent. Jean Paul Sartre , the well-known French novelist, became prominent in the mid forties. He was a politically engaged intellectual who saw Communism as an ideology whose time had come. Sartre’s existentialism, the view that our liberty is our freedom to fight to be free, that nothing is right or wrong until we make a choice, and the individual struggle against isolation in a hostile world, no doubt had a major influence in Che Guevara’s thinking. In 1960, Sartre visited Cuba with his wife, Simone de Beauvoir and on his return to France called Guevara “the most complete human being of our age.” His reason for thinking Che was such a person warrants no further comments than to say it was the way Sartre perceived his humanity and personality. Someone else, with different political persuasions, may have viewed him as a rebellious, idealistic individual, suffering from hallucinatory visions of what constitutes a just society. In 1952, Sartre wrote “The Communists and Peace” (Hamilton, 1969), in which he enthused about communist “mass democracy” — which achieved unanimity constantly renewed by the liquidation of opponents. His point is well taken. The conservative British political philosopher Maurice Cranston captured Sartre’s argument in the line “Terror is the guarantee that my neighbour will stay my brother; it binds my neighbour to me by the threat of the violence it will use against him if he dares to be ‘un-brotherly.’” Forget such niceties as the rule of law. (The Absolute Intellectual, 2004) This is clearly the method adapted by Che Guevara and used to obtain the cooperation of the peasants in the countryside. Those who didn’t “Join the cause” would be ostracised or eliminated. This became a classic guerrilla tactic, used in many later revolutions or uprisings (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala).
Sartre’s visit to Cuba underlines his proclivity toward socialism, but also tend to underscore that admiration between Guevara and Sartre was mutual. It is important, however, to note that Sartre eventually broke with the communists.
GUATEMALA AND CHE, THE BEGINNING OF THE END
In 1963, Che wrote a letter to Guillermo Lorentzen in which he stated, “I was born in Argentina, I fought in Cuba, and I began to be a revolutionary in Guatemala” (Che Guevara Reader, 370).
Che was in Guatemala touring the Maya ruins, when the government under Jacobo Arbenz endeavoured to nationalise the huge landholdings of the United Fruit Company .
The US government (CIA) together with two executive directors of United Fruit Company organised an armed Coup, which overthrew Arbenz . The most visible head of this pejorative aggression was the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, lawyer for and stockholder in the company. (ibid 20) This was Che’s first experience with the dirty tricks department of the US government and it became the determining factor in his decision to fight these injustices by whatever means possible. He became:” A child of my environment.” (ibid 113) That it was The United Fruit Company that instigated this coup is no surprise. The record of misery, rebellion and exploitation left (and still being left) by this company is so mindless as to surpass even the most vivid imagination. “They (The Company’s management) were told to squeeze every cent possible out of the operations.”5
MEXICO: ALEA YACTA EST
After Castro was released from prison in Cuba, following the unsuccessful attack on the Moncada military garrison, he headed for Mexico, (ibid 21) where with the help of a small team of intimate collaborators he began the task of organizing the armed fighters that would invade Cuba. Che, through a friend of his, was introduced to Fidel Castro, who shortly thereafter invited him to join the team. Skipping the details of planning the “invasion” of Cuba-, jail time in Mexico, the near disastrous beginning of the Cuban revolution, it is paramount to reflect on the fact that none of the participants, who had different social persuasions (ibid 87) considered that the revolution should be communist in nature. Their goal was to overthrow Batista and create a more just society in Cuba, with no particular detailed foresight on just what this should constitute. It is interesting to note that both the Chinese and the Russian revolutions began as citizen revolutions, only later to become mass communist movements.
CASTRO, CHE, CUBA AND THE MAKING OF A REVOLUCIONARY.
During the fight for Cuba’s independence, Che’s admiration and respect for Fidel Castro grew and was clearly reciprocated by Castro, who promoted him to the rank of commander before the fighting was over. Che showed his ability as a leader and fighter early on, but demonstrated a developing degree of ruthlessness, something that is hardly surprising when you are fighting for your life, seeing death and destruction on a daily basis. It forged his character into an entity that perhaps had lain dormant in the deepest recesses of his psyche. This is well understood by the following statement he supposedly wrote before he went to Bolivia:
Hate as a factor in the struggle, intransigent hatred for the enemy that takes one beyond the natural limitations of a human being and converts one into an effective, violent, selective, cold, killing machine – our soldiers must be like that; a people without hate cannot triumph over a brutal enemy. (ibid 360)
After the revolution was over and the time came to deal with the oppressors, Che was charged with signing the death warrants and overseeing the execution of condemned men from the Batista regime. His role in this inevitable phase of the revolution has been much criticized, but those who, in the light of this, attempted to paint him as a brutal executioner, failed to consider similar revenge-driven events that took place during other revolutions. The French revolution is but a single example.
His perception of economic independence is illustrated very well by the following:
“If a country does not have its own economy, if it is penetrated by foreign capital, then it cannot be free from the tutelage of the country it is dependent on. Much less can a country make its will prevail if it clashes with powerful interest in the country that dominates it economically “(ibid 99)
Few people, including many Canadians, realize that the very essence of this statement applies to almost every country in the Americas. No country in the western hemisphere is without some degree of US economic domination.
How Che viewed his inner self is to some extend illustrated by the following two statements he made:
“I had thought it quite doubtful when I first enrolled with the rebel commander, to whom I was linked from the beginning by a liking for romantic adventure and the thought that it would be well worth dying on a foreign beach for such a pure ideal. “(ibid 21)
In the Motorcycle Diaries, he describes the character of Pedro de Valdivia, the conquistador of Chile:
“Valdivia’s actions symbolize man’s indefatigable thirst to take control of a place where he can exercise total control. He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural”.
Both statements illuminate aspects of the inner sanctum of a young man, whose personality was inclined toward romanticism, but with the gloomy, self-sacrificial idealism of someone awakened and provoked by the reality of the inequities that have existed in the realm of humanity since time immortal.
Che did not heed Karl Marx’s elemental warning that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (Marx cited in Feuer, 1969, p. 360) (Matt Tilling: The University In Times Of Revolution.)
He failed when he attempted to create revolutions in areas and under circumstances that was of his choosing, using his revolutionary ideology, rather than adapting it to some existing historic precedence.
Freedom, in the truest sense of the meaning, does not exist in a structured society,there is only liberty to live within the rules established by the same
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NOTA BENE: Alberto Granado died in Cuba at the age of 88, on March 5, 2011. May his next journey be as happy as the previous.
Not published due to copy rights of this essay.
This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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