He was a Marxist, a doctor, a revolutionary, a silhouetted image that adorned posters and t-shirts across the globe, an icon, he remains an enduring inspiration wherever struggle is found he is El Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara.
My first recollection of seeing his image was in my early teens when I watched the movie Pather, which used old newsreel footage of street protests that took place across the world in 1968. The poster of Che was held high and defiant, from Saigon to Paris, to Belfast to Berkeley, as the discontented clawed at the walls of the modern-day Bastille, between the Molotov cocktails and the tear gas, Che’s iconic stare epitomised the street revolution encapsulated the uprisings. I was mesmerised, inspired and wanted to know more.
The Che story is one that is well known and publicised from his own diaries, to Anderson’s biography and to the Benicio Del Toro movies. The tale of the middle-class Argentine youth who travelled through Latin America on a motorcycle and witnessed the abject poverty of US corporate exploitation, coupled with aggressive Yankee imperialism and CIA sponsored regime change, which shaped the young Che that was to board the Granma with Fidel in Mexico and set sail for Revolution in Cuba. From near defeat to Revolutionary success in the Cuban Revolution and his journey from doctor to El Comandante, Che’s life was the classic story of the underdog championing the downtrodden succeeding against nearly insurmountable odds.
The consolidation of the Cuban Revolution seen Che preside over a series of trials and executions of Batista regime war criminals, this period is clung to by his critics. It must be remembered that the US and the West had no compunction about arming, financing and supporting right-wing dictators in Latin America, who used extrajudicial murder and oppression to remain in power and to terrify the populace into submission, the Pinochet dictatorship a prime example. The Cuban Revolution engaged in the executions as a necessity, to prevent a dangerous 5th column that could potentially, with US assistance, overthrow the popular revolution. The events unfolding today in Venezuela is an example of the dangers of not consolidating the position of the proletariat over the bourgeois. I believe history has vindicated Che and the Cuban Revolution for taking this necessary action.
Che aspired to the idealistic and somewhat unrealistic interpretation of the socialist man, to this end he coupled his new government position as head of the economy, with his role in the Revolutionary armed forces and spent his spare time at the weekends cutting cane in the fields, with the Cuban people. His family life strained under these ideals and it’s well publicised that Che’s wife had to loan off his bodyguards to make ends meet. It was said he was dismayed by the luxury he witnessed the Soviet party elite enjoying, compared to the ordinary Soviet citizens, following a trip to the USSR. Be it in battle or in how he conducted his life, Che always tried to lead by example.
As an Internationalist who wanted to export the Revolution worldwide, he had a particular interest in Latin America. His relations with China, particularly when Sino-Soviet relations were in a state of competition, put him in conflict with the Soviet Union who had become the main source of international and economic support for Cuba, this, in turn, strained relations between Che and Fidel. Che had also criticised the Soviets for cutting a deal during the Cuban missile crisis. It is said that this criticism of the Soviets led to Che eventually travelling the world as a diplomat for Cuba and eventually leading the Cuban military expedition to the Congo, to help the African people throw off the yoke of colonial imperialism. The Congo intervention ended in confusion and failure and led to Che’s fatal revolutionary intervention in Bolivia.
The Bolivian campaign is well documented, not least because Che kept a diary. His capture by CIA backed forces and the way in which he was executed and his body later displayed with the hands cut off, eyes open and Christ-like is very memorable. It is also well documented because militarily it was a failure and the US and its allies in the region propagated this extensively for their own end. But in death, Che the martyr became more than what he could have in life. He inspired thousands of liberation movements, inspired tens of thousands of revolutionary fighters, his theory on guerrilla war and on socialism elevated to a level of proliferation that no one could have imagined. The haunting defiant image “Guerrillero Heroico” taken by Alberto Korda and later adapted by Jim Fitzpatrick, spread across the globe like the fires of revolutionary struggle that were then raging from Vietnam to West Germany to Palestine.
The words of Che’s father, claiming blood linage between his son and that of Irish rebels, swelled the hearts of those struggling for national liberation and social emancipation under British imperialism in Ireland. Che Guevara Lynch was one of our own, martyred a world away in the same struggle that was being waged in Ireland. The mantra “you can kill the revolutionary but never the Revolution” was tailor-made for Che’s immortalisation.
Fifty years have passed since Che was executed in that small farmhouse in Bolivia and on his anniversary, I remember Dessie Grew & Martin McCaughey, Volunteers of the East Tyrone Brigade IRA, who died struggling for Irish liberation, at a small isolated farm in Armagh on the same date in 1990 at the hands of the British occupation. Three revolutionaries, one unfinished revolution!
The Bolivian Government which is now headed by left-wing leader Evo Morales, the first indigenous president, prepares to honour and commemorate Che Guevara. In the long run, his influence on leaders such as Morales, who nationalised Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves and Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, is in a way vindicating of Che’s Bolivian intervention, part of his lasting legacy in Latin America.
Cuba recently seen the passing of Che’s iconic counterpart Fidel Castro and time will tell if the Cuban Revolution will endure, it has since Che survived five decades of US imperialist aggression. Will the recent thaw in relations secure what US oppression could not? In the month that sees the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we remember the machinations of Gorbachev and watch closely the Cuban Revolution.
In every protest or struggle, or in an area that is oppressed, you are almost always confronted with a t-shirt, a poster, or a mural of Che Guevara. Che once said that he would never again seek refuge in an embassy (a reference to his stay in the Argentine embassy in Guatemala following the CIA backed coup against the left wing president Jacobo Arbenz who the young Ernesto Guevara had been supporting) as it was something he would never repeat, he said “if the Cuban Revolution should be under attack that he would go out to the barricades with a gun in his hand”. In this, he was prophetic, as no matter where in the world you find the people’s barricades you inevitably find the image and spirit of Che Guevara and in that maxim, Che truly lives.
Packy Carty is a former Republican Political Prisoner & Saoradh Activist based in East Tyrone