This year is the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s murder in the mountains of Bolivia by Bolivian military forces, following orders of the CIA.
Despite Although they had already captured him, maintaining Che Guevara alive was, in those days of October 1967, a threat to imperialism, even more so in the juncture that they were imposing, with new strategies for counter-insurgency and “national security”, which resulted in military coups and in the implementation of dictatorships in virtually all countries in Latin America between the 1960s and 1970s.
Che Guevara was always controversial. Hated by the right and by reactionary forces throughout the continent. And discussed even among progressivist and left-wing sectors.
Back then, the left was very dogmatic and each thesis gave origin to a new group. Each group characterized the Che according to their textbook, and some classified him as merely an adventurer and an idealist.
Finally, it was easier to follow the bureaucratic and peaceful tradition of some parties who called themselves communists. Some were scared by his praxis. It was also too much to ask for a common militant to imitate such courageous actions. And others even dismissed his ideas, transforming his example into a false individual heroism, unrelated to the masses—following the thesis of Régis Debray, who said it was sufficient to have “a small group of well-armed and willing men to climb up the mountains and create a foco and the exploited masses would follow them”. That was the foco theory of revolution.
Those were definitely not the Che’s ideas, nor the strategy to seize power. Even in his book, “guerrilla war”, which he wrote based on the concrete experience of the Cuban revolution, he clearly states that a guerrilla only makes sense as a part of a mass struggle, as a means to an end—not an end in and of itself. He even discusses the necessary subjective and objective conditions to engage in it.
We can’t idealize the Che as a super-man. Nor build dogma around him as if he were the only example. We also can’t reduce him to a myth. Che represents the synthesis of a historic period of revolutions in our continent. His ideas and his praxis formed a symbology of sentiments and practice of an entire revolutionary movement, in Cuba and in Latin America as a whole.
Therefore, when we refer to him, we need to keep in mind that he became a political referent because he synthesized the historic experience of many Latin American peoples.
And perhaps the reason why he incarnates that synthesis is, as his contemporaries and historians say, because Che was one of the few revolutionaries who managed to intensely, coherently and quotidianly live according to his beliefs.
“My father—says Aleida Guevara in a statement—made efforts to live every day in accordance to his beliefs”.
And it is in that coherent and quotidian praxis that we find the greatest legacy of the Che for the current generation of idealists and revolutionaries.
In short, we can identify 10 major values that Che represents for the history of Latin America:
Human beings should be the primary goal. Their wellbeing, their perfecting of their qualities, the search for happiness, the goal of living in a more just society. The struggle, the party, and the guerrilla, are always regarded by Che as means to an end. The end goal is to create a society of free people. That’s why, the day after seizing power, the task to accomplish in Cuba was building a new society. In Guevarist humanism, Marx’s ideals are put into practice in the most generous concept of social revolution. Unlike some left-wing parties that transformed the seizing of power, control of the state and strengthening of their organization into a goal in and of itself.
This humanism is also present in the idea that what transforms a person into a revolutionary is a permanent feeling of love for other human beings.
2. Rebelling against any form of injustice
That phrase became a principle for the praxis of all revolutionaries. Che maintained that the all revolutionaries should be moved to rebel against any injustice, committed against any human being, in any part of the world, under any circumstance.
That principle contains the fundamental idea of social relations as Che conceived them. With a sense of equality and justice. And at the same time rebelliousness and courage to stand up against injustice. That vision steers away from the individualistic notion of caring only for oneself or one’s circle. And it also breaks the myth of having to have a particular theory or be in a particular organization in order to be a revolutionary. It’s not about becoming proud of dogmas and symbols and forgetting daily praxis, but about focusing all the time even on the small injustices—that makes a big revolutionary. Fighting against the situation of oppression that class and capitalism produce.
3. Latin Americanism
The notion of Latin American identity of the peoples that inhabit this continent, despite the cultural and ethnic differences, was present since the struggles for independence of the continent.
We frequently quote Simón Bolívar, and especially José Martí. Their ideals are present in many literary works, in political speeches and party agendas, in all countries of the continent. But certainly, Che was one of the most lively exponents of that spirit.
He was lucky enough to have been born in Argentina and travelling through the continent by land, getting to know the suffering of the people firsthand. He became passionate about the cause of the Latin American peoples. With the same ardor he contributed to the cause in Guatemala, to the preparation of the Granma, to the struggle in Mexico, to combatting in the mountains of Cuba, to being a part of the revolutionary government, to speaking to the UN and going down to Bolivia to expand the struggle.
He seeked to put into practice Martí’s ideals. And its spirit is of Latin Americanism. He contributed to the notion that the causes and the nature of the social problems of peoples of different countries are essentially the same. He denounced the imperialist role of the US in the oppression. And he pointed out that the solution, in the long term, will join everyone on a similar path. No country, on its own, will be able to build a just and fair society in Latin America. Even though the Cuban revolution was victorious, we can assess the sacrifices it has had to make due to the US blockade, and other revolutions in Central America, South America and the Caribbean have been inviable.
4. The spirit of missioning
Missioning is present both in Che’s theory and in his practice, and it’s based on a sentiment of solidarity, which he used to say was the “most beautiful attribute of a person”. It involves leaving comfort in life in order to go to less fortunate places, and contribute, humbly, so that other people can live better. This spirit took him to many place, but it was always inspired in solidarity—never with a desire to teach, give orders, impose or seek personal benefit.
This sentiment of solidarity is present in many people today, including Cuban doctors, who apply their knowledge in health to help people in many countries in the world.
5. The spirit of sacrifice
His ideas about sacrifice weren’t an attempt to moralize, nor a promise of rewards beyond life, nor a masochistic desire. He conceived sacrifice as a part of life. He always took on the worst tasks, in any job or mission. He preached that any revolutionary militant should willingly take on that obligation. With those values, we would have enough moral to serve as an example to an entire people to build a different society.
6. The example of work
Work was always seen by Che as a transformative force of mankind, as the basis for the construction of all riches in society. But, of all philosophical concepts, his main legacy is the notion that “nobody can ask something from anybody else, until they have performed it themselves first”.
Therefore, in many occasions, he was the first to complete the tasks, the first to begin to work. He did things first and only then asked the others to join him.
This spirit was present in the organization of massive days of work, in the form of brigades, where all of the adult population was convened to contribute.
It was also present in the planning and in the political debates with Cuban workers and society in general, as they built socialism. It showed that a more equal society is not built upon speeches, nor ideals. It depends, primarily, on the increase of production of goods. And that can only be possible through a lot of work. That is, a more advanced and equal society can only be achieved with a lot of work by the current generation, only in that way can we have a better future.
7. Disregard for material goods
Che held positions in the most important offices of the Cuban state. He was a Minister, the President of the Central Bank, a member of many international delegations representing the Cuban government and people. He could have rested easy in any of those positions and live in relative calm after a trajectory of hard work.
When he said goodbye to his kids, as he went to Bolivia, he mentioned he wasn’t leaving them any material possessions, and that he hoped the Revolutionary State would provide them with the same protection and education that all the children of the nation should have.
His habits were simple and modest. Almost Franciscan.
What he did want to acquire was knowledge, culture, education, and a good life—the true cornerstones of happiness. Goods that are related to the basic needs of the human being are necessary. But individualism, egotism, and the accumulation of goods as an ostentation of social status, undermines moral values and the construction of a better society.
This principle is related to the importance of volunteer work for Che. He saw in volunteer work, done in the hours of rest, weekends and days off, a way to practice concrete actions of social solidarity. He also believed that the big practical problems of Cuban society would be solved quicker if there was a bigger commitment with volunteer work.
8. Belief in the strength of the masses
The strength of the people and the potential for transformation of the organized masses is present throughout Che’s political analysis. And also in his theory of military strategy. Contrary to the dissemination of foquismo, Che maintained that the victory of the revolution would only be possible through organizing a true army of the people.
He never adhered to the deviations of putschism or heroism of a handful of people as the key to liberation.
He also believed in joining the strength of the masses with a spirit of sacrifice and volunteer work. Thus he organized many brigades to solve practical needs of the population. From public cleaning to building housing and cutting sugar cane, to defending the motherland when, for example, Cuba was invaded by military forces organized by the US, in the famous episode of Cochino Bay, and in 72 hours, with the mobilization of the entirety of the Cuban people in arms, they managed to defeat the invaders.
9. The relationship between the leadership and the masses
Che’s daily practice also leaves a legacy regarding the way in which he related to the masses. He defended and he practiced the necessary bonding between leaders and masses. He was always among the people. He listened to their longings, their problems and their criticism to the revolutionary process.
His practice was essentially anti-bureaucratic, anti-committee, anti-vanguardist, anti-centralization. By avoiding and combating the tendency to have a nucleus of the party make all the decisions on behalf of the people. To be always in the midst of the people was the better way to fail less.
10. Cadre training
The experience of building socialism, the experience of administering a Revolutionary State in conditions of underdevelopment, led Che to dedicate a lot of his thoughts to the need for training cadres. Many of his reflections on the matter are registered in his speeches, articles and essays. He saw the need to train cadres as a vital element in the revolutionary process. Again, he expresses his commitment to power for the people by stating that a cadre strategy has to be oriented towards the masses. He believed that the highest possible number of people, especially youth, should be trained as revolutionary militants according to the political and technical needs. But, above all, they should represent the values of the “new man” or “new woman”, in their political, moral and cultural values, and should be an example to the masses.
The cadre had to be highly disciplined, technically prepared, and should have love for studying and scientific knowledge. They should be willing to commit to any task. They should be able to analyze problems and their causes, and use creativity to find a solution. But above all, they had to earn the respect of workers and the people, thanks to their worth and their love towards their peers.
The reason why Che Guevara’s figure is still so present among us, is due to the legacy he left us with. The life conditions of the peoples of Latin America haven’t changed. The forces of production have developed, but social problems still pervade the continent.
It is up to the revolutionary organizations to reflect upon this legacy. To seek the universality that lies in his thought, which is independent from the epoch or the country.
Believing in Che’s legacy doesn’t mean copying the strategies or tactics he used to struggle for power in Cuba or in Bolivia. Each country, each people, and each situation will beget its own strategy and tactics, according to the objective and subjective conditions and the correlation of forces.
Believing in Che is, above all, permanently fueling the possibility of a revolution. Making the revolution every day.
With our praxis, with the permanent trust in our ideals, and with the certainty that it is possible to defeat the oppressors (both internal and external) and one day build a society that is more fair and equal. And, like in the dreams of Martí and Che Guevara, more Latin America.