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The Importance of Being 'Che'

O n Che Guevara's 40th death anniversary which Che does the world want? A fashionable brand name for consumer goods, a forgettable failure in the official histories of various communist parties, or a source of inspiration for a new generation of revolutionaries?


The Importance of Being ‘Che’

Sumanta Banerjee

On Che Guevara’s 40th death anniversary which Che does the world want? A fashionable brand name for consumer goods, a forgettable failure in the official histories of various communist parties, or a source of inspiration for a new generation of revolutionaries?

he most effective means of trivialising a revolutionary ideology is to appropriate its symbols, purge them of all radical ideas and turn them into “designer chic” with the help of the corporate mass media. The best example of this is the fate of the internationalist communist revolutionary of the 1960s, Ernesto (‘Che’) Guevara, who was killed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Bolivia in October 40 years ago.

The gurus of today’s advertising business – after a respectful interval following his assassination – have brushed up his image as a prophylactic marketable commodity. Cashing in on his powerfully attractive face as a visionary with a distant gaze, framed within a star-adorned beret and straggly beard, the ad agencies in the west are profitably using it as a brand to promote the sale of Che T-shirts, Che key-chains and Che cuff links all over the world.

A recent newspaper report (Indian Express, October 10) tells us that a designer has put his face even on a bikini – leaving us marvelling at the graphic artist’s ingenuity in squeezing Che’s mug shot within the space of that itsy-bitsy swimwear! Not to be left behind, England’s top financial media house has also jumped on to the bandwagon. In the subway of London’s Raynes Park railway station, the commuter is greeted by a huge wall billboard dis playing a larger than life portrait of Che, addressed to “business revolutionaries, past, present and future”. It ends with a cryptic witticism that reveals the identity of the advertiser: “We live in Financial Times”.

It is obvious that Che Guevara still remains a force to reckon with. He had

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carved out for himself a niche in the collective memory of those who, unlike the successful morons in the corporate world of today’s neoliberal era, are committed enough to envision and struggle for a better world. He occupies a space which is similar in many respects to the status enjoyed by Bhagat Singh among the Indian youth. His magnetic personality and courageous self-sacrifice at an early age (“a flower that was plucked from his stem prematurely”, as so movingly described by his former comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro in a message sent to the meeting to observe the 40th anniversary of his death this year, at Santa Clara in Cuba where his remains are kept), have come to inspire a variety of trends ranging from socialist revolutionary zeal to audacious love for adventure.

It is no wonder therefore that in these days of permissive culture of neoliberalism that allows trivialisation of the serious and depoliticisation of the heterodox, the advertising industry would yank out Che’s image from history, strip it of his communist ideology, reduce it instead to that of a daredevil hippy of sorts, and harness it to consumer goods for sale among today’s generation of urban apolitical restless youth. The corporate financial bosses of the west also have found it useful to invoke Che’s image to urge young entrepreneurs to imbibe his adventurous zeal to take risks – to transfer it from the cause of a socia list revolution to that of capitalist competition in the free market economy of the neoliberal era.

It is not accidental that the market in the west has suddenly conjured up Che’s apparition right now to use it as a marketing tool. Forty years after his assassi n ation, his followers have succeeded in coming to power in large parts of Latin America – Venezuela, Bolivia (where Che was killed in 1967), Ecuador and Nicaragua – and popular upsurges are breaking out in Mexico, Colombia and other areas.

Che’s last message before his death has come back to resonate, not only in his continent, but the rest of the world:

Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people’s unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. (Message to the Tricontinental, April 1967.)

Today in particular, his image looms larger than ever before over the popular agitations against the “great enemy of mankind” which is waging a brutal war in Iraq, and imposing hegemonic coercive economic policies all over the world. The proponents of these policies cannot wish away Che Guevara. Despite their success in physically annihilating him in the jungles of Bolivia, his spirit still remains a living challenge to them. They therefore have to depoliticise his image and reduce it to iridescent confetti to be cast on the volatile political landscape of today.

Che Guevara in Retrospect The 48th anniversary of the assassination of Che Guevara is an occasion for both salva ging him from the market of the trivia where the corporate media have installed him, and restoring him to his position of relevance for the current socialist movement.

Che was far removed from the flimsy romantic yippie that the market and the media today want to project him as. “The most complete man of his time” – that was how Jean Paul Sartre described him, referring to his role as both a combatant and a theoretician. While acknowledging his contribution to Communist military strategy as a professional revolutionary (in his book Guerrilla Warfare, which became a handbook for revolutionary movements throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia in the 1960-70 period), we should also remember his expertise in other areas.

A medical graduate from a college in his birthplace in Argentina, he gained experience as a practising physician during his travels through villages in Latin America in the 1950s. It was in the course of this that he watched CIA-backed forces overthro wing an elected left-wing government in Guatemala in 1954, which convinced him that the US was the main enemy of socialism – an ideology that he felt addressed the basic problems of the poverty-stricken patients whom he treated. This led him to join Fidel Castro and successfully lead the revolution and capture power in Cuba, soon after which he showed his mettle in another direction

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– as the head of the National Bank in the post-revolutionary phase of reconstruction of Cuba.

Che in Government Later, as the minister of industries in Cuba, he made a major presentation at the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva in March 1964. The keen analysis of the contemporary global situation that he made in his speech still rings true. Describing the underdeveloped countries as “the battleground of econo mic systems that belong in different eras”, he divided them into those where feuda lism still existed, and others where the ruling bourgeoisie had to stand “the dual pressure of imperialist interests and of its own proletariat, who are fighting for a fair distribution of income”. The warning that he delivered to those governments among the latter, who instead of maintaining their independence had “made common cause with imperialism”, is worth quoting in the context of the controversy over certain aspects of the present Indian government’s economic and foreign policies:

…such advantages as these governments may gain today, at the price of disunity, will be repaid with interest tomorrow when in addition to facing the hostility of their own peoples, they will have to stand up alone to the monopolistic offensive whose only law is maximum gain.

Che as the Revolutionary A year after his UNCTAD speech, Che left Cuba. In a farewell address to his comrade and leader Fidel Castro, he wrote:

I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory, and I say goodbye to you, the comrades, your people who are already mine.

Explaining the reasons for his departure, he said:

Other nations of the world call for my modest efforts….I carry to new battle fronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever I may be…

A new battle front he chose was Bolivia, where while heading a guerrilla movement to overthrow the military government there, he was captured and killed by CIA-led Bolivian troops on October 9, 1967. “He was betrayed”, Fidel Castro was to say later in an interview with Saul Landau, a journalist and filmmaker in July, 1968.

Asserting that Che’s strategy was “not to blame”, he added: “The Bolivian [Communist] Party promised they would provide the expedition with supplies, information, food and weapons and also open an urban front… [Mario] Monge [the head of Boli vian Communist Party] had agreed on this and then reneged without telling us.” Pointing at the then Soviet pressures, Castro said: “We know who dictates to Monge. They will say that now is not the moment for revolution’’ (Analytical Monthly Review, July-August 2007).

Humanism and Internationalism We can go on arguing why Che’s military strategy succeeded in Cuba, but failed in Bolivia, whether the Moscow-dominated Bolivian Communist leaders betrayed him or the conditions in Bolivia were different from those in Cuba. But we cannot deny the two driving forces that propelled Che to choose the path he took – humanism and internationalism – on both of which the communist movement had defaulted. While any display of the first is still sneered at by party bureaucrats as “bourgeois sentimentality”, the spirit of the second has been allowed by them to be appropriated by their bourgeois ene mies who have turned it into the present mantra of “globalisation”. Instead of the workers of the world uniting, their exploiters have united under the banner of an international neoliberal order.

Che had watched the degeneration of the Russian and Chinese revolutions. The canker of corrupt bureaucracy, selfish political ambitions, and violent intolerance of dissenting voices, had crept out from the entrails of the triumphant revolution to destroy its dreams, and take over the reins of power. Cautious about the dangers of such degeneration in the Cuban revolution, Che from the beginning reminded his comrades that they must have a “large dose of humanity” – an advice which he followed in his own actions. Narrating an incident during the Cuban revolution where a traitor was sentenced to death by the party leaders, Che described how on being asked for his last wish, the sentenced man requested Che and his comrades to take care of his children. “The revolution kept its promise”, Che wrote in his unforgettable Episodes of the Revolutionary War, telling us how the children “under a different name…are now attending school, receiving the same treatment as all other sons of the people, preparing for a better life...” But then Che added the bitter truth:

…some day they will have to be told that the peasant who let himself be tempted by power and money, in addition to recognising his crime, never asked for clemency… but instead asked our leader to be kind and benevolent to his children.

It was this effort to rehabilitate the principle of humanism inherent in Marxism that led Che to conceptualise the role of the individual in a socialist Cuba in his Man and Socialism, where he asserted: “To build communism a new man must be created simultaneously with the material base.” The tussle between the options of material incentive on the one hand and ideological motivation on the other, to create the new socialist man, had plagued all post-revolutionary socialist societies. Che hit the nail on its head when he frankly acknowledged that it was easy during the revolution to “have recourse to moral incentives; but to maintain moral incentives at a high level at other times, new values have to be instilled into individual consciences”. At the present juncture of history where the youth are at the crossroads – facing one path reserved for rat race by yuppies brainwashed by the neoliberal material incentive of individual aggrandisement, and the other crowded by a new gene ration motivated by the moral incentive of building an alternative egalitarian and democratic society – Che Guevara’s words should strike a chord.

Spirit of Internationalism The other impetus that drove Che was the spirit of internationalism. He appeared at a moment of crisis in the world com munist movement – split between the Soviet-led socialist camp busy in

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competing with the west in the race of consumerism and militarism rather than supporting national liberation movements, and a fanatically dogmatic China, noisily chauvinistic and mulishly trying to impose its political line on other communist parties. Saddened by Moscow’s retreat from international solidarity actions and Beijing’s selfish attempt to establish hegemony over them, Che watched the plight of Vietnam, supported by both these two communist powers with more rhetoric than actual help, and compared them with the “plebeians coaxing on the gladiators in the Roman arena”. Urging a more pro-active role, he said: “It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression, but of sharing his fate, one must accompany him to his death or to victory.” True to this principle, he himself joined the victims in Bolivia, and accompanied them to death.

Che on US Imperialism But by carrying out this role, Che postulated a proposition, the importance of which moves beyond his personal sacrifice, and stresses the responsibility of champions of humanitarian values all over the world to be active in defending the victims of aggression and, if possible, to share their fate. His last words on the eve of his departure 40 years ago – although spoken in the context of Vietnam – have an uncanny relevance today. Describing those days as an “illogical moment of humanity”, he wrote:

US imperialism is guilty of aggression – its crimes are enormous and cover the whole world. … But this guilt also applies to those who, when the time came for definition, hesitated to make Vietnam an inviolable part of the socialist world…

His observation is pertinent to today’s world, where almost all the nations, including India, are acting as accomplices in the unbridled march of US military power over the innocent people of Iraq – a picture of massacre that Che predicted in the context of the future fight against US expansionism:

…in the homes of the fighters – where the repressive forces shall go seeking easy victims among their families – in the massacred rural population, in the villages or cities destroyed by the bombardments of the enemy (Message to the Tricontinental).

We should however keep in mind that Iraq is different from Vietnam. While the Vietnamese people had an ideologically progressive and militarily innovative communist national leadership to steer them along a difficult war and achieve final victory, the Iraqis are bedevilled by internal sectarian strife, and their anti-US resistance has been hijacked by religious zealots and suicidal fanatics. The pernicious character of their present actions makes it difficult for communists, as well as those committed to democratic values in the anti-imperialist struggle, to rally wholeheartedly behind them

– unlike the international solidarity movement that was geared up in civil society in the 1960-70 period, over the Vietnam war.

But we may draw comfort from the historical experience of the folly of all aggressive powers and their ultimate defeat, the germs of which are embedded in their own bankrupt strategy – whether Hitler’s collapse in Russia, or the US biting the dust on the soil of Vietnam. What Che Guevara said about the predicament of the US in Viet nam under Lyndon Johnson is applicable to his successor Bush’s dilemma in Iraq today:

…imperialism is bogging down in Vietnam, is unable to find a way out and desperately seeks one that will overcome with dignity this dangerous situation in which it now finds itself (Message to the Tricontinental).

Which Che? At the end of it all, how will Che be remembered? As a fashionable brand name in the market of consumer goods, a forge ttable failure in the official histories of various communist parties, or a source of inspiration for a new generation of revolutionaries? It is the enduring image of the latter that was sought to be recaptured in a documentary film which was released a year after Che’s death by two Argentinabased filmmakers. The Hour of the Furnaces, a contemporary film classic chronicling the liberation struggle in Latin America, ends with a long slow pan over the face of Che in death – suggesting as it were, the lasting impact of his sacrifice.



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