Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The life and legacy of Che

The Life & Legacy of Latin American Revolutionary
Ernesto "Che" Guevara: Forty Years After His Death

Democracy Now - October 9, 2007


JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the fortieth anniversary of
the death of one of the most influential figures of the
last century: Latin American revolutionary Ernesto
'Che' Guevara. Born in Argentina in 1928, Che rose to
international prominence as one of the key leaders of
the 1959 Cuban Revolution that overthrew dictator
Fulgencio Batista.

After a period in the new Cuban government leadership,
Che aimed to spark revolutionary activity
internationally. In 1965, he led a secret Cuban
operation aiding and training rebels in the Congo. One
year later, Che was in Bolivia, helping to lead an
uprising against the US-backed government. On October
8, 1967, he was captured by Bolivian troops working
with the CIA. He was executed one day later.

Commemorations are underway today in Cuba, Bolivia and
around the world. Some 10,000 people turned out Monday
for a ceremony in Santa Clara, Cuba. Che's daughter
Aleida Guevara addressed the crowd.

ALEIDA GUEVARA: [translated] I want to remember
the commitment we all have in order to make our
society stronger. Today, Latin America is
starting to wake up and make all of our dreams
come true. We have to be present and firmer than
ever. That is the greatest homage we can make to
our fathers and our loved ones.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che Guevara,
speaking Monday in Havana. In a moment, we'll be joined
by Latin American historian Greg Grandin, but first Che
in his own words. This is an excerpt of Che's address
to the United Nations in December 1964.

CHE GUEVARA: [translated] The bestiality of
imperialism, a bestiality that knows no limits,
that has no national frontiers. The bestiality of
Hitler's armies is like the North American
bestiality, like that of Belgian paratroopers and
that of French imperialists in Algeria, for it is
the very essence of imperialism to turn men into
wild, bloodthirsty animals determined to
slaughter, kill, murder and destroy the very last
vestige of the image of the revolutionary or the
partisan in any regime that they crush under
their boots because it fights for freedom. The
statue of Lumumba, destroyed today, but rebuilt
tomorrow, reminds us of this tragic story of this
martyr of the world revolution and makes sure
that we will never trust imperialism, in no way
at all, not an iota.

AMY GOODMAN: Che Guevara, speaking to the UN General
Assembly, December 11, 1964. Just days later, a group
of journalists interviewed Che at the Cuban mission in
New York. The legendary reporter from Pacifica, Chris
Koch, was among that group. This is a rare excerpt of
the press conference, beginning with Koch's

CHRIS KOCH: This is Chris Koch. On Wednesday
night, December 16th, a group of American
Socialist journalists and writers spent about an
hour talking with Comandante Che Guevara at the
Cuban mission here in New York. I was there with
a microphone and tape recorder, and this program
will be a report of that meeting with the Cuban
Minister of Industry.

East 67th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue
was blocked off by barricades and a handful of
policemen. The group of writers, who had met at a
restaurant in the neighborhood, were stopped by
police at the corner. We waited until clearance
came from the Cuban mission building near the
center of the block, then walked into a large
townhouse through a tight line of New York's
finest making comments and nudging us as we tried
to get through the door.

We waited in a storeroom for about a half an hour
and then went upstairs into a large room with a
high ceiling, a desk, a marble fireplace,
chandeliers, and three sofas partially
surrounding a large coffee table. The writers
arranged themselves on the sofa, and Comandante
Guevara knelt on the floor in front of the table.
Those standing soon settled down on the floor
around the table next to him.

Comandante Guevara was dressed in pressed
military fatigues and polished black boots.
During the conversation, he was in constant
motion, lying on his side, shifting to a
squatting position, back to his side, resting his
head on his hands, and puffing constantly on a
cigar. Constant motion. Guevara was relaxed,
joked much, smiled always.

One area of the discussion dealt with his own
revolutionary past and his analysis of the Cuban
guerrilla struggle.

CHRIS KOCH: You are Argentinean by birth,
and rather than make a revolution in the
Argentine, you went out and, as I
understand it, traveled and stayed in
several countries before coming into
conjunction with Fidel Castro in Mexico. I
would like to ask how you look back upon
this and see it as some kind of lucky
juncture, or that somehow you were
searching until a revolutionary situation
coalesced, or...

CHE GUEVARA: [translated] It seems to be a
question to be answered after three or four
drinks in a more intimate atmosphere. In
general, we could say there are some
moments in our revolution that are things
completely mad, crazy: the attack against
the Moncada Barracks, the expedition of the
Granma, the struggle with the handful of
men that remained, the defense against the
last great attack by the dictatorship in
Sierra Maestra, the invasion of the
province of Las Villas, the seizure of the
principal towns. If you analyze each one of
those things, you will reach the conclusion
that there was something mad in the middle,
something crazy in the middle. And as all
of them, as a chain, led to the seizure of
power, you may have to reach a conclusion
that in order to seize power you have to be
a little crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of a rare interview with Che
Guevara, December 11, 1964, from the Pacifica Radio

Greg Grandin joins us now, professor of Latin American
history at New York University, author of Empire's
Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the
Rise of the New Imperialism, just out in paperback.

Talk about how Che Guevara, an Argentine, ends up
leading, with Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, it's an interesting story, and
before I -- what makes Che so iconic is that his life
embodies the revolutionary century of Latin America.
And a lot of your listeners may know what -- viewers
may be aware of Che's motorcycle diary trip, where he
toured around Latin America, and through that he
developed a consciousness, a Pan-American
consciousness. Well, right after that trip, he wound up
in Guatemala, which was undergoing a profound
democratic revolution between 1944 and 1954.

Guatemala was one of the most ambitious social
democratic revolutions that emerged throughout Latin
America after World War II. And what's important about
Guatemala is that by 1948, 1950, most democratic
revolutions in Latin America had been rolled back, or
there was a wave of reaction throughout the continent.
But in Guatemala the revolution actually deepened. And
Che spent 1953 -- wound up in Guatemala -- he landed in
Guatemala in 1953, and he lived through the
counterrevolution. This was the United States's first
CIA-orchestrated coup in Latin America.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Against Arbenz.

GREG GRANDIN: Against Jacobo Arbenz -- United Fruit
Company -- defending the interests of the United Fruit

AMY GOODMAN: So, first, the US CIA had overthrown Iran
in 1953.


AMY GOODMAN: Then, trying to use the same model, goes

GREG GRANDIN: Well, it was actually even more
ambitious. Iran was a pretty fast operation, a couple
of weeks. Guatemala was the most extensive and
ambitious CIA operation to date. It utilized every
aspect of US power, not just military and economic and
political, but a whole broad array of psychological
destabilization campaigns. Pretty much --

JUAN GONZALEZ: There was quite a bit of penetration of
the Guatemalan press, as well, beforehand to prepare
the way for the coup, as well.

GREG GRANDIN: The press, exactly. That's what I mean.
It was really -- it became the model for other coups,
in which the United States would destabilize the civil
society organizations, the press and the --

AMY GOODMAN: John Foster Dulles was the head of the
State Department at the time. Formerly he was the
corporate lawyer for United Fruit --


AMY GOODMAN: -- on behalf of whom Guatemala was

GREG GRANDIN: Yes. The United Fruit Company had some
land expropriated, and the United States was concerned
about the legalization of the Communist Party. And
what's important, in terms of Che, is that he witnessed
this. He was -- in Guatemala, he developed more of a
revolutionary consciousness. He worked as a socially
committed doctor administering to the country's poor in
a clinic, and he saw the overthrow of what was the most
-- the longest-lasting post-war democracy in Latin
America firsthand.

He had to flee to the -- he took asylum in the
Argentine embassy. It was in the embassy, he spent a
few months, and he met a number of future
revolutionaries, Guatemalan new left armed
revolutionaries. And then he managed to flee and
receive exile in Mexico, and that's where he met --
that's where he met Fidel Castro and joined the Cuban
Revolution and went on to make history.

But Guatemala had a deep impact on him. He would go on
to justify the closing down -- the suppressing of civil
liberties in Cuba and the radicalization of the
revolution in Cuba, by saying that Cuba will not be
another Guatemala. In many ways, Guatemala, much more
than Cuba -- diplomatic historians love to focus on
Cuba. They think the Cold War began and end in Cuba,
but it was really Guatemala that was much more of a
turning point, not just in Che's life, but for a whole
generation of Latin American reformists and
nationalists and democrats. It led to a deep
radicalization and a sense that democracy and reform
would not come about through an alliance with the
national bourgeoisie and national progressive
capitalist class. It was witnessing the downfall of the
Guatemalan democracy, in which elites did ally with the
CIA and the US, that led to a much more radical
understanding of how to bring about social change and
the Cuban Revolution.

What's also important about the overthrow of Arbenz is
that it became a model, as Juan mentioned, for the Bay
of Pigs operation. And because of the success or the
easy success, the seemingly easy success, of the
overthrow of Arbenz, CIA got a bit confident, and a lot
of -- many of the assumptions that they -- the lessons
that they thought they learned from Guatemala they
applied in the Bay of Pigs. Of course, the Bay of Pigs
was a complete disaster, that went on to have a much
more radicalizing influence throughout the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the Bay of Pigs, but even how once
Fidel and Che had linked up in Mexico, how they
actually launched the Revolution, came into Cuba.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, they had a yacht, the Granma. It's
a ship in which they set out on an expedition. There
was a -- I can't remember the number, but it became --
it has become myth that there were twelve -- that once
they landed, Batista's army was waiting for them, and
they ambushed them, and the number of the people on the
expedition, which I think started with eighty men, or
something like that, around eighty-something, it's
become myth that twelve survived. Obviously, that has a
certain resonance with the New Testament. And twelve
made it into the Sierra Maestra and began to organize,
and among them were Che and Fidel. And Che developed a
reputation, a well-deserved reputation, as a military
strategist, and he took the -- he won a number of key
battles against Batista's army.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Once the Revolution triumphed against
Batista -- and obviously Cuba was very different in
that it had a very large existing labor movement that
provided eventually some mass base for the guerrillas,
as well as those in the countryside -- Che then begins
to -- doesn't spend very much time actually
constructing the Revolution, does he?

GREG GRANDIN: No. He's not really a policymaker. He is
more of a -- what could be understood as an action
intellectual. He was the head of the -- speaking of
Alan Greenspan, he was the head of the central bank,
Cuban central bank, and minister of the economy of

He wanted to go fast. His plan for Cuba was to
centralize authority and industrialize as quick as
possible. In an island of eight million people at the
time, it didn't -- six million people at the time, that
was not a very practical plan. As Cuba became closer to
the Soviet Union, it became clear that they weren't
going to industrialize.

And there were some divisions. Historians debate just
to what degree there was rivalry within the Cuban
Revolution between Fidel and Che. But Che's giving up
his formal position within the Cuban government, and he
toured the United States, and then he went to Africa to
join a guerrilla movement in the Congo, and that was a
failure. And then, from there he went to Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: There, he met Laurent Kabila --


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