Che Guevara, a symbol of struggle (Part Two)

By Tony Saunois.

During this second tour Che penned another journal which he entitled, Otra Vez (Once Again).* Reflecting how he began this journey he wrote: «This time, the name of the sidekick has changed, now Alberto is called Calica, but the journey is the same: two disperse wills extending themselves through America without knowing precisely what they seek or which way is north.»

Che and companion arrived in La Paz, the Bolivian capital, during July 1953. They were immediately caught up in the revolutionary upheavals which were rocking one of the poorest and most «Indian» of American nations. A mass revolt of the predominantly indigenous peasants and tin miners had broken out twelve months earlier. This mass uprising had brought the radical Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) to power.

The new regime, whilst trying to keep the mass movement in check, was forced by the insurrectionary upheavals to carry through a widespread programme of reform. The peasants, through a series of land occupations, forced a far reaching programme of agrarian change. The tin mines, Bolivia’s primary source of income at the time, were nationalised. The miners and peasants had armed themselves, sections of the army came over to the side of the workers and peasants. A militia was established and for a short time the army was formally disbanded. However, the revolution was not completed with the establishment of a new regime of workers’ democracy and the movement was eventually defeated.

During these revolutionary events the tin miners played a leading role in establishing a new independent trade union centre, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB). Reflecting the revolutionary upsurge which took place the COB even formally endorsed the Transitional Programme, written by Leon Trotsky in 1938.

In La Paz, Che spent much of his time in cafes and bars meeting political migrants who had arrived from all over America. During the course of the revolution Bolivia had become a political Mecca as radicals and left-wing revolutionaries were attracted to the stormy events erupting.

«La Paz is the Shanghai of the Americas. A rich gamut of adventurers of all the nationalities vegetate and flourish in the polychromatic and mestizo city», wrote Che in his Otra Vez. Here he mixed with a variety of political activists and engaged in debate and discussions with them. He met up with some of the Argentine community living in La Paz. Amongst those he met was an exiled Argentinean, called Nogues.

The influence of the powerful social events taking place in Bolivia are reflected in Che’s comments about this leader of the expatriate Argentinean community. «His political ideas have been outdated in the world for some time now, but he maintains them independently of the proletarian hurricane that has been let loose on our bellicose sphere.»

Through these social contacts Che led a double existence in La Paz alternating between observing the revolutionary movements and the high life he was introduced to through the Argentine community. On one occasion, Nogues’ brother, having recently returned from Europe, showed Che and Calica an invitation he had received to the wedding of Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis.

However, it was the revolutionary process which he witnessed in La Paz which left the most lasting impression on Che. He wrote to his father in July complaining that he wanted to stay in Bolivia longer because, «…this is a very interesting country and it is living through a particularly effervescent moment. On the second of August the agrarian reform goes through, and fracases and fights are expected throughout the country. We have seen incredible processions of armed people with Mausers and ‘piripipi’ (machine guns), which they shoot off for the hell of it. Every day shots can be heard and there are wounded and dead from firearms.»

Che, who wanted to see the renowned Bolivian miners first hand, visited the Balsa Negra mine just outside La Paz. Prior to the revolution company guards had used a machine gun to open fire on striking miners. Now the mine was nationalised. Che encountered truck loads of armed miners returning from the capital to protest their support for land reform and the struggle of peasants. With their «stony faces and red plastic helmets they appeared to be warriors from other worlds».

Despite witnessing the tremendous strength of the Bolivian miners Che never really absorbed the potential role of the working class in the socialist revolution, even in countries such as Bolivia where they constituted a minority of the population. This weakness, combined with other factors, would have a direct bearing on the ideas he later developed.

At this stage in Che’s political evolution however, it is sufficient to note the impact which events in Bolivia had on his outlook. For the first time in his life he was touched directly by the heat of the flame of revolution. Despite the sweep of events he was still an observer rather than an active participant.

After extending their stay in La Paz to nearly one month Che and Calica moved on. They spent some time in Peru and in Lima again met with Doctor Pesce and also Gobo Nogues. Gobo ensured that they ate on a few occasions at the Country Club and in Lima’s most expensive hotel, the Gran Hotel Bolívar.

They moved on to Ecuador where they forged new friendships with a group of adventurers. Che’s intention had been to move on with Calica to Venezuela. After a series of excursions Calica and Che departed company, the former heading for Caracas and the latter with a new companion, Gualo, to Guatemala. They were totally broke and had to work their passage on a ship. Before reaching Guatemala they passed through Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, meeting and discussing with individuals and groups along the way.

By travelling north to Central America Che had entered a somewhat different world to that which existed in the southern cone of Latin America. Imperialism dominated the southern countries in conjunction with an enfeebled national capitalist class. There was a relatively strong urban population and working class in the cities and the societies tended to be more developed. This was even the case in the poorest countries at the time, such as Bolivia and Peru.

In a series of Central American countries US imperialism arrogantly imposed local tyrants as dictatorial heads of state while despised and hated companies, such as Coca Cola and the United Fruit Company, plundered the economies. As Che commented: «…the countries were not true nations, but private estancias».

This was only fifty years after US imperialism had created Panama, and ran it as a client state in order to keep control of the canal which it had built for trade purposes and strategic interests. Nicaragua had been ruled for thirty years by the corrupt dictatorship of Somoza. El Salvador was run by a succession of dictatorships intent on defending the interests of the coffee plantation owners, and Honduras was virtually run as a packaging plant for the United Fruit Company.

The United Fruit Company symbolised the exploitation of the continent by imperialism. Che’s favourite poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote an ironical verse, La United Fruit Co., reflecting the sentiments of Latin America towards its imperialist domination.

Neruda’s poem continues and denounces the company for creating the «Tyrannical Reign of Flies» the dictators of Central America: Trujillo, Tachos, Ubico, Martínez, Garias – «the bloody domain of flies.»

On to Guatemala

If events in Bolivia had made an impact on Che, developments in Guatemala, where he got actively involved for the first time, would change the direction of his life. He arrived in Guatemala City on Christmas Eve and openly identified with a political cause and with some idea of what he now intended to commit his life to.

Just prior to his arrival he had written a letter dated December 10, in which he outlined his political views to his aunt Beatríz, with whom he had an especially close relationship. These were undoubtedly a reflection of the effect events in Bolivia had had on him. For the first time he clearly identified himself ideologically with socialist ideas.

«My life has been a sea of found resolutions until I bravely abandoned my baggage and, back pack on my shoulder, set out with el compañero García on the sinuous trail that has brought us here. Along the way I have had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.» He signed the letter «from your nephew of the iron constitution, the empty stomach and the shining faith in the socialist future. Chao, Chancho».

By 1953 the populist left-leaning government in Guatemala, presided over by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, was locked into a head-on confrontation with US imperialism and the rich elite of Guatemala City. Arbenz was continuing a reformist programme begun by the preceding government which came to power during the 1940’s having toppled the ruthless Ubico dictatorship.

US imperialism would tolerate a lot from this reformist administration. But in 1952 the Arbenz administration took a step too far. A land reform decree was enacted which abolished the latifundia system and nationalised the properties of the detested United Fruit Company.

This measure provoked the wrath of Guatemala’s white Creole elite and won massive support from the mainly indigenous and mestizo poor rural peasants and urban workers. The United Fruit Company and the Eisenhower administration were outraged. It would only be a matter of time before the CIA would instigate the overthrow of the Arbenz government.

The «socialist» experiment in Guatemala had drawn thousands from all over Latin America to see first hand this challenge to US imperialism. Mass mobilisations were taking place all the time and numerous militias were established by both the government and the various political parties. In the main these were not armed. However, the forces of reaction began to arm and mobilise.

Amongst those present during the Guatemalan drama, apart from Che Guevara, were numerous future leaders of Latin American left-wing organisations, including Rodolfo Romero, a future leader of the Nicaraguan Sandinista FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

Che met with a series of political activists and engaged in discussion. He secured work as a doctor in a hospital and was introduced to Hilda Gadea, an exiled leader of the youth wing of the radical populist Peruvian movement, APRA. She introduced him to activists and leaders of various political groupings and gave him political works to study, including some works of Mao Tse Tung.

It was during these events that Che encountered a number of Cuban exiles. They had been given asylum by the Arbenz regime and had participated in an attempted assault on July 26 1953 against the Moncada military barracks in Cuba. For the first time Che began to discover about the struggle developing against the Cuban Batista regime.

The speed with which events developed in Guatemala also resulted in Che’s ideas maturing. He began to criticise the communist parties which had adopted a policy of ‘Popular’ or ‘People’s Fronts’. This put them in alliances with sections of the national capitalist class. The leadership of the communist parties wrongly argued a tactical alliance with this «progressive» wing of the national capitalist class was necessary in the struggle against imperialism, in order to defend and widen parliamentary democracy. They said a stage of ‘capitalist democracy and economic development’ was necessary before the working class could struggle for and hope to obtain socialism.

This policy resulted in the communist party leaders limiting the struggles of the working class to prevent them challenging the interests of capitalism. The workers’ movement was frequently paralysed by this policy which often resulted in bloody defeat at the hands of reaction. Decisive sections of the capitalist class were quite prepared to abolish democratic rights and utilise repressive methods of rule in order to defend their own class interests.

Che, although not clearly presenting an alternative to this policy, felt that the communist parties were moving away from the masses simply to get a share of power in a coalition government. He wrongly argued at this time that no party in Latin America could remain revolutionary and contest elections.

Though beginning to articulate his thoughts, Che’s ideas did not become fully formulated until later. Meanwhile, events in Guatemala overtook the polemics he had begun to be engaged in. The US was increasingly uneasy about the course events were taking and had concluded the government must be overthrown. The example of the movement in Guatemala was beginning to spill over into other Central American countries. A general strike broke out in Honduras. The Nicaraguan dictator, Somoza, feared his own population may follow the example of events in neighbouring countries.

The CIA had put together a plan to topple the Guatemalan administration. A figure-head named Castillo Armas was hand-picked to replace Arbenz as President. A paramilitary force was trained in Nicaragua and those friendly to the US in the Guatemalan Army were involved in a plot against the government.

Arbenz refused to take action against those in the military known to be sympathetic to the plotters and tried to appease the military. A few days before his government was overthrown in 1954 by the conspirators he appealed to the army itself to distribute arms to the militias which had been established. The military command refused and the government fell. The existing capitalist state machine had been left intact and no alternative of workers’ and peasants’ committees had been established from which an appeal could have been made to the rank and file soldiers.

This defeat and the failure of Arbenz to take any action against the capitalist state apparatus was to leave a lasting impression on Che, one which he would not forget as the revolution in Cuba unfolded.

After seeking asylum in the Argentinean Embassy and hiding for a period, Che eventually found his way to Mexico by September. As a fresh activist his movements had not gone unnoticed. The CIA opened a file on him for the first time. Over the coming years it was to become one of the thickest ever compiled by them on any one individual.

It was while Che was in Mexico that he initially met one of the leaders of the July 26th Movement fighting the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, Fidel Castro. Their first meeting was during 1955, after which Che eventually joined the Movement.

Following his experiences in Bolivia and in particular after his participation in events in Guatemala, Che entered the next phase of his life no longer as the medical doctor and social observer. From this point on he was to be an active participant in and eventual leader of historic events.


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