By Tony Saunois.
It is perhaps fitting for an Argentinean to own a yerba mate plantation as Ernesto Guevara Lynch did in the remote jungle of Misiones on the border with Paraguay and Brazil. Chileans are renowned drinkers of tea and Brazilians of coffee. The Argentineans consume with gusto a bitter tea herb throughout the day whilst at work or relaxing with friends.
Ernesto Guevara Lynch was the great-grandson of one of South America’s richest men whose ancestors were of both Spanish and Irish nobility. Most of the family fortune had been lost by previous generations and Guevara Lynch invested what he had in the yerba mate plantation where he hoped to make his fortune. In 1927 he met and married Celia de la Serna, an Argentinean also with ancestors from the Spanish nobility.
The first of four children, Ernesto, was to become known as the world renowned revolutionary, Che Guevara. As a revolutionary who spent most of his life in clandestine activity, it was apt that he should have falsified birth and death certificates.
Ernesto was in fact born one month earlier than June 14 1928 which was stated on his birth certificate, the deception being necessary because his mother was three moths pregnant on the day she married. Che was executed on October 8 1967 in Bolivia at the hands of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Bolivian army.
Thirty years after his execution the name of Che Guevara lives on throughout Latin America and beyond. He has left a powerful tradition as an internationalist and self-sacrificing revolutionary who acts as an inspiring symbol of struggle against exploitation.
On the thirtieth anniversary of his execution it is legitimate for revolutionaries to salute Che’s qualities as a symbol of struggle against oppression and recognise the heroic role he played in the Cuban revolution in 1959. The guerrilla struggle which was mainly based upon the most downtrodden peasants in Cuba ended with the overthrow of the hated Batista dictatorship.
This was possible because of the concrete situation which existed in Cuba and other countries of Central America and the Caribbean. It was not possible for Che to successfully repeat the experience of the revolution in the countries of Latin America where there were different conditions – in particular a more powerful urban population and smaller rural population than in Central America.
The attempt of Che to apply the same methods he used in Cuba poses important question about his ideas and methods which need to be discussed and analysed by revolutionary socialists.
Che did not readily enter into political activity. Reflecting his middle class upbringing and compassion for the poor and sick he was initially drawn towards medicine and eventually graduated as a doctor from the Buenos Aires Faculty of Medicine in 1953.
His family had moved from Misiones to Cordoba partly for business reasons and also in a bid to aid Che’s chronic asthma through a change of climate. They finally moved to Buenos Aires in 1947 where his parents eventually split up.
Asthma was to dog Che throughout his life. Its crippling effect made all the more remarkable the guerrilla struggles which he eventually was to engage in. Like many such disabilities it had an effect in shaping his early development. Often unable to walk and confined to bed he developed a keen interest in reading and learning to play chess. Whilst determined to overcome his disability and insisting on playing sports he became something of a loner spending much of his time reading and studying. This was re-enforced by the split between his parents, the death of his grandmother and the financial problems which the family were now encountering.
At university Che was drawn to more political reading although he did not actively participate in political life. He began delving into socialist ideas. According to his own recollections he read some Marx, Engels and Lenin along with some material by Stalin. He also studied the novelists Zola and Jack London and Argentine socialists such as Alfredo Palacios. His love of poetry was satisfied, amongst others, by the works of the Chilean writer and Communist Party member, Pablo Neruda, and the Spanish Civil War poet Lorca.
However, for all his new-found curiosity about socialist ideas he never engaged in political activity beyond discussing with some members of the Young Communists and other left-wing groups. According to one report he joined the Peronist Youth (a populist and nationalist Argentinean movement led by General Perón) as a means of obtaining greater access to the university library.
He was regarded as radical and outspoken by those he encountered but did not have any coherent or worked out ideas and certainly did not regard himself as a Marxist. His main objective was still to qualify as a doctor with a view to helping the sick and the poor. However, within him a passion for travel was beginning to develop. Initially this was within Argentina itself and then later he undertook two journeys which brought him throughout Latin America and eventually beyond.
The experiences which he encountered during this Odyssey changed his perception of the tasks necessary to end poverty and exploitation. It was during the adventures and events which he witnessed on these journeys that Che eventually embraced socialist ideas.
Che’s first real journey took place during 1950 in which he travelled widely throughout Argentina. For the first time he witnessed the massive social divide which existed in the country. In Buenos Aires he had evidently seen poverty before but for the first time he witnessed the dual character of much of South America. Buenos Aires was one of the most European of South American cities in its culture and lifestyle. During this journey he travelled into the backward and socially deprived centres of Argentina which existed at the time.
Much of what he saw in the hospitals he visited and amongst the most downtrodden of the rural poor with which he made contact was viewed through the eyes of an aspiring doctor. Che concluded from these experiences that the modern Argentinean nation was a «luxurious façade» under which the real «soul» lay., a soul which was rotten and sick.
Che’s first international tour took place in 1952 and the second during 1953/4. These had a more pronounced effect and ultimately changed the direction of his entire life, especially his second Odyssey throughout the continent.
Nobody can escape the consequences of powerful social upheavals and convulsions. It is true that some individuals, especially from a middle class background, may be content to only observe such events. Others are increasingly drawn into big social events and the struggles between the various classes. Che Guevara was content to play the role of an observer at the beginning of his voyage. As it progressed he was eventually increasingly drawn into the revolutionary struggle which ultimately cost him his life.
At the outset of his voyage he and his traveling companion, Alberto, were more interested in having a good time and gaining some medical experience as they toured South America on a Harley Davidson. Che’s recently published Motor Cycle Diaries provide more than adequate examples of this. Drunken brawls, romantic encounters and other, «youthful» adventures, dominated the trip they were making around the continent. As they crossed the border into Chile they passed themselves off as leprologists. The local papers of the towns and villages they passed through even reported the journey of these two young adventurers. The local daily in Temuco carried the headline ‘Two Argentine Experts in Leprology Travel South America on a Motor Cycle.’
Frequently they had to flee local towns and villages having aroused the wrath of the local peasants, especially fathers with attractive daughters. During this first trip Che led the largely bohemian and carefree existence for which he was known as a student at university in Buenos Aires. It was a lifestyle made all the more possible by the relative affluence of his middle class family. At the same time it also reflected the independent spirit which marked his character.
However, whilst it is this aspect of the trip which is the dominant feature in his diary, other experiences had an important impact on him. The poverty and conditions he witnessed increasingly aroused a nascent social awareness. Che’s anger at the indifference shown towards the poor by the ruling class was being stirred during his travels.
Whilst encamped at the Chilean port of Valparaíso, Che was asked to use his medical skills to try and help an elderly woman who it transpired was dying of chronic asthma and a weak heart. There was little he could do but the experience of trying to treat her, surrounded by poverty, evidently lefts its mark. Afterwards he wrote: » There, in the final moments of people whose farthest horizon is always tomorrow, one sees the tragedy that enfolds the lives of the proletariat throughout the whole world; in those dying eyes there is a submissive apology and also frequently, a desperate plea for consolation that is lost in the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the magnitude of misery surrounding us. How long this order of things based on an absurd sense of caste will continue is not within my means to answer, but it is time that those who govern dedicate less time to propagandising the compassion of their regimes and more money, much more money, sponsoring works of social utility.»
Unable to get a boat to Easter Island as they intended Che and his companion headed north, eventually arriving at Chuquicamata, the world’s largest open cast copper mine. «Chuqui» as it is still known in Chile today, was owned by US monopolies such as Anaconda and Kennecott. US ownership of the mines at «Chuqui» was a symbol of imperialist «gringo» domination of Chile. They were eventually nationalised by the Popular Unity government, led by Salvador Allende of the Socialist Party, between 1970 and 1973.
It was here Che and Alberto encountered the harsh realities of the class struggle. They met a former miner and his wife, both members of the then illegal Chilean Communist Party. Che was told the bitter story of repression, disappearances and black-listing used by the company and government against those who tried to fight for workers’ rights.
Che and Alberto succeeded in entering the mine where a strike was being prepared. They were shown around by a foreman who, as Che noted, commented, «..imbecile gringos, they lose millions of pesos a day in a strike in order to deny a few centavos more to a poor worker.»
This visit to Chuqui made a lasting impression on Che and he kept a note book on the experience in which he detailed not only the impressions he had of the workers, but also production techniques and the political importance of the mines for Chile. Referring to the mineral rich mountains he protested about the «exploited proletariat» and environmental destruction of the landscape.
«The hills show their grey backs prematurely aged in the struggle against the elements, with elderly wrinkles that don’t correspond to their geological age. How many of these escorts of their famous brother (Chuquicamata) enclosed in their heavy wombs similar riches to his, as they await the arid arms of the mechanical shovels that devour their entrails, with their obligatory condiment of human lives?» *
However, despite these scenes and the impact they had on Che, he would still need further experiences and witness greater events before he committed himself to the life of a revolutionary.
The next stop on his Odyssey was Peru which proved decisive in Che embracing socialist ideas through an encounter with a prominent leader of the Peruvian Communist Party, Doctor Hugo Pesce. Before arriving in Lima on 1 May 1952, Che and Alberto had the opportunity to encounter the marvel of ancient Inca culture.
As with all visitors, the stark consequences of four hundred years of «white» European conquest in Latin America and brutal suppression of the indigenous peoples of the continent, was undoubtedly engraved into the consciousness of Che during his visit to the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and the stunning temple ruins of Macchu Picchu.
Pablo Neruda in his celebrated work on Latin America, Canto General (General Song) included a poem, Alturas de Macchu Picchu (The Heights of Macchu Picchu) reflecting the image this ancient ruin high in the Andes provokes in those aspiring to struggle against exploitation.