Thursday, August 06, 2015

Ernesto Guevara and la Patria Grande: Two, three, many Vietnams

This is the final of four posts discussing Pacho O’Donnell’s Che: El argentino que quiso cambiar el mundo (Che: The Argentine Who Wanted to Change the World)(2003). All references are to the Sudamericana edition of 2012. All translations from the Spanish are mine unless otherwise indicated.

While O’Donnell repeatedly stresses the importance of Guevara’s theoretical work, his focus is on the action of his life. Of which there was plenty. In this sense, his public image as an itinerant international revolutionary adventurer was firmly based in the reality of his life.

His early adherence to Marxism before Fidel’s public adoption of that outlook in connection with Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union is an important example of his theoretical influence.

But the theory for which he is best known is that associated with his famous call for “two, three, many Vietnams” against US domination and repression in developing countries (Message to the Tricontinental 04/16/1967):

Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercized [sic]by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the peoples gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories.

This means a long war. And, once more we repeat it, a cruel war. Let no one fool himself at the outstart and let no one hesitate to start out for fear of the consequences it may bring to his people. It is almost our sole hope for victory. We cannot elude the call of this hour. Vietnam is pointing it out with its endless lesson of heroism, its tragic and everyday lesson of struggle and death for the attainment of final victory.

There, the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts [sic] of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigor by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.

How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world! [my emphasis]
On October 9 of that same year, Guevara was be murdered after being captured by Bolivian forces working closely with the CIA. Sgt. Mario Terán had the dubious honor of pulling the trigger. Terán will go down in history as an insignificant trigger-man. O’Donnell writes that he spent much of the rest of his life in hiding using various disguises. (In a strange sequel, Cuban eye surgeons later treated Terán successfully for cataracts: Cubans treat man who killed Che BBC News 10/02/2007)

El Che as the Heroic Guerrilla, cropped from the famous 1960 photo by Taken by Alberto Korda
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Guevara’s theory of guerrilla warfare is known as the foco theory, or simply as Guevarism. The basic idea is a generalization from the experience of the Cuban Revolution and assumes that beginning a guerrilla war in a developing country will draw support as people see that someone is fighting seriously against the oppressive government and the rural oligarchs.

One of the most influential expositions of the Guevarist theory of revolution was Révolution dans la révolution? (Revolution in the Revolution?) (1967) by French philosopher Régis Debray, who joined Guevara’s guerrilla band in Bolivia and wound up giving the Bolivian army critical information on the guerrillas.

Although O’Donnell does not stress the point, his account brings out the risky nature of generalizing from the particular experiences of the Cuban Revolution in trying to apply those lessons to other underdeveloped countries.

Che himself, as an experienced guerilla leader in the fight against Batista, was presumably as well qualified as anyone to implement those lessons in other countries, the Congo and Bolivia being the actual applications. O’Donnell doesn’t address the theoretical lessons in detail. But his detailed accounts of the Congo and Bolivia adventures makes some of the real-world problems Guevara encountered very clear.

Both the Congolese and Bolivian efforts were failures, as O’Donnell relates in detail for both experiences. The Bolivian attempt was a disaster, a fatal one for Che.

In the Congo in 1965, Che was confronted with local cultures with which he had little familiarity. And the troops with whom he fought and tried to train were poorly motivated compared with those with whom he was familiar in Cuba. The local guerrillas were suspicious of him, and he didn’t speak their language. A local customs like the use of magical ceremonies said to confer invulnerability on the guerrillas struck Guevara as simply superstitious hokus-pokus. O’Donnell suggests that he failed to understand how the ceremonies fit into their worldview as psychological preparation for battle. As his critics have been happy to suggest, there was a “Tarzan” aspect to Che’s leadership in the Congo, a white man coming to organize a rebellion by the natives. He fled the Congo after a successful offensive by the Congolese army in the fall, recognizing the effort as having been a failure. (For an unsympathetic account of Guevara’s Congo experience, see Hector Ghiretti, "Las aventuras del Che en el Congo,” Todo es historia Diciembre 2007; the introductory editorial notes that Ghiretti’s account is “debatable and polemical.”)

Laurent Kabila (1939-2001), the principal leader of the Congolese guerrillas, was also wary of Guevara’s role. In any case, there seemed to be few visible positive results for Kabila’s forces resulting from the Cuban participation. Kabila did eventually take power, becoming President of the Democratic Republic in 1997 after the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, the decidedly pro-American strongman who took power in November 1965, the same month Guevara left the country. “On Nov. 24, 1965, Mobutu, now a lieutenant general, seized power again, but this time, with no intention of relinquishing it. The coup, one of the first military takeovers in Africa, came after U.S. financed mercenaries and other covert assistance had largely succeeded in suppressing the regional rebellions.” (Howard French, Mobutu Sese Seko, 66, Longtime Dictator of Zaire New York Times 09/08/1997)

His final effort to generate a revolution was in Bolivia in 1966-67. The region in which Che established his force was Ňancahuazú, a region of dense jungle terrain that was sparsely populated. In addition, Bolivia had implemented land reform that was well received in rural areas. Not that it was the last word in land reform in that country! (See: Emily Achtenberg, Bolivia: The Unfinished Business of Land Reform NACLA 03/31/2013) But it meant in 1966 that the level of outrage among the rural population wasn’t as great as it had been in Cuba prior to the revolution.

Che Guevara in Bolivia, 1967 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One important factor O’Donnell points out that differentiates the Cuban experience from those Guevara encountered in the Congo and in Bolivia is the fact that the CIA didn’t see the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra as a threat until relatively late in the game. Bastista was pro-US. But the CIA was hedging its bets, even providing some aid to Fidel’s guerrillas. The CIA then viewed his movement as nationalist and not inherently threatening to the US. But by 1965 when Che was in the Congo and 1966-67 in Bolivia, the CIA was anything but supportive or even semi-neutral about the conflicts in which he was participating. On the contrary, they were providing very active support to the governments trying to defeat the guerrillas. Not only the US but many governments of Latin America were moving to more and more a counterrevolutionary orientation.

The Bolivian Army, trained and assisted in the effort by US forces, wore down Guevara’s guerrilla band. He was captured. Then executed by Sgt. Terán.

Here also, Che’s presence didn’t have an immediately obvious political effect in promoting revolution in Bolivia.

But by executing him, the Bolivians transformed him into a martyr and a Sorelian myth.

In a recent article, O’Donnell writes of this contrast between the Cuban and Bolivian situations (Para denostar al Che Página/12 21.Mayo.2015):

Las campañas del Che, en cambio, tuvieron en su contra at poder norteamericano concentrado, Pentágono, CIA, Comando Sur y sus boinas verdes, además del colonizado, armado y entrenado ejército boliviano.

[Che’s campaigns, in contrast, had opposing him the concentrated power of America, the Pentagon, CIA, the Southern Command and its Green Berets, and in addition the colonized, armed and trained Bolivian Army.]

Another critical difference is that the Cuban Revolution didn’t unfold as the “Guevarist” theory assumed, at least in the best-known forms like Debray’s interpretation. There is no question that Castro’s guerrilla movement in the rural areas was the central factor. But there was also an active resistance movement to Batista in La Habana, including the active participation of the Cuban Communist Party. But in Bolivia, the Bolivian Communist Party was cool to the whole scheme, and provided very little support to Che’s guerrilla effort, support which quickly dwindled to basically none.

Fidel’s government had helped Guevara initially get into Bolivia. But there was little the Cuban government could do in the way of direct support for Che and the guerrillas there. Nor did he expect them to. As O’Donnell writes in the Página/12 article, “En el diario del Che en Bolivia no hay una sola acotación relacionada con la ayuda que Fidel podría prestarle. Ninguna.” (“In Che’s diary in Bolivia, there isn’t a single annotation related to the support that Fidel could give him. Not one.”)

Writing about Guevara’s practice of keeping detailed dairies and photographs of his guerrilla activities, a practice that contributed to his undoing in Bolivia, O’Donnell gives a glimpse of the romantic hero Che that has survived in his myth (p. 395):

El hábito, que también puede llamarse obsesión, del Che de llevar anotaciones de sus viajes, de sus reflexiones, de sus campañas, desde sus primeras experiencias juveniles, hacen que por momentos pareciera que su identidad esencial fuera la de escritor y que sus andanzas de aventurero y de revolucionario no fueran más que vivencias provocadas para ser volcadas en su autobiografia, en la que la apasionante realidad supera a la más frondosa imaginación literaria. Sus antecesores fueron Lord Byron o D. H. Lawrence quienes sólo vivían aquello que merecía ser escrito.

[Che’s habit, that could also be called an obsession, of taking notes of his travels, of his reflections, of his campaigns, since his first juvenile experiences, at moments makes it seem that his essential identity was that of a writer. And that his revolutionary deeds and adventures were nothing more than experiences provoked to be dumped into his autobiography, in which the fascinating reality would surpass the most luxuriant literary imagination. His antecedents were Lord Byron or D.H. Lawrence, who only lived that which deserved to be written.]
While that may be a reach, it captures the “romantic” dimension of Guevara’s mythical image. And it was an aspect of his image that Che himself encouraged.

But O’Donnell also describes Guevara’s guerrilla wars and his years in the leadership of Cuba’s revolutionary government without notable sentimental flourishes. Guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia was grim and extremely difficult. Not much romance in the process. The guerrillas were engaged in a fight in which the more likely outcome for them was defeat or death than victory.

O’Donnell’s biography tells the story of a man who became a myth. And tells it in an unsentimental way that nevertheless allows his readers to understand how he became a myth.


Part 1: Che the Argentine
Part 2: Che Guevera and Peronism
Part 3: Arbenz and Guevara’s politicization
Part 4: Two, three, many Vietnams

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