by Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
Many of us first became acquainted with Che Guevara by way of the iconic photo: the one of a serious, bearded, unkempt guerrilla fighter with a star on his cap looking to the horizon.
This photo, taken in 1960 in Havana by Alberto Korda, has been called “the most famous photograph in the world.” The image has become a cultural symbol of rebelliousness — for any cause, really — and has been reproduced, imitated and spoofed in innumerable ways. In Che’s Afterlife, author Michael Casey argues that the Che image has become a brand.
So who was Che Guevara? He was a guerrilla fighter, to be sure. The Argentine-born Guevara fought under Fidel Castro against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba until the revolutionaries were victorious in 1959. Guevara went on to support the Congolese revolution in 1965, and while leading Bolivian peasants against the military regime of Rene Barriento he was captured and executed in 1967 with assistance from the CIA.
Guevara was a guerrilla, and he was also many other things. Reading his writings and speeches, one gets a fuller picture: he was also a sociopolitical analyst and theorist, medical doctor, economist, anti-imperialist orator and representative of the revolutionary Cuban government in international forums.
In a selection of essays published posthumously under the title, “Socialismo y el hombre nuevo,” he argued that before a new way of organizing production and distribution in society could be possible, it would be required to develop a new, more humane and egalitarian way of relating to each other among people.
His clarity and boldness in diplomatic relations, as well as his strategic and tactical prowess in armed struggle, made him a great threat to the ruling classes. CIA agent Philip Agee wrote, “There was no person more feared by the company (CIA) than Che Guevara because he had the capacity and charisma necessary to direct the struggle against the political repression of the traditional hierarchies in power in the countries of Latin America.”
Guevara was consistent in denouncing the attacks and provocations of the U.S. government against Cuba in the midst of media blackout and manipulation. In 1964 in front of the United Nations, he detailed some of the 1,323 acts of aggression on the part of the U.S. armed forces against Cuba in that year alone. Among these were: violation of Cuban airspace, pirate attacks against Cuban ships, burning Cuban sugarcane fields and the killing of a Cuban soldier. Che offered to open diplomatic relations with the U.S. government on the conditions that each government would be treated as sovereign, and that the U.S. respected the international law of non-aggression.
When Guevara spoke to the international community, he didn’t speak in customarily flowery terms. He articulated the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist positions taken by the Cuban government. He denounced Apartheid in South Africa, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by the CIA in the Congo and racism in the United States, as well as supporting liberation struggles around the world. In the U.N. General Assembly, he denounced military invasion and economic imposition by imperialist countries:
“It should be clearly stated that the government of the United States is not a policeman for freedom, but rather a perpetrator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and a large part of its own people. To those delegates who have spoken so ambiguously about Cuba and the OAS, we answer with clarity, and we proclaim that the people of the Americas will make these servile governments pay for their betrayal.”
In these times, when the gap between the super-wealthy and the rest of society is grotesquely large and getting larger, many people will have reason to follow Che’s example.
Before you buy your Che hat, Che brand t-shirt and combat fatigues, though, learn more about who this man really was, the historical context in which he lived and died, and his commitment to resist oppression and exploitation in its many forms.
The author has adapted and updated a Spanish version of this article, posted on this date in 2011.