Yesterday was an anniversary date of the death of one of modern worlds most charismatic rebels, Che Guevara. The maverick medical doctor and protagonist of Marxist revolution was at the heart of changes in many South American nations in the 1960s. EMEKA CHIAGHANAM writes of the Argentine who, along with others, such as Fidel Castro of Cuba exported his brand of peasant resistance movement starting with the Cuban revolution. His death anniversary came in the wake of the mass protests Extinction Rebellion that is currently sweeping through the world. He writes.
SUPPOSING, we erased all the activities that took place at Quebrada del Yuro, Bolivia on October 8, 1967, perhaps, if the day after, Bolivian army had fired no shot in the village of La Higuera, Che Guevara could still be alive.
Were Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, Argentine born revolutionary figure, more known as Che Guevara to be alive, maybe, he might have retired to a remote village like Vallegrande, where his corpse was displayed to the international media a day after he was summarily executed or holed up in a villa as his friend and comrade in revolution, Fidel Castro, former Cuban president did before he passed on.
Che may not have ruled any country but his iconic face appeals globally, more popular than many world leaders both living and dead. Modern day revolutionary statement lacks taste without factoring in Che. Trained as a medical doctor, one of the world’s most recognised faces, besides his revolutionary crusade was a political philosopher, military strategist, diplomat, and author.
Revolution and political resistance were on the same page in his era for a change in any government termed anti-people, more when it affects the low-income earners. His adventure into revolutionary ideals was born out of the desire to see positive influence on the lives of people.
Like iconic figures that fought for the lot of the common man, Che’s ultimate goal wasn’t self but people. His political theory may not have been the best; that notwithstanding, it is geared towards the people’s welfare. He leaned heavily on leftist ideology. Communism and every leftist leaning at his time seemed to suggest the best social and political orientation that the people desired. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would never have imagined that communism they projected that preached communal and egalitarian society would face obliteration in the future.
The survival instinct in every human naturally encourages competition thus creating the different make up of the human social life. Put simply, humans can be equal in creation but finds individual expression that makes us out. That also applies to the larger human society. Che in his pursuit of the dignity for the common man thought different of this ideology when the society gave a faint picture of what social engineering and economic ideology, the world would adopt.
Che, eldest of five children was born into a middle class home in 1924. He didn’t disappoint academically. Young Che was troubled by asthma which might have informed his choice or that of his parents to be a medical doctor. But was shaped when introduced to Marxist leaning of his parents and radical books that he devoured at home.
As an undergraduate, and after receiving a medical degree from the University of Buenos Aires in 1953, he continued to tour Central and South American countries on his motorbike but one biting reality informed his change of attitude towards governance. The stark poverty that slapped his senses had huge effect on him, challenging the obvious truth he encountered. Thus his adventure into fun turned into cause that will change his and the lives of millions of people.
Guatemala offered the first opportunity for Che’s revolution, the overthrow in 1954 of Jacobo Arbenz’s progressive government that attempted to bring about a social revolution by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), thus laid the foundation for his absolute detest of American imperialism and his commitment to becoming a dedicated Marxist.
Guatemala experience ushered in the desire to export social revolution by whatever means available. Che fled the new anti-socialist Guatemala government for Mexico in 1954. It was Guatemala that he adopted as his first name, the nickname ‘Che’ a verbal mannerism of Argentines who punctuate their speech with the interjection Che, that means pal, friend or mate.
In July1955, Che who would later become a major figure in the Cuban revolution was introduced to the Castro brothers, Raúl and Fidel, exiled from Cuba after a failed attempt to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara and Castro spent 10 hours talking and sharing revolutionary ideas, afterwards the two men clicked thus Che joining Castro’s ’26th July Movement’.
Che would write, “I talked all night with Fidel. And in the morning I had become the doctor of his new expedition. To tell the truth, after my experiences across Latin America, I didn’t need much more to enlist for a revolution against a tyrant. But I was particularly impressed with Fidel. I shared his optimism. We needed to act, to struggle, to materialise our beliefs. Stop whining and fight.”
He became Castro’s main adviser and played a key role in Castro’s guerrilla war against President Batista. On Nov. 25, 1956, the 26th July Movement comprising 81 men set off in a boat for Cuba crossing the Caribbean from Mexico and on December 2, 1956, landed in the Cuban province of Oriente but were detected and almost wiped out by Batista’s army.
Only 22 of them survived the assault, including the wounded Che, the few survivors over the next few days, would have to struggle to regroup, Fidel berated Che who was shot in the neck for giving their guns to peasants. The survivors became the nucleus of a guerrilla army.
With Che’s help, the revolutionary force set up a propaganda radio station and built up supporters. He was soon made Castro’s second-in-command and given a column of his own. On December 31, 1958, after seven-week-long march from their Sierra Maestra mountain range stronghold in southeastern, Cuba Che alongside Camilo Cienfuegos, another of Castro’s lieutenants captured Havana. Fidel Castro arrived in the city of Havana a week later.
After he helped Fidel Castro come to power, he served in a number of roles within the Cuban leadership, ranging from Chief Adviser. He served as chief of the Industrial Department of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, President of the National Bank of Cuba, Minister of Industry.
Che’s iconic star crescent beret faced thick black hair, scruffy beard picture that captured the world’s attention was taken on March 5, 1960, by Cuban photojournalist, Alberto Korda while taking pictures of Fidel Castro delivering a speech at a ceremony to mark those killed when a ship that had brought arms to Havana exploded. When Korda captured Che, who appeared beside on podium and titled one of the pictures; Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla), not only is the picture, iconic and ubiquitous, it became one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.
Interestingly, just one print of Heroic Guevara hung in Korda’s studio with no special attention or global eminence until it was used in Che’s ‘Guerilla Warfare’ book cover in 1967- the year Che was murdered. The ubiquitous and symbolic picture now adorns T. Shirts, mugs, posters, banners, and walls and has become a symbol of resistance and revolution.
Few months into the Cuban revolution, Castro placed Che in charge of La Cabaña Prison, where he oversaw the executions of hundreds of people deemed to be enemies of the revolution. For those who never considered Che a hero, here they accused him of ordering prisoners executed without trial. Che burning with intense for the revolution once said, “At the smallest of doubt we must execute.”
As an Overseas ambassador for the revolution, he represented Cuba at the United Nations. He travelled the world to establish relations with other countries. However, he still harbor intense disdain for imperialism and neocolonialism and constantly attack United States foreign policy, but was beginning to fall out with Castro.
As a bitter doctrinal dispute ensued between Che and Castro, he was no longer welcome inside the Cuban government but continued to enjoy Castro’s friendship. As Castro pursued closer ties with the USSR, which Che opposed describing the USSR as weak for removing their missiles then on Cuban soil during the Cuban Missile Crisis? For the very reason he was shipped out of Cuba and a plenipotentiary ambassador so as not to have too much influence at home, he was beginning to demonstrate that to the outside world.
In March 1965, Che was dismissed from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Rather than imprison or execute Che, Castro provided a soft landing for his friend to leave Cuba and export his revolutionary ideology to other countries, by announcing that Che had left Cuba to carry on revolutionary activities. Che left Cuba, denounced his Cuban citizenship declaring he has accomplished his mission in Cuba.
In April 1965, Che left Cuba, his whereabouts remained secret until he resurfaced in Democratic Republic of the Congo with other Cuban guerrilla fighters to train troops in guerrilla warfare where he fought against the military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who took over power with the support of Belgium and America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in what proved to be a futile attempt to help reinstate Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba who appeared to lean increasingly to the Soviet Union than the West.
In Congo, Che’s adventure failed and later that year, he returned to South America 1967 to Bolivia where he raised a guerrilla army to fight against President René Barrientos, who had taken power in an U.S. supported coup. In his new adventure, he seemed deserted by Castro, who offered no help and enjoyed less support from Bolivian peasants and a time when the two superpowers; the United States and USSR tried to encourage peaceful coexistence to discourage guerrilla movements in Latin America.
Bolivia’s elite force ambushed and captured Che, wounded in the most undramatic fashion, as Gary Prado Salmón, an officer of the Bolivia’s elite force on his trail said, “He presented a pitiful figure, dirty, smelly, and run-down. He’d been on the run for months. His hair was long, messy and matted, and his beard bushy.
Over his uniform, he was wearing a blue jacket with no buttons. His black beret was filthy. He had no shoes, just scraps of animal skins on his feet. He was wearing odd socks, one blue, and the other red. He looked like those homeless people you see begging in the cities pushing a supermarket trolley.”
Che’s remains were exhumed from a grave in Vallegrande, Bolivia, in 1997and returned to Cuba, where he was reburied in the city of Santa Clara. He featured as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century in Time magazine in 2000. The movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ (2004), was adapted from the diaries he kept during his travels through Latin America in the 1950s.
Che’s role in history has divided opinions but his popularity hasn’t waned for millions of people, many who never knew what he stood for, have his face embossed on their T. shirts, walls, mugs among other places.
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