“The army issued a strange report about the presence of 20 men in Serrano to stop the passage of the encircled men, who are said to number 37, they locate our hiding-place between the Acero and Oro rivers. The news seems to be a red herring.” - Ché Guevara, 7 October 1967
These are last words written by Comandante Ché Guevara. They were written on 7 October 1967, about five and a half kilometres from La Higuera. La Higuera was, and still is, more of a break in the dense jungle, with a collection of a few mud buildings, than a hamlet. On 8 October, Ché’s guerrillas found themselves in a prolonged battle with the Bolivian army at La Higuera. As the guerrillas were attacked with mortar and machine gun fire Ché took up a position behind a large rock in a potato patch. A shot broke his gun, an M-2 carbine, and left him unarmed. He was wounded by further fire, and then captured.
That evening Ché was bound, hand and foot, and held on the dirt floor of a mud-walled school. The bodies of two of his comrades were thrown onto the floor next to him. He explained to the local school teacher that he was fighting against a system where “government officials drive Mercedes cars” while it was expected that “campesino students be educated here.” When he was interrogated he was asked if he was Cuban or Argentine. He replied that “I am Cuban, Argentine, Bolivian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian etc.”
At first light the next morning Félix Rodríguez, a CIA agent who had been a key figure in the failed United States backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, flew into La Higuera on a helicopter. Ché gave no quarter to Rodríguez and only asked him to “tell my wife to remarry and to try to be happy”. Rodríguez gave the order, cowardly and criminal, for Ché to be assassinated. At around midday on 9 October 1967 Ché was shot dead by the alcoholic Bolivian sergeant Mario Terán.
La Higuera, was an obscure site in the global archipelago of racialised impoverishment, in which, Ché had told his interrogator while bound on the mud floor of the school, the peasants were “living in a state of poverty that depresses the heart, having only one room in which to sleep and cook and no clothing to wear, abandoned like animals . . .” At the moment when Ché’s life was taken, on the order of the US state, La Higuera entered world history.
Patrice Lumumba had been assassinated, also with the direct backing of the US state, in 1961. Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1965. John Berger, writing just days after the assassination of Ché observed that he had “recognised what was intolerable . . . and acted accordingly”. Berger also noted that Ché had begun his last public statement, issued on 16 April 1967 from a guerrilla base “somewhere in the world” with a quote from José Martí: “Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen.”
In 1968, the furnace that had been burning with most intensity in Vietnam would move to the streets, squares and universities of cities like Prague, Berlin, Paris, Mexico City and Detroit. For many young people swept up in this international political explosion Ché was a guiding light. Mario Terán, a wholly unremarkable man, went on to live the life of a coward, under the alias of Pedro Salaza, in Santa Cruz.
At the time of his death Ché had already been in Bolivia for close to eleven months, working to ferment the Communist revolution in Latin America, a revolution against imperialism and racial capitalism. Born in Argentina he had fought, as a guerrilla, in Cuba and the Congo before coming to Bolivia. For Ché there were two pressing struggles of the day – both deeply enmeshed in the racial order of the modern world. They were the simultaneous need to overthrow European and US imperialism, and capitalism.
When Fidel Castro had arrived in Harlem for the United Nations General Assembly in 1960 Malcolm X had arranged for him and his delegation to stay at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. When Ché addressed the United Nations in 1964 he railed against “the crime of the Congo” and the fact that in South Africa:
“The brutal policy of apartheid is applied before the eyes of the nations of the world. The peoples of Africa are compelled to endure the fact that on the African continent the superiority of one race over another remains official policy, and that in the name of this racial superiority murder is committed with impunity.”
Ché went on to insist that:
“[T]he difference between men (sic) does not lie in the colour of their skin, but in the forms of ownership of the means of production, in the relations of production. The Cuban delegation extends greetings to the peoples of Southern Rhodesia and South-West Africa, oppressed by white colonialist minorities; to the peoples of Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Swaziland, French Somaliland, the Arabs of Palestine, Aden and the Protectorates, Oman; and to all peoples in conflict with imperialism and colonialism. We reaffirm our support to them.”
Before Ché Guevara became Ché he was Ernesto Guevara born, in 1928, into a bohemian left-wing family, in a house full of books, in Rosaria, Argentina. In 1952, Ernesto was a twenty-two-year-old medical student in Buenos Aires. He and his friend Alberto Granado shared interests in rugby, literature and politics. They took a motorcycle trip through South America. For Ernesto this trip was initially about enjoying youthful freedom and exploring the continent. But the nine months long, eight-thousand-kilometre journey, fundamentally shaped his understanding of the exploitation and oppression faced by the people of Latin America.
The couple, numb with cold, huddling together in the desert night, were a living symbol of the proletariat the world over
In Chile Ernesto and Alberto met a married couple, workers, who were Communists. The husband has recently been imprisoned and many of their comrades had disappeared. They were making their way through the desert in search of work on the sulphur mines where workers ruined their health in exchange for the most meagre of wages. In his diary Ernesto recalled that: “The couple, numb with cold, huddling together in the desert night, were a living symbol of the proletariat the world over. They didn’t have a single miserable blanket to sleep under, so we gave the one of ours and Alberto and I wrapped the other round us as best we could. It was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent.”
In 1960, Ernesto, now Ché, would recall that it was on this journey that he realised, like Frantz Fanon before him, and Steve Biko after him, that society itself was diseased and that medicine, while vital, was an insufficient response. Ernesto had concluded that in order to truly challenge exploitation, impoverishment and oppression on his continent he needed to commit himself to armed revolutionary struggle.
In December 1953, Ernesto and Alberto arrived in Guatemala where he spent time with radicals from around the continent, including Cuba. It was here that he acquired the nickname Ché. In June the previous year the elected government, under the leadership of President Jacobo Árbenz, has passed a law enabling radical land reform. The primary beneficiaries were indigenous people, who has been dispossessed after the Spanish invasion. More than forty percent of the arable land in the country had passed into the hands of the United Fruit Company, a notorious corporation head quartered in Boston.
The United Fruit Company, facing expropriation of the land it had come to own in Guatemala, lobbied the United States government for support and, in June 1954, the elected government was removed by a United States backed coup in which the CIA was centrally involved. After the coup the expropriated land was restored to the United Front Company and hundreds of radicals were arrested and executed. Ché resolved to join armed resistance to the coup organised by a Communist linked militia but nothing much happened and, finding himself a marked man, he left for Mexico.
In June 1955, Ché met Raúl Castro in Mexico City. The following month he was introduced to Fidel Castro. The two men had dinner at a restaurant and by the end of the evening Ernesto and agreed to throw in his lot with Fidel and his plans for an armed revolution in Cuba. The bond was formed between the two men in Mexico City would change the course of Cuban history, and leave a significant mark on global politics too, including, of course, Guinea Bissau and here in Southern Africa.
In November 1956, Ché sailed with Fidel and 80 other comrades in a leaky old yacht called the Granma, to liberate Cuba from a United States backed dictatorship. At the time the project must have seemed quixotic. Their chances of success were very slim. They only just made it to Cuba where they were swiftly attacked and majority of the rebels killed. The survivors regrouped in the Sierra Maestra mountains.
The rebels built their strength by winning the support of the peasants, often by implementing land reform in rebel held areas. The decisive battle happened at Santa Clara in December 1958. The victory won by the hugely outnumbered rebels in this battle on 31 December was largely due to Ché’s brilliant military strategy. On New Year’s Day the rebels entered Havana, with tanks appropriated from the defeated dictatorship. Cuba joined Algeria and Vietnam as a key site in the emergence of the Third World as a revolutionary force on the global stage.
Once the victory in Cuba was secured Ché began to explore ways to extend the revolution to other parts of the Third World. In Mexico City he, hugely encouraged by the war against the United States in Vietnam, had already expressed a commitment to supporting the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. The assassination of Lumumba in 1961, a major set back for the African revolution, persuaded Ché that Cuba should find a way to be in solidarity with the revolutionary movements in Africa. Until the end of his life he would hold to the view that as many fronts as possible should be opened in the battle against imperialism, an idea famously captured in his statement, made in Havana in 1967, that “we could look to a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world”.
Ché failed in the Congo, as he would later fail in Bolivia. But in the years to come Cuban support would be vital elsewhere in Africa, including the struggle against apartheid. And Ché, already a legend in his own lifetime, would go on to become a global icon in the imagination of anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists.
Immediately after his death in La Higuera his killers moved quickly to render his name and spirit obscure. He was buried in an unmarked and undisclosed grave. Ché’s last words were spoken to his killer, Teràn: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!” Teràn, and his backers, the government of the United States, certainly killed a man. But the idea of Ché attained a certain kind of immortality. Today in Brazil, India or South Africa, and around the world, the modest places in which people struggle against oppression are often adorned with images of Ché.
In his eulogy for Ché , Castro said that:
“If we wish to express what we want the men of future generations to be, we must say: Let them be Che! If we wish to say how we want our children to be educated, we must say, without hesitation: We want them to be educated in Che’s spirit! If we want the model of a man, who does not belong to our times but to the future, I say from the depths of my heart that such a model, without a single stain on his conduct, without a single stain on his action, is Che!”
Castro was right. Fifty years after his death Ché’s life, and the ideas that gave it concrete expression in commitment and struggle, stand far, far larger than those of the cowardly functionaries of oppression that put his life to an end. And fifty years after Ché was killed on that mud floor in La Higuera the imperative to build a critical mass of people committed to a just future for the world as a whole is as urgent as it ever was.