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The Easy Way to Tour South America
On Che and ‘la lucha’
Che in pylons

Che in pylons

Che was a hero of mine in my teens, as he was to millions of others. I was riveted by castaneda’s biography of him, Companero, found The Motorcycle Diaries a fun and insightful read, and his Bolivian Diaries eery as they continued to the day before his assassination. However, visiting Cuba and seeing the plight of many Cubans, a resourceful people living in relative poverty in a country resplendent in untapped opportunities, made me question my views on him.

Che died a revolutionary. He spent much of his adult life in revolutions on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. Despite taking these to many countries in South America and Africa, the only one that succeeded was in Cuba. There, he spent a comparatively small amount of his time trying to turn the victory into a durable and sustainable system that would continue with the same moral direction of the revolution he led. The skills of the people who are the change agents and create momentum are rarely the same as those required to successfully maintain that momentum.

Did he leave Cuba and go to Bolivia to continue down the revolutionary’s path because revolution was his strength? Or to continue his Bolivarian dream for South America? Or was it becoming clear to him that the Castros would not leave much room for other leaders?

Or was there a realisation that not all men were Che, that not all men and women would strive to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, that not all men and women would sacrifice for a belief in the greater good, and that once the heat and adrenalin of revolution dissipated, injecting the same fervour into the mundane would be beyond the discipline of the average man or woman and too lacking in instantaneous satisfaction?

It makes interesting reading to go through the speech that Che Guevara gave at a conference hosted by the US back in the mid 60s to try to launch a pan-American economic union (CIES, which I read in a book of 3 Che speeches on Latin American freedom, ‘Punta del Este’). In his speech, entitled ‘Cuba does not believe in the separation of politics from economics’, he cites the words of Cuba’s founding father, Jose Marti. Marti said presciently that a country is not independent if it has a predominant supplier relationship with a single other country, but rather if it has a variety of supplier and buyer relationships with many. Having a trading partner who too much of your economy depends on leads to political subjugation. Che clearly (and correctly) identified this as the US’s goal of the current symposium, and refused on behalf of Cuba to play ball.

I cannot dispute his logic or his argument, and admire the clarity and courage of that speech to the conference. The challenge was, however, that Cuba under the Castros only used this logic against the US, and leapt into a similar relationship with the eager USSR. There were definitely pragmatic reasons for doing this at the time. The US had throttled the Cuban people fairly instantaneously and effectively with caps on sugar imports, the lifeblood of the Cuban economy, and then the embargo, and the Soviet Union had stepped in to buy the sugar at the prevailing rate. However, that the words of Marti with regards to overdependence on one economic partner, repeated by Guevara, were either not heeded or were poorly implemented in subsequent economic planning by the Castros has not helped Cuba’s people. And history looks like it is repeating itself now with China. In fact, as a part of the propaganda drive, we saw a fascinating exhibit in the Museum of the Revolution in the Hall of Mirrors, where China was being sold to the visiting public. Stunning pictures of beautiful countryside, a smiling people and earnest industry from Cuba’s new Chinese friends.

(As an aside, I was somewhat disturbed to see a Caterpillar bulldozer as an exhibit in Santa Clara at the site of the short battle where the tide turned decisively against the Batista regime. With a group of 19 men, some barely out of their teens, Guevara had by use of a bulldozer and Molotov Cocktails routed 350 government troops on a train, cut the supply lines between the opposition in the north and south of Cuba, and taken a large arsenal of weaponry. I was disdained that a Caterpillar bulldozer had been chosen for the exhibit, as Caterpillar are raking obscene profits from illegal and immoral Israeli destruction of Palestinian houses in the Palestinian occupied territories and in Israel. Che would certainly not have approved. However, it turns out that it was the original bulldozer used, so I was quietly happy that Caterpillar had made no money from his taking of this tractor from its owners to use as a weapon against imperialism! End of aside.)

Che Guevara, and the lesser known Cuban Camilo Cienfuegos affected regime change at the age of 28. They were taking surrender from platoons of the corrupt Batista regime at an age when most of us in the West were focussing on earning our next buck or finding our next drink. To say they were products of their culture or of their circumstance would be an easy excuse for those of us who haven’t stood up for what we believe in. Guevara and Cienfuegos chose the paths that they took – they could have taken easier routes like most did. Paths of potential great consequence are also open to us everywhere in the world, but very few of us choose to go down them. And in many ways, that is the failing of any system like Communism that depends on the individual realisation of the greater good, namely that not enough people choose to live their lives on that basis for those systems to succeed.

So I found myself at the end still in admiration for Guevara, and reaching the conclusion as many Cubans seemed to, that the current state of Cuba’s economy and her people’s relative poverty has more to do with the systems implemented by the Castros since they took power than it does with a revolutionary who died nearly half a century ago. His constant drive for his beliefs, his refusal to give less than all, and the concluding proof where he gave his life in furtherance of his beliefs stands as an ultimate example to us all in my view. The US and mafia sponsored Batista regime that he helped overthrow was by all accounts corrupt and not in the interest of Cuba or her people. The unlikely revolution that Che, Camilo, and Fidel led was absolutely in the people’s interest. It is just tragic that the surviving member of that triumvirate has taken the fruits of that revolution in the direction that he has, and made the wonderful and resourceful Cuban people suffer as a result.

There is much talk in Cuba of ‘la lucha’, the struggle. But today it is mainly confined to the heroics that many people have to go through to make their own ends meet. And though there is a real feeling of community, and people helping each other out, there doesn’t seem to be a drive for a greater lucha, a struggle for a better place for all. Change is certainly happening in Cuba today, as businesses are opening and more private ownership is becoming legal. But you can’t help but wonder if someone with Guevara’s spirit were there today, whether they would be pitted against the Castros and their regime, despite the Guevara worship that they continue to foster.

As I was teaching my eldest two boys about him and what he did back in Santa Clara, three ageing but beaming women came over to talk to us from the next table. They loved the fact that we were taking the time to explain his life and significance with our boys. They were clearly inspired by Che, and like him, were Argentinian. Our trip will take us to Argentina, the country of Che’s birth, and Bolivia, where he was killed by Bolivian troops acting under US instruction. It will be fascinating to see to what extent, if any, his presence will be still apparent in either country.

It is a testament to the power of ideas that despite Guevara’s record which could at best be described as mediocre in terms of successful revolutions, he became the number one enemy to the USA. That the largest power on the planet in its day would be so concerned about a man armed only with ultimate determination and an aspiration for his people should be an inspiration to us all.

(Photos compressed for this blog, and all copyright of Paola Medel)

6 Responses to On Che and ‘la lucha’

  1. stef says:

    Hi Iyas. I hope you continue to have an inspiring journey, and that life will continue to be interesting, and not mundane once you return. Say hi to Paola.

    I may agree with your underlying principles, and I imagine our politics to be fairly similar. I sense from your writing that your admiration for Che is romantic rather than political. I don’t mean that you fancy the guy, but rather that you are romanticising his character. Ultimately he was a revolutionary, not a politician. It’s easy to like Che Guevara (he was a good looking, charismatic figure), and if you’re not a conservative christian type of person it’s certainly admirable how he continued to fight against oppression and greed. My take on him, is that he liked the thrill of the revolution and that he was in it for himself just as much as he was for the people. I don’t think he was a Ghandi. Why are the majority of people attracted to Che Guevara more than to Ghandi?

    It’s easy to have the right principles, we all feel that we do after all. It’s relatively easy to act on those principles. But, to make principles work in society isn’t very easy at all. Are impoverished and oppressed people good? Are they any better morally than the oppressors and the greedy? Why do most poor oppressed people want a revolution? By removing the bad guys are there enough good guys to make society work fairly?

    Michaela and I were in Cuba for 5 weeks or so, a decade ago. I presume there have been no dramatic changes in that time. I loved the experience of being there, and it’s a place I’d like to go back to. What you wrote a couple of days ago about cubans saying that Che is good for tourism is quite telling.

    I hope that the food is better than when we were there. It was really crap. Amazing how even a meal made mostly of rice tasted bad. Menus?

    Did you get to Santiago? The music and dancing there was fantastic.

    Take care,

    • Daniel says:

      “Michaela and I were in Cuba for 5 weeks or so, a decade ago. I presume there have been no dramatic changes in that time.”

      Just want to point out that unemployment in Cuba has skyrocketed the last few years, due to a shift in government to employ less people. Problem is, most of these people are just sitting around rather than looking for real opportunity. I blame the people here a little, but they are not wholly responsible. My point is that I think Cuba has in fact dramatically changed between about 2008 and today.

      Source: I’m Cuban, and my mom visits yearly with her family and reports back.

  2. stef says:

    Another thing:
    they’ve all been assassinated
    – luther king
    – jfk
    – lennon
    – ghandi
    – che

    call me paranoid or old fashioned, but
    call it as it is, be brave and try to change the world for the better and you’re likely to get killed.
    Can the president of the USA be an atheist? No. He can be black. He could probably at some point in the future be gay. But, he would still have to believe in God.

    Humanity please

    If I didn’t have a family maybe I’d fight. But, there’s so much to fight for,
    where would one start? It was all a bit easier last century to be Che.

    Do you have an e-mail adresss I can be in contact with you, now that you’re telling me your point of view everywhere you go?

    Iyas. Do you want to change the world? do you want to make a difference? Do you want to take up arms? Do you want your kids to do so? Life is much more serious and yet much more banal, than most people make it out to be. Your kids are wearing a Che t-shirt.

    I cry on airoplanes when I watch romantic films, and yet there are political views that make me extremely angry.

    Your blog makes me happy that I feel I’m in touch with you.

    But, Iyas, tell your kids that people in general are cool. Humanity is working to make the planet a better place, and that Che was just a piece in the peace puzzle. I just made that up.

    People aren’t your enemy, individuals are.



    • iyas says:

      Hi Stef.
      I somehow sensed you’d pick this one up, Stef. Thank you.

      My admiration for Guevara actually is incredibly similar to that for Gandhi. I don’t think it is based on an idealised view of either. I have long given up the ghost of a good or an evil person, and view us all as individuals who make choices to do some good things, some bad things, but mainly the things that are easiest to do. That’s no slight on humanity, it’s just the way I think things are, and why I admire those who choose ‘right’ (whatever that is) over easy.

      Gandhi, Guevara, Mandela, Theresa, all are distinguished by virtue of having chosen to tackle things of large consequence that they believed in, and all were prepared to pay a higher price in the furthering of those goals than the vast amount of humanity were prepared to pay. I wouldn’t idealise any of them, after all you could also lump in Hitler, Stalin, Mladic or Ariel Sharon as people who chose to tackle things of large consequence, and pay the price for pursuing these relentlessly. It just so happens that most of us think the things the first group dedicated their conviction to were ‘good’, unlike the ethnic cleansing and imperialist goals of the second.

      I also don’t doubt that all 8 of the people I mentioned had an expectation of or actually received some personal reward out of what they were doing, and it was a reward that they each believed was large enough for the sacrifices they made. Whether it was pursuit of power, belief in salvation in another life, a narcissistic desire for adulation, a need to prove themselves, a need to reconcile beliefs and actions, or whatever, in some way I believe they were all seeking some form of reward. I guess I would formalise that as the choice you make is a function of the reward you expect for making that choice, and your expectation of whether you can achieve what you’ve chosen to do. And maybe for most of us, our perception of the components of that function are not as ambitious as they are for a Gandhi or a Mandela.

      As to whether the impoverished and oppressed are in any way morally better than anyone else, I don’t believe that to be true. Your moral compass (whatever that is) isn’t in my view correlated to how oppressed or wealthy you are. But that for me is not the point. It is the state of impoverishment and oppression that I don’t believe to be a good thing, and helping those who are oppressed and impoverished to have a voice and get out of that state I believe to be good. Even if there are as many poor nutters as there are rich ones!

      I guess in the final analysis, Guevara stood up to colonialism, which especially as a Palestinian is a policy that I abhor, and had the balls to put his life on the line for his belief. The greatest military power on earth sought him out and killed him because they were afraid of what his ideas and ability to get people behind him might do to their interests. And that, despite his foibles, is what I find admirable.

      And to your later posts, that admiration doesn’t to me translate into everyone taking up arms and going into the jungle to fight the forces of evil. Most of us aren’t suited to that kind of struggle. But it does mean us all, myself included, being prepared to step out of the easy path more often than we’ve got used to, and doing the right thing even when the momentum, safety and comfort of our lives may be trying to resist. And whenever we get comfortably with that new level, pushing a bit more. And for those who feel they can leap a long way out of comfort and into adversity, then sure, take up the battle in whatever way is best. Not everyone in Egypt was a Gandhi or a Guevara, but collectively they made a massive difference by stepping out of their oppressed zone. It wasn’t comfortable to live the lives they were living, but it was a heck of a lot less comfortable and more risky to take to the streets.

      And by the way, it takes a lot for someone to be my enemy! I will oppose a certain individual’s or organisation’s actions and policies, but it takes a lot for me to translate that to making an individual as a whole an enemy.

      And no, Cuban restaurant food still sucks in the main, though Cuban home-cooked food is great! Please give my love to your tribe, not all of whom I’ve met yet.

  3. stef says:

    back to cuba:
    a bit of hyperboly;
    life on earth is like a million years from cuba.
    life on earth is not even close to life on cuba.
    Does Che Guevara have a legacy, Iyas?

    I know, I know, It’s a family holiday…..but you brought it up.

  4. Daniel says:

    “So I found myself at the end … reaching the conclusion as many Cubans seemed to, that the current state of Cuba’s economy and her people’s relative poverty has more to do with the systems implemented by the Castros since they took power than it does with a revolutionary who died nearly half a century ago.”

    One problem with this statement is that there would be no Castro systems without Che. He was the real driving force, the executor of a vision that Fidel rode to Habana… and the rest is history.

    For me, there cannot be a separation of the two.

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