Ernesto Che Guevara was assassinated on October 9, 1967. He was captured in a military ambush in the small village of La Higuera in Bolivia. The Bolivian Army rangers trained by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America carried out the capture. They questioned him to verify and establish his identity, then cleaned him, trimmed his hair and beard, dressed him in new clothes and shot him taking care not to mark his face. The photograph of the dead Che has a peaceful, almost quizzical, open-eyed look.
Che inspired the heady, revolutionary generation that led student revolts across the globe. He was an icon of the ‘60s. Intellectuals, students, revolutionaries, artists, leaders and people of struggling countries followed him, read him, met him, listened to him and were moved by him and were inspired by him. A member of the revolutionary force led by Fidel Castro that liberated Cuba from a military dictatorship in 1959, Che was a moving force in reforming the post-revolutionary Cuban society and economy. By 1964 Che’s approach to transforming Cuba ran into political and economic obstacles. His economic plan had seemingly run into trouble. A new Minister of the Economy, Dorticos, had been appointed. The results of the Che approach were not quick enough and the strong centralisation of enterprises and industry, what little of it there was, was generating dissent, not speeding up growth but slowing it down. The Che group, in the industries ministry and the finance ministry and in the nationalised sugar industry was moved out. The Russian economic advisors gained a better footing over the more absolutist Che approach. Che advised Fidel to keep aloof of the Moscow Beijing rift and he himself was more persuaded by the approach of Mao. Meanwhile, the Soviet economist Liberman worked on the programme of incentives. A French economist, Charles Bettelheim convinced Castro that Cuba should focus on agriculture for the next decade. Che’s industrialisation plan was already in trouble.
Che managed the land reform in Cuba, stressed the need for widespread literacy and continuing education. He worked tirelessly as the Minister of Finance, as the head of the National Bank, and urged the young to study, work hard and dedicate themselves to the continuing tasks of rebuilding the nation. The literacy brigades to educate workers and farmers set in place the foundation for the Cuban system of widespread and state supported education and training.
University education he told the faculty and students of one state university, is not the privilege of a minority, it must be open to all. Today Cuba is a leader in some areas of medical science and provides medical services to developing countries.
"Che is a study of an uncompromising approach to social change. He objected to relaxing the central social control over the Cuban economy, granting selective material incentives for production, e.g. awards for champion sugar cane cutters, and decentralisation of government decision making"
When Che lived and worked in Cuba it was a country under great stress. The US had a stranglehold in the region and an economic blockade of Cuba followed. Che’s early experience in Guatemala where the democratically elected President was overthrown with the help of US commercial interests, made him intransigently anti-imperialist, anti-hegemonic and against the narrow self-serving commercial interests that US foreign policy tended to serve.
Che is a study of an uncompromising approach to social change. He objected to relaxing the central social control over the Cuban economy, granting selective material incentives for production, e.g. awards for champion sugar cane cutters, and decentralisation of government decision making.
Castro famously said that with the prevailing centralisation when a dog made a mess in the street of a provincial town the central government had to be called to clean it. Castro made it clear that he was in favour of decentralisation. Che had lost that round and for all purposes the contest to establish his strong views on the way Cuba ought to be run as well.
When his beloved mother died, Che was in the Congo. Cuba was exporting revolution not only to Latin America but to parts of Africa as well. The established communist parties in some Latin American countries objected to some of the Cuban-led incursions.
Nevertheless, Che was on the road again, in Bolivia. His Bolivian diaries are a sad read at best. Rediscovering a known truth, that poor peasants are revolutionary in their own way, like unhappy families. Che trudged, got sick, ate sporadically but could not build a revolutionary force to oppose the Bolivian government.
But does that matter, or how does that matter? The three-wheeler stand in the south eastern corner of Sri Lanka near the community of Situlpahuwa has a taxi that carries a colorful picture of Bob Marley and another has a picture of Che transferred to the small window at the back of the vehicle. The dread-locked young driver of one taxi said he is a devotee of Marley and replied that he and his friends followed some of the Rastafarian rites, clouds of smoke to keep mosquitoes out.
The Che taxi, well it was a symbol of who helped the driver to get the vehicle.
Sri Lanka before it was called Sri Lanka had its moment with Che. The youth who attempted a revolution drew inspiration from Che and Fidel and Cuba and their struggles. The Sino-Soviet dispute had cast its shadow on Sri Lanka as well. Since we were neither Cuba nor China nor the Soviet Union, things went as things are likely to go here. The first attempted revolution flared up and was put out, young people died. The second time it flared up, it was more forcefully and brutally put down and more young people and some not so young people also died. The People’s Liberation Front Leader Wijeweera, was captured, came on TV looking somewhat battered and then he was disposed. His memory lives and the political party he helped found continues and participates in democratic politics.
Today in Colombo youth wear T-Shirts with various logos, Guess! A&F, Emporio Armani and the face of a smiling Che or of Bob Marley. In Supermarkets people who seem to more than adequately fill their ample clothing purchase packets of chips and large bottles of carbonated sugar drinks while the Muzak plays “Get up stand up, stand up for your rights!”
There is much to reflect on by reading of, about, on and by Che. Not only the times he lived in and how he lived in them, what he did and committed himself to do are compelling even as a story.
After all, when Gael Garcia Bernal played Che in the film “The Motor Cycle Diaries” large audiences viewed the film, wondered about the man, some were drawn to read his writing, to better understand him and his time and how he lived. This was not only because of Bernal, but because of who he played, Che.
Thirty years after he was assassinated, hands cut off and buried Che’s remains were unearthed and brought to Cuba and given a hero’s burial. Castro spoke at length. When his death was announced in 1967, people gathered in the capitals of the world, mourned, protested. A million people gathered in mourning in Havana
So, those who can, light a cigar, get a good cigar, draw in the smoke and let it out slowly. There was once a man, Che! He was murdered on this day. He was not quite 40 years on this earth.
He was a difficult man, an uncompromising man, and an unrepentant revolutionary. He thought and worked to make possible a new man. He died trying.