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Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara's mission in the Congo connec...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Che Guevara’s mission in the Congo connected Cuba to Africa in radical commitment

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Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a director of both Pan Africa Today and Friends of the Workers. She is also Deputy General Secretary of the Socialists Revolutionary Workers' Party and Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.

Today, as the 94th anniversary of the birth of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is celebrated, it is important for Africans to reflect on his mission in the Congo.

The broad outlines of the story of Che Guevara are well known. Born on 14 June 1928 to a middle-class bohemian family in Rosario, Argentina, he excelled academically and as a rugby player, despite debilitating asthma. 

While studying medicine, he took three life-changing trips, one via a motorised bicycle, one by ship and a third on a motorbike.  

The third trip, undertaken in 1951 with a friend, Alberto Granado, was a journey of 8,000km through Latin America. At the outset, Guevara was full of youthful curiosity and exuberance. But as he and Granado wound their way through the mountains, plains and forests of the continent, encountering all kinds of people, he began to understand the profound exploitation and oppression faced by most people.  

There is a famous scene in the diary that he kept of the trip; a scene that is exquisitely reprised in Brazilian director Walter Salles’ 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries

Guevara and Granado came across a couple – impoverished mine workers. He wrote 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 them 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.” 

Years later, after the Cuban revolution of 1959 – which made Guevara a global figure – he recalled that it was on this journey that he realised, like Frantz Fanon before him, that society itself was diseased and that while medicine was a vital technology and practice, it was an insufficient response to the ways in which the weight of oppression crushes people.  

He became a revolutionary doctor – a revolutionary doctor who carried volumes of poetry and philosophy into battle. 

The remarkable story of the Cuban revolution is well known, but less attention has been given to Guevara’s experiences in the Congo and in Bolivia, where he was executed after being captured by a team led by a CIA operative. 

For some, his military defeat, capture and execution in Bolivia in 1965 is best understood as a movement in the long struggle against oppression, a struggle that made a decisive breakthrough in 2006 when Evo Morales was elected as president. 

In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of Guevara’s death, Morales spoke  movingly of the man, saying that “today more than ever, Che is necessary … he is the most alive, he projects with more strength into the future”. 

After the success of the Cuban Revolution, Guevara who was now not locked into the daily struggles of battle and was able to take a broader view of the political situation. 

He was hugely encouraged by the extraordinary courage and tenacity of the resistance to the United States by the largely peasant army in Vietnam, and the similarly courageous resistance to the French in Algeria.  

The assassination in 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, the first leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo after colonialism, was a major setback for the African revolution. 

Guevara decided 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”. 

In 1965 he left, in disguise, for the Congo. 

Not much was known about Guevara’s experience in the Congo until the publication in 2000 of the diaries he kept during the mission. 

The preface to the diaries declares that they are “The story of a failure”. 

This is largely how Guevara’s time in the Congo was understood after the publication of the diaries, but, seen over a long durée, that experience can, like his time in Bolivia, be seen as a moment in a larger movement of change. 

It is important to recall that no African colony was ravaged in the way that the Congo suffered under the Belgian king Leopold. The country remains subordinated to a rapacious form of capitalism, backed in the main by imperialist powers.  

On 22 April 1965, Guevara, leading a small group of Cubans, travelled to the town of  Kigoma near Ujiji in the still newly independent and now deeply conflicted country. During this mission, he operated under the codename Tatu, meaning three.  

Within a year of Congo gaining independence, Lumumba had been assassinated, with the CIA playing a key role. 

After he was deposed, a pro-United States government was installed. This not only led to a national crisis within the Congo, but signified the start of a battle over the entire continent, as the United States sought to use Africa as a strategic pawn in its Cold War battles.  

Groups that remained loyal to Lumumba’s vision had managed to take control of some regions of the Congo, and to effectively wrest control from the central government. 

In response, the US government decided to act in several ways to support the government of the newly installed puppet government of Moises Tshombe, including the recruitment of white mercenaries from South Africa and Rhodesia. 

On 24 November 1964, the US dropped Belgian paratroopers into Stanleyville, now known as Kisangani. This brazen violation of the  sovereignty of the Congo generated outrage across Africa, especially in the newly independent countries, including Algeria, Egypt and Zanzibar, where powerful leaders took uncompromising positions against imperialism. 

Fanon, who was deeply moved by the assassination of his friend Lumumba, famously wrote that “Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is its trigger. If that explosive trigger bursts, the whole of Africa will explode.” 

The Congo became the central organising point for most of the radical forces on the continent and their allies, including the Cubans.  

After landing in the Congo, Guevara quickly realised that the national divisions and questions were far too difficult to overcome. His encounters with Laurent Kabila left much to be desired. 

Guevara wrote, understating the situation, that Kabila “was not the man of the hour”. 

The expedition in the Congo faced a range of difficulties, including the terrain and the issue of language. 

Many of the Congolese were confused by Guevara’s presence, assuming him to be the translator and not really the leader of the expedition. 

Guevara’s mission was not a success and within a few months it petered out. It is important to understand that this was not solely due to the local context, but was also due to the changing international conditions.  

The radical leaders of Africa were being removed. 

Ben Bella of Algeria was deposed in June 1965. In October that year, Ben Barka, the leader of the left-wing and popular forces in Morocco – as well as an organiser of Cuba’s Tricontinental Conference – was kidnapped and  assassinated in Paris. 

On 1 November, the Tanzanian state, now isolated and under pressure, withdrew its support for the Cuban mission in the Congo. These were key factors in the Cubans leaving the Congo. But it would not be the last time that Cuban forces confronted imperialism in Africa.  

This is a critical point. 

Guevara’s mission in the Congo connected Cuba to Africa, and to  African revolutionaries, in a way that later enabled Cuba to play such a decisive role in the defeat of South African troops in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987 and 1988. 

For this reason, it makes sense to see Guevara’s time in the Congo as a moment in the movement towards critically important successes later. 

In these times of acute political despondency – in South Africa and in much of the world – Guevara’s courage and commitment, and his resolute internationalism, are a powerful symbol of hope and resolve. 

Guevara famously remarked that “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”. In a time in our own history and in world history, where inhumanity and contempt for the oppressed are rife, we have much to learn from one of the great figures of the 20th century. DM

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  • I believe some fact checking is necessary here as there is a lot of dispute over Cuito Cuanavale.
    As I understand it, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was part of the Angolan Civil War. The FAPLA strategic objective was to destroy UNITA, win the civil war and thus take sole control of the entire country. As part of that process FAPLA brigades advanced south-east from Cuito Cuanavale to attack UNITA at Mavinga.
    The South African strategic objective was to prevent SWAPO from using southern Angola to launch attacks into South West Africa. To achieve this the SADF supported UNITA in southern Angola, and when FAPLA advanced from Cuito Cuanavale to attack UNITA at Mavinga, the SADF intervened to protect UNITA by stopping that advance.
    The FAPLA attack was comprehensively smashed by the SADF intervention, with FAPLA and its Cuban allies suffering heavy casualties. The SADF objective was thus achieved, in that the FAPLA advance was halted outside Cuito Cuanavale, and was abandoned shortly thereafter.
    There was never an attempt made by the SADF to capture the town of Cuito Cuanavale, and in fact, they had orders to avoid the town altogether.
    There appear to be different views on this, but maybe someone with more authority can clarify this?

  • We have much to learn from Guevara? From a man who openly wanted to start a nuclear war because he considered the catastrophic cost in lives to be worth it to see socialism victorious?

    Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is no “great figure” of the 20th century. He is unquestionably one of its despicable monsters.

    Furthermore I am henceforth gravely suspicious of any writings/opinions of Dr Vashna Jagarnath, Pan Africa Today, Friends of the Workers, the Socialists Revolutionary Workers’ Party, and by extension the University of Johannesburg.

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