Friday, July 18, 2008
Mike Gonzalez - Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution
Cuba is a bit of an enigma for many people. For some, it is a socialist country, dedicated to the world revolution. For others it is simply a beautiful, but poor holiday destination.
Che Guevara, the face on a million t-shirts, is of course the revolutionary most associated with this island. His life has been the subject of many biographies and much comment. He is an icon for millions of people who want a world free of poverty and oppression. Mike Gonzalez's book is an important work - not simply because it is about finding out who the "real" Che is. But more because it is about asking difficult questions that will help inform today's struggles to change the world.
Despite his association with armed Guerilla uprisings and revolution, for most of his short life (he died just short of his 40th birthday) he wasn't political in any meaningful way. Growing up in Argentina in the period that he did - he was surrounded by political events and it seems his parents had communist party sympathies. But it was only later on, around the time he finishes his university medical studies that he shows a definite turn towards radical ideas.
Falling in with a group of radicals around Fidel Castro, and seeing the suppression by US imperialism of various attempts to challenge it's power (particularly in Guatemala), Che becomes convinced of the ability of a small band of dedicated Guerilla fighters to topple oppresive regimes and bring about radical change. As he develops his ideas, he comes to see himself as a communist - reading the works of Karl Marx and increasingly identifying with the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro, on the other hand, the man who comes to symbolise Cuba for the rest of the century though, is clearly far from an explicit identification with Communism, only later developing these ideas himself to improve economic links with the USSR.
As many readers will know, Che's Guerilla army land in Cuba and eventually topple the corrupt and brutal Washington orientated regime. But the story of this revolution is less important than the story of Che for this review. Mike Gonzalez time and again shows how the revolution in Cuba wasn't a workers and peasents uprisiing. In fact the Guerillas show disdane for the movements in the cities, and the peasents are a backdrop to help the fighters, but not to be part of the battles.
As the new Cuba is isolated on the world stage, and increasingly comes to rely on Soviet aid, Che looks to spread the Latin American revolution. Sadly, his strategy that was so fortunate in Cuba, fails in both Congo and Bolivia. Che is murdered by state forces as US representatives look on.
Che is a fascinating figure. What I like about this book is how Gonzalez rescues the real Che - the brave, heroic figure, prepared to sacrifice everything to the struggle. But that heroic image has it's warts. Much of these are political - Che believed that simple will power on the part of revolutionaries would be enough - he doesn't seem to have understood the world situation and how it can impact on the lives of ordinary people. To put it bluntly, Cuba was ripe for revolution, Bolivia wasn't. And even were there were people challenging the existing state, such as Bolivia's Copper miners, Che ignores their power in favour of his small military force.
Often the Che that comes through is naive - he seems to have taken Soviet propaganda at face value, neglecting the very real problems of the mass of people under the "Communist" regimes. He seems to have idolised Castro, at the same time as Castro clearly uses Che's image and popularity for his own ends.
This short book is a fabulous read. It's an insightful look at one of the world's most famous revolutionaries, and by refusing to simply re-create the heroic Che, it enables us to learn the lessons of the past, to better change the future. What better memorial could a revolutionary want?