Revolution#112, December 16, 2007
Revolution #112, December 16, 2007
The CIA Murder of Ernesto Che Guevara
The article below was originally published in 1997 in the Revolutionary Worker, the forerunner of Revolution, on the 30th anniversary of the U.S.-orchestrated assassination of Che Guevara. As the article below concludes, “There are many today, among the youth in the U.S. and Latin America, who have been attracted to Che Guevara—because they see in him a symbol of self-sacrifice, armed struggle and internationalism in the fight against U.S. imperialism.” Many take him up as a symbol of resistance at a time when the U.S. threatens countries in Latin America that do not “toe the line”—like Cuba or Venezuela. And people are also drawn to the impatience and daring associated with Che and to the idea that any revolution must have a place for poetry and must, in its foundation, be guided by love for the people.
It has to be said that all of these sentiments are correct and extremely positive, and there are many ways that, because of the way he has come to represent those ideas in the popular mind, the regard that people still hold for Che sticks like a bone in the throat of the rulers. At the same time, Guevara was not just an historical or cultural symbol, but a real human being with real thinking, who took sides in the great debates of his time. Those debates were not just arguments on paper but struggles of life-and-death importance; these were debates that leapt off the paper and took flesh-and-blood form as they guided the action of thousands and then millions during the 1960s, that great era of revolutionary upheaval and transformation. Today, not only must the brutality of the U.S. in murdering him be further brought to light, but the thinking and actions of the real historical Guevara need to be unsparingly dug into and understood—and criticized, sharply—including the fact that the side he took in those epochal debates posed itself against the most radical, revolutionary, and far-seeing vision of the time: communism, as further developed by Mao Tsetung, the leader of revolutionary China. In an irony of history, the ideas and values that are popularly associated with Che could not and cannot actually be realized by the line and strategic thinking of Che, but by those in the communist movement whom he opposed. Of course, Mao was not the “last word”—the world has undergone even more violent upheaval since the 1960s-’70s, though not mainly in a positive way, and there are both new challenges before revolutionaries and further ways that even the best of the revolutionary thinking and achievements of the past have to recast into a new synthesis that can lead humanity forward now. That is a question that is both beyond the scope of the article that follows but also irresistibly raised by it.
Thirty years ago,* on October 8, 1967, gunfire echoed through a steep ravine of the Andes Mountains in southern Bolivia. The guerrilla band led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara was pinned down and surrounded by Bolivian Army Rangers.
Less than a year earlier, Guevara and a team of cadres had secretly travelled from Cuba to Bolivia to launch a guerrilla war, hoping to topple Bolivia’s pro-U.S. military government. Guevara had gone up into the mountains with about 50 supporters. Within months they were discovered by Bolivian troops. And an intense pursuit started. Trying to escape the government forces, Guevara divided his supporters into two groups, and was never able to reunite them. His diary records that, by late August, his group was exhausted, demoralized, and down to 22 men. On August 31 the other group was ambushed and wiped out crossing a river.
On September 26, Bolivian army units ambushed Che’s remaining forces near the isolated mountain huts of La Higuera. The guerrillas found no way out of the encirclement. Several died in the shooting. Guevara himself was wounded in the leg. He and two other fighters were captured on October 8 and taken to an old one-room schoolhouse in La Higuera.
The next day, October 9, a helicopter flew in a man called “Felix Ramos” who wore the uniform of a Bolivian officer. “Ramos” took charge of the prisoner. Two hours later, Che Guevara and both other guerrillas were executed in cold blood. A look around the peasant village of La Higuera that day would have left no doubt who was responsible.
The U.S. Hand
The weapons and equipment of the killers were “Made in the U.S.A.” The Bolivian officer who took Guevara prisoner had been trained at Fort Bragg—at a U.S. school for army coups, murder and counterinsurgency. And the man in charge at the scene, “Captain Ramos,” was a veteran CIA field agent, Felix Rodriguez.
For years, the U.S. government had armed the Bolivian military and riddled it with their paid agents. As soon as Guevara’s new guerrilla force was discovered, Washington sent new teams of CIA and Green Beret killers into Bolivia—including Rodriguez and his fellow agent “Gonzalez.” U.S. transport planes arrived loaded with more arms, radio equipment, and napalm.
Rodriguez, who was masquerading as a Bolivian army captain, had previously led a CIA death squad in Vietnam. Later, this same Felix Rodriguez would be personally appointed by George Bush [the father] to be the key CIA operative at El Salvador’s Ilopango Air Force base during the 1980s, where Rodriguez oversaw the CIA’s notorious cocaine-for-arms air flights.
On October 9, 1967, it was Rodriguez who ordered that Guevara’s execution wounds should look like they were received in combat. It was Rodriguez who pocketed Che Guevara’s wristwatch as a souvenir and flew Guevara’s body to the nearby military base at Vallegrande. Early on October 11, after cutting off Guevara’s hands as evidence, the killers dumped his body in an unmarked grave near Vallegrande’s airstrip. Publicly, the Bolivian government insisted his body had been burned.
This whole operation was stamped “Made in the U.S.A.” By killing Che Guevara and his fellow guerrillas, the rulers of the United States intended to send a bloody message to the people of South America and the world.
Bullets in the Backyard
The U.S. ruling class has always viewed Latin America as its “backyard,” and they have used armed force against anyone who challenged them there.
U.S. forces labeled Mexican peasant leader Pancho Villa a bandit and murdered Sandino in Nicaragua. They overturned elected governments—including the murder of Chilean president Salvador Allende and 30,000 people in 1973. Dozens of bloody invasions and aggressions over the last century maintained U.S. control of Panama, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central America. And in the last decade, they have mobilized their squads of CIA agents, advisers, and “anti-drug” troops to fight against the people’s war led by the Communist Party of Peru.
While they oppressed the people of Latin America, the U.S. rulers have also threatened any foreign powers who tried to make their own inroads there—starting with their arrogant “Monroe Doctrine” of 1823. The U.S. declared its right to seize Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, they deployed troops, naval armadas and death squads to prevent Soviet social-imperialism from “getting a beachhead on the mainland of the Americas.” More recently, they imposed NAFTA to tighten their grip on the people of Mexico and to shut Japanese and European imperialists out.
In the 1960s, at the time of Che’s final campaign in Bolivia, the U.S. pursued these policies with a vengeance. These were times, as Mao Tsetung wrote, when U.S. imperialism looked like a “paper tiger…panic-stricken at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind.” A great wave of rebellion and revolution challenged the U.S. in Asia, Africa and Latin America. And the USSR had stepped out, as a new imperialist rival, to take advantage of the U.S. difficulties.
President John F. Kennedy responded with bloody means. He sent a CIA fleet to land at Bay of Pigs in 1961 to attempt to overthrow the popular revolution in Cuba. He started the flow of troops and “advisors” into southern Vietnam to fight the national liberation movement there.
New CIA-run armies were organized. The Green Berets were founded. U.S. training schools were cranking out torturers, coup-makers and counterrevolutionaries. Many places throughout the world were seeded with U.S.-trained agents and killers.
And on October 9, 1967, those forces executed Che Guevara and his followers in that tiny village of La Higuera.
The Quest for Liberation
Over the last 30 years, Che Guevara has been seen by many as a symbol of resistance to all that—to U.S. domination and military power. And today, in 1997, the fight against all that remains the burning issue—just as it was 30 years ago.
How do we fight the oppressors today in a way that can actually defeat them, overthrow them and create a new liberated society?
That is the issue that confronts this new generation. The revolutionary process needs dreams of a better world and heroes that people can look up to. But it also needs a serious evaluation of historical experience. The people need revolutionary theory and strategy that can win.
Che Guevara advocated a particular path for the struggle against U.S. domination. And today, Guevarism—and the historical experience of those who followed it—needs to be critically evaluated. As a veteran communist once said, “We have to want revolution bad enough to be scientific about it.”
The Cuban Road
When Che Guevara and the guerrilla fighters of Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement rode into Havana, Cuba, in 1959, people all over Latin America were thrilled. A popular revolution had overthrown the brutal, pro-U.S. Batista dictatorship—only 90 miles from U.S. shores.
The Cuban revolution had actually gone relatively easily: Castro, Guevara and a few supporters established guerrilla camps in the remote Sierra Madre mountains and carried out about 25 months of intermittent fighting. Powerful unrest had spread throughout the country, including in urban areas, and the Batista regime had crumbled.
After Fidel Castro’s new government nationalized U.S. holdings, hostilities broke out between Cuba and the U.S. When Castro’s forces defeated a major CIA invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the excitement throughout Latin America grew intense. Someone had broken with the U.S. and was still standing!
The long-range survival of the new Cuban government posed even more difficult challenges: The U.S. launched an economic embargo, and then a military blockade in 1963. The CIA constantly sent teams of assassins and saboteurs to the island—trying to “destabilize” Cuba and regain their grip.
In response to such pressures, the Cuban government made a series of fateful decisions: They decided to forgo land reform. They maintained the country’s sugar plantations as the foundation of the economy. And, connected to that, they entered into a deepening alliance with the Soviet Union—which promised to buy Cuban sugar and provide the food, arms, manufactured goods and other necessities that Cuba was not producing for itself. Throughout Cuban history, the domination of the island had been tied to its sugar economy. And now, after the revolution of 1959, many things had changed about how the country was organized and run—but this central link of dependency remained unbroken. The anti-American revolution in Cuba had proven to be not consistently anti-imperialist.
Che’s Theory of Focoism
For several years after coming to power, the Cuban government encouraged people throughout Latin America to start their own armed struggles against pro-U.S. dictatorships. Several groups were given training in Cuba.
Che Guevara was closely associated with this call for continental guerrilla warfare. In a series of essays he argued that the Cuban experience could be duplicated throughout Latin America. This idea had a powerful influence within the new generation of fighters rising up in Latin America.
Che argued that small groups of determined armed fighters (called “focos”) could take to the mountains and use armed actions to rally other forces—triggering the crisis and collapse of hated governments.
At the time, many people saw this Guevarist theory of focoism as a fresh alternative to Latin America’s pro-Soviet Communist parties. These rotten parties closely followed the lead of the Soviet Union and were openly hostile to armed struggle against pro-U.S. governments. They were revisionists—phony “communists.”
Focoism had the added attraction of offering a hope of relatively easy victory. People were taught that revolution was fundamentally an act of will and daring—that they could become representatives of the people’s discontent without organizing new vanguard parties or carrying out the agrarian revolution in the countryside. And as for facing down the inevitable U.S. responses—people were taught that, like Cuba, their new movements would be able to turn to the Soviet Union for support and backing.
In the early 1960s, several attempts at armed focos were made—in Peru, Argentina, Venezuela and other countries. None of them succeeded.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was showing its hand in its dealings with Cuba. Soviet advisors were urging conservative methods in industry and throughout society. Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement was formally merged with the rotten cadre of the Popular Socialist Party (the old pro-Soviet party in Cuba which had even supported Batista in his rise to power). All kinds of pressure from Cuba’s new Soviet “ally” was pushing the country into a dependent role within the Soviet bloc.
Che Guevara was right in the middle of these developments. He made several criticisms of the Soviet Union—for not firmly backing national liberation struggles and for their trade policies with countries like Cuba. And he was reportedly working on a critique of other Soviet economic policies.
But these criticisms never fundamentally questioned the essential framework of the Cuban road. Guevara’s criticisms of the Soviet Union stayed as “quarrels within the family”—because Guevara deeply believed that the Soviets remained a socialist country and could be coaxed into playing a positive role in the world—through criticism, pressure, and the impact of successful revolutions.
Guevara also believed that his foco strategy could be made to work in Latin America by inserting a more experienced and authoritative leadership on the ground. His response to the problems of the “Cuban Road” was to go himself to Bolivia in November 1966—to personally develop a foco there in the heart of South America.
International Struggle Over the Revolutionary Road
At the same time Che Guevara was formulating his theories, intense struggle and debate was sweeping through the international communist movement.
In the early 1960s, Mao Tsetung made a startling and penetrating analysis of developments within the Soviet Union. A fundamental change of power had happened, Mao said, in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev seized power in the Soviet Union. Capitalist-roaders within the Communist Party there had carried out a restoration of capitalism. The Soviet Union, which had been a socialist country for decades, was now a social-imperialist power (socialist in name, imperialist in essence).
Mao warned about the danger of driving the tiger out the front door while letting the wolf in the back. Relying on this new imperialist power, he said, was extremely dangerous for the masses of people. The new rulers of the Soviet Union represented a new bourgeoisie—fundamentally opposed to liberation.
Today, 30 years later, such issues may seem “a thing of the past” to a generation that lives in a world where the Soviet bloc has collapsed and the U.S. is top dog of the imperialist heap. But it is impossible to evaluate the historical experience of Che and the “Cuban Road” without understanding the nature of Soviet social-imperialism and the negative impact that alliances with the Soviet Union had on the national liberation struggles of Latin America and around the world.
The path to power advocated by Maoists was radically different from the one formulated by Che Guevara. The question was not whether or not to make revolution at the earliest possible time; it was whether such a revolution would proceed from a strategy that could develop and draw on mass popular support that took many concrete forms, and whether that revolutionary support would draw on and give further impetus to actual revolutionary transformation of the social relations as it was being fought, developing in a wave-like form from very basic expressions of this to a point where there was actually a revolutionary people that would contend for state power. This was linked to and flowed from the Maoist conception of new-democratic revolution in those countries—like Cuba and China, or what is often called the “third world”—where the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not yet been completed, and where it falls to the proletariat to lead the struggle around the social transformations associated with that revolution but where this must be done as part of getting to a socialist state: a dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Maoists argued that power won through shortcuts would not be able to resist the pressures of imperialism or lead to an all-the-way revolutionary society. For that, the masses needed to be mobilized and trained in the course of a protracted class struggle, led by the proletariat. In the Third World, Maoists argued the armed struggle needed to take the form of a protracted people’s war—that was waged by relying on the masses of people, surrounding the cities from the countryside and building up a new power within revolutionary base areas. Though this approach was based on the rich experience of the Chinese revolution, Mao warned revolutionaries around the world not to copy that experience but to creatively apply this strategic orientation to their own conditions.
In the beginning, Mao had hopes of possibly winning the Cuban leadership to a better path, and he personally met with Che during his 1960 trip to China. But Che Guevara remained convinced of his foco strategy and convinced that the Soviet Union should be embraced as a potential ally of the people’s movements.
Today, 30 years after the murder of Che, there have been many changes in the world. Major transformations have happened—including increased “shantytownization” in the Third World—and new leaps have taken place in the linkages of international production and the greenworld market. With these changes have come new questions of how people can liberate themselves from imperialism. But for several billion dispossessed, poor and uprooted people across the planet, imperialist development and technology is nothing but a nightmare. For them the future is either going to be desperation or revolution. And for those in the oppressed nations, the Maoist path of protracted people’s war remains an urgent and practical solution to the problems of today.
There are many today, among the youth in the U.S. and Latin America, who have been attracted to Che Guevara—because they see in him a symbol of self-sacrifice, armed struggle and internationalism in the fight against U.S. imperialism. For all those motivated by deep love for the people, it is extremely important to dig deep into the historical experiences, to seriously struggle to grasp the differences between different lines and roads. Today, this is a life-and-death issue. It has everything to do with whether we can turn our revolutionary dreams into reality.
* This article was originally published in the Revolutionary Worker in 1997. [back]
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