Che was captured, tortured and murdered in Bolivia under the direction of the CIA on October 9, 1967. Forty-six years have passed. Still Che is remembered, not as some ancient and hazy patriarch, but vividly, as one who exemplified the spirit of liberation … and the ideals of our own youth. He inspired so many ordinary people to commit themselves to their vision of a different world and called on us to persevere even in the face of bureaucratic intransigence and the enormous power of US imperialism, against all odds.

Che Guevara was not overly concerned about elec­tions as a means for transforming a capitalist or authori­tarian state. But he was extremely concerned about finances, and how to fund the revolution.

There is a piece in the documentary film, “Ernesto Che Gue­vara: The Bolivian Diary,” which is eerie in that it shows Che as part of a Cuban delegation in Moscow begging for funds for Cu­ba. In the film, the 34-year old Che Guevara is barely able to bite his tongue and check his scathing sarcasm for the Russian bu­reaucrats, in order to gain funding from them.

I.F. Stone revealed that in 1961, at a conference in Punte del Este, Uruguay, Che Guevara — born in Argentina and a student of medicine there — huddled in discussion with some new left­ists from New York. A couple of Argentine Communist Party apparatchiks passed. Che couldn’t help shouting out: “Hey, why are you here, to start the counter-revolution?”

Like many in the emerging new left around the world, Che had first-hand experience with party apparatchiks and hated their attempts to impose their bureaucracy on indigenous revo­lutionary movements. He hated the Cuban revolution’s uneasy reliance on the Soviet Union. As the only one among the victorious guerrilla leadership in the Cuban revolution who had actually studied the works of Karl Marx prior to the Revolution’s victory in 1959, Che inspired New Left activists to take a critical stance towards the “socialism” of the Soviet Union and the local parties that blindly followed the Soviet line.

Indeed, contrary to the conceptions of many in the U.S. to­day, the revolution in Cuba was made independent of, and at times in opposition to, the Cuban Communist Party. It was not until several years after the revolution succeeded in taking state pow­er that an uneasy working relationship was established leading to a merger of the revolutionary forces and the Party — a merger that provided no end of problems for Che, and for the Cuban revolution itself.

We can learn something for our situation in the US today — particularly with regard to the role of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations within progressive circles — by ex­amining Che’s strategies in Latin America. Fundamental to Che’s understanding was that “Yankee imperialism is like an octopus; its tentacles reach across the globe. We must cut them off: create two, three, many Vietnams.”

Cuba took that strophe to heart, and for a while gave materi­al assistance (at Che’s insistence) to anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world. However, in doing so Cuba became in­creasingly dependent upon the Soviet Union (in some ways simi­lar to radical organizations’ increasing dependence on Foun­dation grants and other hoop-providing jumpsters). In its des­peration for currency to buy needed items, the government — after stren­uous debate — decided to forego diversification of Cuba’s ag­riculture in order to expand its main export cash-crop, sugar, which it exchanged for Soviet oil, using some and re­selling the rest on the world market. Despite Che’s (and others) warnings, Cuba gradually lost the capability to feed its own peo­ple — a problem that reached devastating proportions with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

One crisis after another had beset the Soviet Union and other avowedly socialist countries when they pursued industrial mod­els of development and tried to pay for them by producing for and competing in the world market. Che argued that Cuba should reject cost/benefit analysis based on exchange values as the measure for what gets produced. But he also was in charge of Cuba’s economy, and the real immediate needs of the Cuban people were driving Cuba away from growing food primarily for local consumption and towards producing cash crops, hemming in the radical vision of Cuba’s leaders who wanted their revolution to set a different example of socialism for the Cuban people … and for the world.

A truly new society, Che believed, must aspire to and imple­ment immediately, in the here and now, what its people dream for the future. And to get there, REAL communist revolutions must reject an “efficiency” that maximizes profits (but not “efficiency” by some other measure) and instead nur­ture communalistic attempts to create a more humane society.

“How can one apply the term ‘mutual benefit’ to the selling at world-market prices of raw materials costing limitless sweat and suffering in the underdeveloped countries and the buying of machinery produced in today’s big, automated factories?… The socialist coun­tries have the moral duty of liquidating their tacit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West [in trading products].”(1)

Che considered himself a Marxist, but he ridiculed mercilessly the officials of Marxdom and bureaucrats of every stripe, breaking with the numbing mechanistic economics that Marxism had become. With the success of the Cuban revolution, the new left inspired by Che placed “Revolution” back onto the historical agenda.

Che’s critique of the so-called “Communism” prac­ticed by the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe came with a reassertion, not negation, of what “real socialism” could be. Given the reali­ties of the situation in Cuba with the hostile United States gov­ernment and giant industrial economy just 90 miles to the north, Che proposed utilizing a state-planned economy (“the bud­getary finance system” he called it) as a weapon in the battle to break the chains of neocolonialism. Che viewed neocolonialism as “the most redoubtable form of imperialism — most redoubtable be­cause of the disguises and deceits that it involves, and the long experience that the imperialist powers have in this type of con­frontation.” In a world with two competing superpowers, Che’s support for pricing terms that favored the poor were made possible by the state monopoly of for­eign trade in Cuba as well as in the Eastern European/Soviet bloc. Trade from the so-called socialist bloc assisted the Cuban revolution in resisting the U.S.-imposed blockade and provided funding to meet Cuba’s fundamental social needs.(2)

Che’s internationalism and identification with the poor and downtrodden everywhere, his refusal to recognize the sanctity of national boundaries in the fight against U.S. imperialism, in­spired new radical movements throughout the world. Che called upon radicals to begin the process of transforming ourselves into new, socialist human beings BEFORE the revolution, if we were to have any hope of actually achieving one worth living in. His call to begin living meaningfully NOW reverberated through an entire generation, reaching as much towards Sartre’s existentialism as the latter stretched towards Marx. Through action, through wringing the immediacy of revolution from the neck of every oppression, of every moment, and by putting one’s ideals immediately into practice, Che hammered the leading philosophical currents of the day into a tidal wave of revolt.

For Che, Marx’s maxim: “From each according to their ability to each according to their needs,” was not simply a long-range slogan but an urgent practical necessity to be implemented at once, occasionally rubbing the wrong way against the slower, long-range plans of Fidel Castro and other Cuban government officials. On the other hand, the harrowing constraints of trying to develop a small country (or even a radio station, food coop, daycare or alternative education center) along socialist lines — in Cuba’s case in the context of continued attacks by U.S. imperialism (including a blockade, an invasion, a threatened nuclear war, and ongoing economic and ideological harassment) — militated against achieving Che’s vision and boxed-in the revolutionary society into choosing from equally unpalatable alternatives.(3)

It was amid such contradictory pressures that Che tried to set a different standard for Cuba, and for humanity in general. As Minister of Finance, he managed to distribute the millions of dol­lars obtained from the USSR to artists and to desperately poor farmers – after all, these were the people who had shed their blood to liberate Cuba. In the U.S. they would have been consid­ered, shall we say, “poor risks.”

The Russian bureaucrats, like any capitalist banker, were fu­rious with Che’s “take what you need, don’t worry about paying it back” attitude. (They also bristled at the freedom of Cuba’s artists, who, following Che’s example, spared no metaphor in critiquing the USSR almost as much as they did the U.S.) They leaned on Fidel to control Che and to regulate the “proper” dispersal of funds, just as twen­ty years later they leaned with Brezhnev on Poland to pay back its inflat­ed debt to the western banks, causing cutbacks and hardship and leading to the working class anti-Soviet response: the formation of Soli­darnösc. Indeed, the Soviet Union at that time was the second-best friend Chase Manhattan had! And it paid the ulti­mate price.

U.S. Involvement in the Cuban Revolution

In 1959, the guerrillas, headed by Fidel Castro, swept into Havana having defeated the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batis­ta. Although the U.S. government armed and funded Batista, the CIA had its agents in Fidel’s guerrilla army as well.

One lieutenant in the guerrilla army, Frank Fiorini, was actu­ally one of several operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency there. Fiorini surfaced a few years later as a planner of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, two years after that as one of three “ho­bos” arrested in Dallas a few moments after President Kennedy was assassinated and immediately released (one of the other “hobos” appears to have been none other than CIA-operative E. Howard Hunt), and again as one of the culprits involved with the dozens of CIA assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro.

Fiorini became quite famous again in 1973 as one of the bur­glars at the Democratic Party Headquarters at a hotel known as the Watergate, under the name Frank Sturgis. Indeed, it was pre­cisely when the Watergate hearings had just begun to raise serious questions about the Bay of Pigs and U.S. covert opera­tions in Cuba that, suddenly, the existence of secret White House tapes was “unexpectedly” revealed. From that moment on, all we heard was “What did Nixon know and when did he know it?”, and the potentially explosive investigation which had been on the verge of revealing the secret history of illegal CIA interven­tions in Cuba, the murder of John F. Kennedy and attempted as­sassinations of Fidel and war against Cuba were effectively sidetracked.(4)

And yet it was under the constant threat of warfare by the U.S. — overt as well as the ongoing covert operations — that the Cuban revolution (which was not yet avowedly “Communist”), especially under the instigation of Che, took some of its boldest steps in introducing “socialism of a new type.”

Che opposed the strategy of luring capitalist investment, which some in the government believed would enable Cuba to gain much needed currency and compete in the world market – a policy that would later become a factor in the downfall of the “Communist” states as they sacrificed visionary socialist features to ensure investment. As head of the Cuban na­tional bank, Che made Cuba’s new bank­notes famous by signing them simply “Che.” The first question Che asked of his colleagues when he took over running the bank was “Where has Cuba deposited its gold reserves and dollars?” When he was told, “In Fort Knox,” he immediately began converting Cuba’s gold re­serves into non-U.S. currencies which were exported to Canadi­an and Swiss banks.(5)

Che was a practitioner of sound accounting principles and a version of “efficiency” based on two things: weakening the hold of U.S. imperialism on Cuba’s economy, in this instance by re­moving the revolution’s gold from the clutches of the United States government (which could all too easily invent an excuse to confiscate it, as it later did with other Cuban holdings. Che was prescient in understanding that this would happen); and, of equal importance, finding ways to foster and fund the creation of a new socialist human being without relying upon capitalist mechanisms, which he observed were undermining the best of ef­forts in socialist countries throughout the world. Che best put forth his outlook, which came to be that of the new left interna­tionally as well, in a speech, “On Revolutionary Medicine”:

“Except for Haiti and Santo Domingo, I have visit­ed, to some extent, all the other Latin American coun­tries. Because of the circumstances in which I traveled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger, and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money; with the stupefication provoked by continual hunger and punishment, to the point that a father can accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident, as occurs often in the downtrodden classes of our American homeland. And I began to realize that there were things that were almost as important to me as becom­ing a famous scientist or making a significant contri­bution to medical science: I wanted to help those peo­ple.

“How does one actually carry out a work of social welfare? How does one unite individual endeavor with the needs of society?

“For this task of organization, as for all revolution­ary tasks, fundamentally it is the individual who is needed. The revolution does not, as some claim, standardize the collective will and the collective initiative. On the contrary, it liberates one’s individual talent. What the revolution does is orient that talent. And our task now is to orient the creative abilities of all medical professionals toward the tasks of social medicine.

“The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth. … Far more important than a good remuneration is the pride of serving one’s neighbor. Much more definitive and much more lasting than all the gold that one can accumulate is the gratitude of a people.

“We must begin to erase our old concepts. We should not go to the people and say, `Here we are. We come to give you the charity of our presence, to teach you our science, to show you your errors, your lack of culture, your ignorance of elementary things.’ We should go instead with an inquiring mind and a humble spirit to learn at that great source of wisdom that is the people.

“Later we will realize many times how mistaken we were in concepts that were so familiar they became part of us and were an automatic part of our thinking. Often we need to change our concepts, not only the general concepts, the social or philosophical ones, but also sometimes our medical concepts.

“We shall see that diseases need not always be treated as they are in big-city hospitals. We shall see that the doctor has to be a farmer also and plant new foods and sow, by example, the desire to consume new foods, to diversify the nutritional structure which is so limited, so poor.

“If we plan to redistribute the wealth of those who have too much in order to give it to those who have nothing; if we intend to make creative work a daily, dynamic source of all our happiness, then we have goals towards which to work.”(6)

The goals that Che set for himself took him first to the Congo in support of Patrice Lumumba, soon to be murdered by mercenaries funded, armed and instructed by the CIA. He next went to Bolivia, where he organized a band of guerrillas to serve, he hoped, as a catalyst in inspiring revolution. Che once again had to battle Official Marxdom. He struggled with the head of the Bolivian Communist Party for leadership of the guerrillas over the question: “Who should set policy for the guerrillas, Che and the guerrillas themselves or the head of the Bolivian Communist Party?” The guerrillas voted for Che — perhaps the only election Che was ever involved in. Not just anybody was allowed to vote, not those who happened to live in the area, for example, but only people who were actively engaged in the struggle. Once Che won that election against the Communist Party attaché — an election that was not only about which individual should lead, but a plebiscite on competing revolutionary strategies — the Communist Party, which carried great weight in the working class, abandoned the guerrilla movement.

Should we view Che’s decision today as the correct one? What if the Bolivian CP leadership had not been so irresponsible and doctrinaire, speaking in the same heavy-handed manner as had the Bolshevik Party leadership in the USSR to the sailors’ uprising in Krontstadt 45 years earlier and which fed the very nightmares the sailors had been opposing? (Can there be a vanguard party that does not act in such a manner?) The question still haunts: To whom is the guerrilla responsible — the guerrilla movement and its leadership or the larger radical organizations and movement? Who sets the framework? And what happens when those levels of responsibility clash?

Such questions are not easy to resolve, and recent history has provided an array of vexing examples. In Vietnam, for example, contrary to Che’s guerrilla army, the National Liberation Front’s military arm took their policy from the party’s political bureau, not the other way around. And in Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas throughout the 1990s and early 2000s invited “citizens of the world” to participate in decision-making over which way forward for their movement. The Zapatistas were (and remain) concerned with democratizing “civil society”; they explicitly rejected attempting to wrest state power from those who now control it.(7)

The relationship of organization to mass-movement is THE problem that has always plagued radical movements when they get to a certain stage, and this was the case with Che in Bolivia, as it is everywhere. To whom is the affinity group, for example, responsible? Or, for that matter, the artist? The radio station? The “local” or “cell”? The newspaper editor?(8)

On the one hand, decentralization is attractive, allowing for the greatest small-group autonomy, individual freedom and creativity (one’s individual radio show, perhaps; one’s need for a paying job to support the family; an artist’s need to freely express herself and propagandize her writings, music, art). On the other hand, the larger movement must not only be able to coordinate the activities of many local groups acting independently but frame the actions of smaller groups who purport to be part of the same movement within a larger collective strategy, thus in some sense limiting or even undermining their autonomy.

In Bolivia, isolation of the guerrillas from a many-pronged social movement led to their demise. In his last days Che was rueful and frustrated at the lack of working class uprising in the mines, which he had hoped to incite as there was already much unrest there, along with Communist influence. An uprising would have enabled the guerrillas to have had much greater impact. Eventually — too late for Che and his guerrilla army there — the miners overcame the official Communist Party’s obstructions and they went on strike — a result of intense pro-guerrilla committees that had formed among the tin miners. But the peasants did not revolt, contrary to the guerrillas’ expectations. As a result, the guerrillas were isolated and their ranks depleted. Che began to question his strategy of the “foco” for Bolivia, which in Cuba had worked so effectively. He also (and perhaps contradictorily) wished for just 100 more guerrilla troops — that rather small number (he believed) would have made the difference.

Would it? Could adding more troops compensate for the qualitative refusal or inability of the miners and peasantry — or any social force — to join the revolt and defeat the massive mobilization of pro-imperialist forces that was underway?(9)

These are serious and complicated questions that apply to our social movements today. Understanding — let alone resolving — such matters is not helped by the demagoguery and grand-standing that plagues the left. It COULD BE helped by a transformation in the way radical projects (again, by “proj­ects” I mean physical entities such as radio stations, daycare centers, food coops, shelters, alternative educational institutions, etc.) see themselves and their mission. That transformation could be assisted by conscious attempts to develop a revolutionary culture in which all participants see their project in that light, and not simply as a “job”. The world — or at least OUR world — depends upon whether we are able to resolve (or at least live with, while we build our forces) the contradictions into which we are thrust and which we reproduce, whether we mean to or not.

In Bolivia in the Summer of 1967, the guerrillas were picked off one by one. Without additional revolutionary forces Che and the others were forced to deal with the reality that, at least in Bolivia at that moment, their strategy for catalyzing a mass-based revolutionary uprising had failed. Under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat from Texas), the U.S. government sent military “advisers” and arms to the Bolivian junta. It became only a matter of time, a few months, before Che’s forces were defeated, Che was captured and assassinated, and the guerrilla struggle — at least for that period — was wiped out.

A true picture of Che is not that of the flamboyant posters nor the hagiography of Hollywood, but of a man dedicated to the poor internationally, who tried with a small band of guerrillas to spark a revolutionary uprising of peasants and workers to create a better life for themselves. During the latter part of his life, Che met with numerous frustrations amidst some successes, the biggest being the victory of the Cuban revolution itself.

In the U.S., we portray heroes as all-knowing exceptions to the impotent (and rather dumb) masses. In so doing, we reinforce our dependence upon the myth of the heroic individual and maintain the impotence of the multitude. In our culture, we are taught that change takes place not through mass-action but through single moralistic or righteous figures (think of how Dr. King or Malcolm X is portrayed today) who are able to make the system respond positively to the rationality, importance and moral force of his or her arguments.

Such illusions are dangerous to any radical movement and its participants. On the one hand, the Bolivian peasants who are still living in the areas in which Che and his guerrilla band were operating were clearly touched by the brush of history. In the film “Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary,” the filmmakers interviewed many of them who were still alive. They movingly recounted that one world-historic experience of their lives: their encounter with Che. Some remembered his kindness towards them. One peasant woman was an apolitical young teenager in 1967 and had risked her life to bring Che food and look after him in his last hours after he was captured. Now around 50 years old, she remembers Che’s kindness towards her, and how this profoundly affected her life. Although no one in the film says it in so many words, clearly Che was something of a Christ figure to them, even to those who betrayed him or fired on him. It’s quite a comment on our present condition that human touches that were once quite ordinary seem, in today’s world, exceptional.

As Che put it, in his most famous quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

John Gerassi describes Che’s capture thusly:

“Defeated by 1,800 CIA-trained and CIA-led Bolivian Rangers, Che was caught wounded but alive in October, tortured then summarily shot through the heart by a Cuban veteran of the Bay of Pigs who had become a CIA officer. He was then displayed bare-chested (neatly patched up so as not to show torture marks) in the hope that no more such attempts would ever again be initiated against pro-U.S. regimes. Instead, Guevara became a quasi-religious symbol of justice and liberation to the poor and exploited all over the world and to many of the socially conscious new generations, then and today. ‘Be like Che,’ Fidel boomed to Habaneros on the day he announced his death. ‘May our children be like Che,’ he still says today.”(10)

Che was captured, tortured and murdered in Bolivia under the direction of the CIA on October 9, 1967. Forty-six years have passed. Still Che is remembered, not as some ancient and hazy patriarch, but vividly, as one who exemplified the spirit of liberation … and the ideals of our own youth. He inspired so many ordinary people to commit themselves to their vision of a different world and called on us to persevere even in the face of bureaucratic intransigence and the enormous power of US imperialism, against all odds.

Such a vision seems extraordinary today. It seems inconceivable that there are people who would take huge risks, acting out of their love for humanity. Yesterday’s commonplace behavior seems beyond comprehensible. And yet, people act in such ways ALL THE TIME. We just don’t see it, or report it. The media suppresses that information, or frames it in such a way as to make that individual the “exception” in an era of robots. But that humanitarian spirit persists. It’s what enabled the new Bolivian revolution to elect Evo Morales to the Presidency, much to the chagrin of the US government. That, too, is part of Che’s legacy.

And, hopefully, it’s what inspires us to continue “risking rid­i­cule,” regardless of where it comes from, to make our radical efforts successful. For many of us, it’s not only the end result that mat­ters, it’s the way we live, what it means to live a meaningful life.

– Mitchel Cohen


1. “At the Afro-Asian Conference,” Che Guevara Speaks, Merit 1967, p. 108. But as one Marxist critic writes: “I’m sure this was a very popular speech in certain nations. Nevertheless, the only possible way the U.S.S.R. could have ‘abolished’ the law of value, to Guevara’s satisfac­tion anyway, would be through SURRENDERING value FROM the U.S.S.R. ‘Moral duty’? Value, for those acquainted with Marx, is creat­ed either by nature, monopolization or by labor (MAINLY labor)—-NOT morals or what someone says it OUGHT to be. As far as the ‘limitless sweat and suffering in the underdeveloped countries’ and the ‘big, au­tomated factories’ of the U.S.S.R., did Guevara forget how much limit­less sweat—-nay, limitless blood—-went INTO those ‘big, automated factories’ built in the 1930s, 1940s and later which supported Cuba from immediate imperialist plunder at the hands of United Fruit, etc.? I mean, what made him such an expert on just how many resources the Soviet Union had to give? Or does MATERIAL assistance sponta­neously arise from moralistic platitudes and popular speeches?” (Paige Angle & Chuck Davis, letter to author, January 2004.)

2. Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism, by Carlos Tablada (Pathfinder), an analysis of Che’s economic thought and poli­cies as director of economic planning and president of the Cuban State Bank in the early years of the Revolution.

3. In a sense, many of our organizations face similar false “alternatives” today, based on the need to stay alive “in the meantime” while attempt­ing to withstand the effects of compromises one must make in order to do so. As one correspondent, Joe Dubovy, writes: “The lesson that Che and all revolutionaries had to teach us was that revolutionary radio was underground, pulling up antennas and equipment as soon as the au­thorities could sniff out their locations. These radio stations became a key part of the revolution, spreading hope and supplying inspiration. … Today’s ‘progressives’ fool themselves into believing that Wall St., gov­ernmentally licensed, high cost radio will save them. They are about to learn that so-called progressive media can become merely a disgust­ing safety valve. Highly centralized radio is not the answer. Decentral­ized communication — either carrier current AM or low power FM has not been taken seriously. Yet, that is the only means of dis­tributing the message of human dignity to neighborhoods and communities… True social change will take place only when the air waves belong to the people.”

4. See, for example, James Bamford, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, which discusses Operation Northwoods, a plan drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against the U.S. in order to trick the American public into supporting an invasion of Cuba. It called for shooting innocent people on American streets; for sinking boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba; for launching a wave of violent terrorism in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere; for framing innocent people for bombings they did not commit; and for hijacking planes. Using phony evidence, all of it was to be blamed on Fidel Castro, providing the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, the U.S. government needed to launch its war against Cuba.

5. John Gerassi, “Venceremos! The Speeches and Writings of Che Gue­vara,” Introduction, Simon and Schuster, p. 14.

6. ibid. This is an edited and abbreviated extract from a 1960 speech by Che Guevara, “On Revolutionary Medicine.” The entire speech can be found in the Gerassi book, pp 112-119.

7. In 2005, the Zapatista leadership announced a turn towards greater electoral focus by criticizing all parties in the electoral arena, without directly participating in the elections themselves — a stance for which they were widely criticized by many Zapatista supporters.

8. This was a main theme in the movie “Reds”, in which the revolutionary writer, John Reed (played by Warren Beatty), clashed repeatedly with Party officials both in the U.S. as well as in the Soviet Union. It is also a question that comes up at listener-sponsored radio stations like WBAI.

9. See “Fertile Ground,” the memoir of Rodolfo Saldana (Pathfinder), a communist miner and organizer of the pro-guerrilla circles in Bolivia, for debate on these issues.

10. John Gerassi, ‘The True Revolutionary Is Guided by Strong Feelings of Love,” Los Angeles Times: December 16, 2001.


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