By Manuel E. Yepe
Exclusive for the daily POR ESTO! of Merida, Mexico.
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann.
Who could separate Che’s image and ideas from the 1968 student explosion, known as the “French May”, which led to a strike of 9 million workers in France, the largest in the history of the workers’ movement, and spread to many other countries in the industrialized world?
The most repeated among the slogans and writings on the walls identified with the student movement that sought to revolutionize French society at the time was Che’s recommendation, synthesized in the phrase “Let’s be realistic: let’s do the impossible”.
The photographic image of Che, with his hair scrambled under his black beret adorned with a star, became famous in the demonstrations against imperialism and the authoritarian and repressive capitalist order, which crowded the streets of Paris, Berlin, Rome and other European cities 50 years ago.
The student protests that took place in many of the great cities of the planet against the U.S. war against Vietnam – which in March 1968 added to its crimes the atrocious My Lai massacre – echoed another of Che’s slogans, that of “creating two, three… many Vietnams”, proclaimed two years earlier from the place where he was already fighting outside Cuba.
For a good part of the intelligentsia and students of the European left, Cuba was an unorthodox, creative and original alternative to the bureaucratic “real socialism” of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact neighbors.
“For an intellectual, it is totally impossible not to be pro-Cuban,” said French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre in an interview. “Fidel started from opposition to Batista and, through the very radicalization of his action, soon discovered that behind Batista was the strength of the army and behind him, the North American power. The logic of radicalization is relentless….” Sartre proclaimed: “Castroism has nothing to give us, except the example of its radicalization.
In January 1968, in front of hundreds of European intellectuals attending the Havana Cultural Congress, Fidel Castro harshly criticized the stagnation of revolutionary ideas in the socialist camp.
“Because there can be nothing more anti-Marxist than dogma, there can be nothing more anti-Marxist than the petrification of ideas. And there are ideas that are even wielded in the name of Marxism that look like real fossils. Marxism needs to develop, to come out of its stalemate, to interpret today’s realities with an objective and scientific sense, to behave as a revolutionary force and not as a pseudo-revolutionary church.
Upon their return to Europe, the intellectuals sent out vibrant testimony of their experiences in Cuba. They had a strong impact on the European leftist youth and extolled the revolutionary advances in Cuba, its cultural pluralism and the emphasis on moral stimuli to the detriment of material incentives, to create the “new man” Che Guevara dreamed.
Anyone can assume that the critical pronouncements so often made by Che Guevara about the need to overcome the immobility of Marxism-Leninism in the USSR and other countries of “real socialism” were not well-received in those nations. It could not have been pleasant in the official circles of the USSR and the countries of Eastern Europe for Che to say in Algeria, at the Second Afro-Asian Seminar, that
“The socialist countries have a moral duty to liquidate their tacit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West and to set aside the supposed principle of reciprocal benefits in trade, because they force the underdeveloped countries to sell with the prices that the law of the value and the international relations of unequal exchange impose on the backward countries.”
In his closing speech to the Havana Cultural Congress in January 1968, before some of the intellectuals who would lead the events of May four months later, Fidel Castro said, in homage to his faithful companion in the struggle:
“Who were the ones who raised their name in Europe, who raised and exalted their example, who were the ones who mobilized, painted signs and organized events all over Europe? It was honest and sensitive men and women who had the attitude to assimilate, to understand, to admire, to do justice; to those who wonder why Che Guevara died, to those who are incapable of understanding, and who will never understand, why he died, nor will they ever be able to die as he died, nor be revolutionaries like him.”
June 18, 2018.
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews,
Thanks to John Barzman for translation assistance.
Che was murdered in Bolivia fifty years ago. He was 39 years old.
On many continents, he remains one of the few positive figures among the revolutionary leaders of the 20th century. Is that why in Paris this anniversary was a pretext for an outburst of gross slander against him? Targeted, beyond him were the Cuban revolution and everything related to communism.
Che certainly played a decisive role in the Cuban revolution. Janette Habel underlines how much of a “geostrategic anomaly” it was: taking power by armed struggle, in a poor island, 200 kilometers from the shores of the American empire, and wanting to build socialism there!
Guerilla, then minister, Che was a central figure in the Cuban experience. However, it is difficult to attribute to him responsibility for the latter’s subsequent trajectory.
Janette Habel developed the themes that seem important to her when we look back at the history of this revolution and refrain from rewriting it.
First, the issue of armed struggle to conquer power. The foco strategy was not theorized by Che as a model that can be reproduced everywhere. The failures suffered in Latin America cannot therefore be explained on the basis of an alleged error on this point. All the more so as the other strategies – [such as] “changing the world without taking power”, parliamentary and electoral channels to change society… – have not demonstrated that they are a viable alternative and tend to lead to dead ends as well.
Then there is the difficult question of how much democracy is possible in situation of revolution and war with imperialism. The repressive aberrations of a government that quickly took authoritarian forms are indisputable. It remains to resituate them in this context and to understand the obstacles to this revolution and the limits of those who led it.
The third theme, on which Che has contributed a lot, is that of transition. As Minister of Industry, Che organized discussions with Bettelheim and Ernest Mandel to reflect collectively on these difficult issues. Criticism of the USSR was central, and was explicit in the discourse of Algiers. And it was on the challenges of economic diversification and industrialization that Che (and Cuba!) was to fail.
Dismissed from power and Cuba under Soviet pressure, Che made his move to Congo, then into the Bolivian adventure. Isolated, he was to fall under the blows of murderers. His call to “create two, three, many Vietnams” resonated powerfully in this century, but without allowing him to escape a lonely and tragic death…
A rich exchange followed Janet Habel’s presentation, confirming that Che is not only a romantic icon, let alone a demonic character as nreaction claims, but a revolutionary fighter and thinker of emancipation.
Janette Habel, member of Attac’s scientific council, lecturer, researcher at the Institut des Hautes Études d’ Amérique latine, specialist in Cuba.
PLEASE NOTE: The video below is in French.