President Evo Morales of Bolivia With South African President Thabo Mbeki
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File
As we grew up at the beginning of the 1960s, as young activists of the African National Congress, we drew great strength from the 1959 victory of the Cuban revolution. Its leaders such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara served as an inspiration and an example of what we had to do to achieve our own liberation.
At that time, one of the songs we loved dearly was "Day-O", about the hard life of a banana plantation worker in the Caribbean, sung by Harry Belafonte. Its second stanza says:
Work all night on a drink a' rum,
(Daylight come and he wan' go home).
Stack banana till morning come,
(Daylight come and he wan' go home).
We changed these and other lyrics in the song. In the place of the chorus line, "Daylight come and he wan' go home", we sang: "Take the country the Castro way". This was our own tribute to the young Cuban revolution and an affirmation of the relevance of the Cuban revolution to our own struggle.
It was therefore with immense shock and grief that we learnt in 1967 that our beloved hero, Che Guevara, aged 39, had perished in combat in Bolivia, not long after the death in strange circumstances of another of our heroes and esteemed leaders, our own President Albert Luthuli.
Two years earlier we did not know that Che had written a farewell letter to Fidel Castro on 1 April 1965 resigning from all his Cuban Party and Government positions, renouncing his Cuban citizenship and informing Fidel that he would be leaving Cuba.
In service to the wretched of the earth
In words that confirmed to us the Che we felt we knew, Che the revolutionary combatant for the oppressed of the world, he wrote:
"Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts of assistance. I can do that which is denied you due to your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part.
"You should know that I do so with a mixture of joy and sorrow...I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be. This is a source of strength, and more than heals the deepest of wounds."
Having spent some time with the then resistance movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Che Guevara went to Bolivia to offer his "modest efforts of assistance" to the Bolivian people. He was captured by a Rangers Unit of the Bolivian Army on 8 October 1967, having been wounded during a battle between his guerrilla unit and elements of the Bolivian Army. He was murdered the following day, 9 October, shot by one Sgt Terran, allegedly on the orders of the Bolivian High Command.
The moment of death
The following account of these events was given by one CIA Agent, Felix Rodriguez, who was attached to the Bolivian Ranger Units:
"1:30 p.m.: Che's final battle commences in Quebrada del Yuro. Simon Cuba (Willy) Sarabia, a Bolivian miner, leads the rebel group. Che is behind him and is shot in the leg several times. Sarabia picks up Che and tries to carry him away from the line of fire. The firing starts again and Che's beret is knocked off. Sarabia sits Che on the ground so he can return the fire. Encircled at less than ten yards distance, the Rangers concentrate their fire on him, riddling him with bullets.
"Che attempts to keep firing, but cannot keep his gun up with only one arm. He is hit again on his right leg, his gun is knocked out of his hand and his right forearm is pierced. As soldiers approach Che, he shouts, 'Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead.' The battle ends at approximately 3:30 p.m. Che is taken prisoner....
"Rodriguez enters the schoolhouse (in which the prisoner was detained), to tell Che of the orders from the Bolivian high command. Che understands and says, 'It is better like this ... I never should have been captured alive.' Che gives Rodriguez a message for his wife and for Fidel, they embrace, and Rodriguez leaves the room."
Another CIA report said: "Cpt Frado gave the order to execute Guevara to Lt Perez, but he was unable to carry out the order and in turn gave it to Sgt Terran, of Company A...Sgt Terran had fortified his courage with several beers and returned to the room where Guevara stood up, hands tied in front, and stated, 'I know what you have come for, I am ready.' ...
"Sgt Terran returned to the room where Guevara was being held. When he entered, Guevara stood and faced him. Sgt Terran told Guevara to be seated but he refused to sit down and stated, 'I will remain standing for this.' The Sgt began to get angry and told him to be seated again, but Guevara would say nothing. Finally Guevara told him, 'Know this now, you are [only] killing a man.' Terran then fired a burst from his M2 carbine, knocking Guevara back into the wall of the small house."
A matter of interest
On 9 October 1967, the then US Defence Secretary, Walt Rostow, wrote a memorandum to US President Lyndon B Johnson in which he said:
"This tentative information that the Bolivians got Che Guevara will interest you. It is not yet confirmed. The Bolivian unit engaged is the one we have been training for some time and has just entered the field of action.
"President Barrientos at 10.00 a.m., October 9, told a group of newsmen, but not for publication until further notice, that Che Guevara is dead...
"Presencia, October 9, reports capture 'Che' Guevara...General Ovando reportedly proceeding to Vallegrande today at head of investigating team for purpose of identifying guerrilla dead and captured."
On 19 October, the US Department of State Director of Intelligence and Research sent a memorandum to the Secretary of State which said: "Che Guevara's death was a crippling - perhaps fatal - blow to the Bolivian guerrilla movement and may prove a serious setback for Fidel Castro's hopes to foment revolution in 'all or almost all' Latin American countries. Those Communists and others who might have been prepared to initiate Cuban-style guerrilla warfare will be discouraged, at least for a time, by the defeat of the foremost tactician of the Cuban revolutionary strategy at the hands of one of the weakest armies in the hemisphere."
But whence these voices of triumph?
A message from Che
In a Message to the magazine Tricontinental in 1966, Che had written: "Twenty-one years have already elapsed since the end of the last world conflagration...There is a climate of apparent optimism in many areas of the different camps into which the world is divided.
"Twenty-one years without a world war, in these times of maximum confrontations, of violent clashes and sudden changes, appears to be a very high figure. However, without analysing the practical results of this peace (poverty, degradation, increasingly larger exploitation of enormous sectors of humanity) for which all of us have stated that we are willing to fight, we would do well to inquire if this peace is real...
"There is a sad reality: Vietnam - a nation representing the aspirations, the hopes of a whole world of forgotten peoples - is tragically alone...
"The solidarity of all progressive forces of the world towards the people of Vietnam today is similar to the bitter irony of the plebeians coaxing on the gladiators in the Roman arena. It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression, but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory...
"America, a forgotten continent in the last liberation struggles, is now beginning to make itself heard through the Tricontinental and, in the voice of the vanguard of its peoples, the Cuban Revolution, will today have a task of much greater relevance: creating a Second or a Third Vietnam, or the Second and Third Vietnam of the world...
"How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!...
"Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons and other men be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine-guns and new battle cries of war and victory...
"Africa offers an almost virgin territory to the neo-colonial invasion. There have been changes which, to some extent, forced neo-colonial powers to give up their former absolute prerogatives. But when these changes are carried out uninterruptedly, colonialism continues in the form of neo-colonialism with similar effects as far as the economic situation is concerned...
"When the black masses of South Africa or Rhodesia start their authentic revolutionary struggle, a new era will dawn in Africa, or when the impoverished masses of a nation rise up to rescue their right to a decent life from the hands of the ruling oligarchies."
Create one, two, three Vietnams
Che wrote in these terms about Africa, Asia and Latin America because while humanity had, for 21 years, avoided what would have been a catastrophic thermo-nuclear World War III, intense and difficult armed and mass struggles were taking place in the Three Continents. The most difficult and heroic of these was undoubtedly the Vietnamese struggle to defeat US aggression. As Che said, because of its heroism, Vietnam came to 'represent the aspirations, the hopes of a whole world of forgotten peoples.'
The US had to commit huge numbers of men and women, enormous quantities of materiel and bucketfuls of money in its effort to win this long, complex and immensely costly war. It was in this situation that, drawn from Che's Message to Tricontinental, the slogan evolved, seeking to inspire all anti-imperialist and anti-colonial forces to action, each in own theatre of struggle - Create one, two, three Vietnams!
This captured exactly what had inspired Che Guevara throughout his youth and adulthood. More than anything else, his was a life dedicated to the genuine independence of all countries, the true liberation of each people in all countries, and social progress within all countries, emancipating the working people from the scourges of poverty, hunger and underdevelopment.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the decade of the 1960s, which claimed the life of one of the great human beings of the age, Che Guevara, was indeed characterised by many struggles and was driven by the hope shared by billions across the globe that they would achieve the goals to which Che dedicated his life.
Bolivia, where Che died a prisoner of war, is named after the historic liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar. To conduct the struggle for liberation from Spanish imperialism and colonialism, Simon Bolivar obtained military supplies from the government of liberated Haiti, the first Black Republic in the world, emancipated by African slaves, against the fierce resistance of triumphant France, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.
From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Evo Morales - the right to be respected
On 22 January 2006, Evo Morales, an Aymara drawn from the indigenous people, who constitute the majority of the population of Bolivia, was sworn in as Bolivia's first ever indigenous Head of State. During the 500 years when Spain first invaded and then colonised Bolivia, the indigenous majority had been excluded from power, systematically impoverished and denied all benefits from the exploitation of the natural resources of their native land.
Bolivia became the poorest country in Latin America. When he visited our country after his election, Evo Morales told me that for 500 years the indigenous Bolivian majority had, like our people, been oppressed and exploited under a racist system of apartheid. It was this centuries-old reality of immense suffering for the Bolivian people that took Che Guevara to Bolivia, there to sacrifice his life for the all-round emancipation of the deprived and marginalised of Bolivia and the world.
At his inauguration, President Evo Morales said: "I wish to tell you, my Indian brothers, that the 500-year indigenous and popular campaign of resistance has not been in vain...We are taking over now (for) the next 500 years. We are going to put an end to injustice, to inequality."
In an interview published in "Democracy Now" on 22 September 2006, Evo Morales said: "(Spanish domination) excluded (us) for over 500 years, exploited (us),...(while) for over 500 years (the Spanish settlers)...had full rights...So there is this strong feeling of excluded people, discriminated peoples, to unite, but not for revenge against anybody nor to oppress or to subordinate anybody, but rather our struggle that recognises we have obligations that our rights be fully respected. The thinking of indigenous peoples is not of exclusion... We have been called everything. We have been called animals. Manuel Rocha once called me the Andean Taliban. But, fundamentally, we want our rights to be respected. That is our struggle."
This is the struggle that Toussaint L'Ouverture of Haiti waged. It is the struggle that Simon Bolivar conducted. It is the struggle for which Albert Luthuli was persecuted and died. It is the struggle for whose victory Che Guevara sacrificed his life. It is the struggle which Evo Morales is determined to continue, even for 500 years.
The uses of adversity
The exiled Duke in Shakespeare's As You Like It, exposed to the merciless elements in the Forest of Arden, says:
"Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference; as, the icy fang,
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile, and say, -
This in no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.
Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."
Apart from what has been reported, we do not know what else went through Che Guevara's mind as he faced his assassin 40 years ago, determined to die standing. We do not know whether, like Shakespeare's exiled Duke, he felt that his adversity would serve to liberate the despised, proving that, after all, like the toad, ugly and venomous, it too wore a precious jewel in its head, as in fact it did.
Perhaps informed by a sense of foreboding, one year before he died, he had written his epitaph in his Message to Tricontinental - "Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry - our every action is a battle cry against imperialism - may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons..."
This epitaph commanded that we must inscribe on our banners of struggle the strategic imperative he and his comrades of the July 26th Movement, which liberated Cuba, honoured in struggle - from every defeat, advance to a fresh victory: from every victory, advance to new victories!
The close friend, comrade and fellow combatant of Che Guevara, President Fidel Castro, spoke for us and millions across the globe when, marking the 40th anniversary of the death of Che, he said:
"I make a halt in my daily struggle to bow my head in respect and gratitude to the exceptional combatant who fell in combat on October 8th, forty years ago; for the example he passed on to us as leader of his Rebel Army Column.... He built a new awareness in our America and the world.
"I thank him for what he tried and failed to do in his home country (Argentina), because he was like a flower prematurely severed from its stem...He was elegant, swift and true to every detail of whatever happened to cross his mind. He was a predestinate, but he did not know it. He still fights with us and for us."
President Thabo Mbeki,
Republic of South Africa