First citizen of Third World

Paradoxically practical and idealistic, Che considered himself a soldier of the revolution

Che Guevara
By Frank Niess.
Haus Publishing, London. Pages170. £9.99.

Reviewed by Shelley Walia

HE had begun to read Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Jack London at an early age in school. By sixteen he had devoured his fatherís complete library of 3, 000 books, which included Cervantes, Lorca, Tolstoy and Neruda. History, poetry and politics were of special interest to him from the start.

When he died in October 1968, Che Guevara, a doctor, a guerilla and a political thinker, had become the hero of my generation and the drive behind the only socialist revolution that saw success on the American continent. I too belong to the 60s, a heady time of rebellion and reactionary politics that had a profound impact on many. We would read Sartre, discuss existential drama and the tragedy of choices facing man. Coffee houses became the site for engagement in the polemics of creative confidence and critical intelligence that underpinned transformative politics emerging from Latin America and the hero of our generation, Ernesto Che Guevara. We had admired Cheís involvement in Argentina and Peru where he had submitted his complete self for the welfare of the deprived, an experience which would affect his political ideology of ending inequality in the name of justice. His stature compelled Sartre and de Beauvoir to take the long journey to Cuba to meet "the perfect man of his times". (Sartreís comment on Che)

The biography by Frank Niess propels the reader at the outset into the heart of the countryside where Che grew up. It was at Alta Gracia in North Western Argentina where as a young lad he learnt to be an "expert of the forest", as his father later observed. This experience would have a great impact on his art of guerilla warfare. At an earlier age of two, he had suffered asthmatic attacks which would trouble him till the end of his life, but as some critics and psychologists have argued, the ailment of asthma releases a mechanism that leaves the victims with strong traits of self-control and self-confidence. On the other hand, from his parents he would imbibe an unconditional ideology of liberty and justice. He listened to the adults talk politics. At 11, his father allowed him to join the youth organisation of "Accion Argentina", an organisation that "had set itself the task of fighting anti-Semitic, racist and Fascist tendencies in Argentinean society. The young Che was already on the long road to revolution that would one day end with his early death, but not without the triumph of the ideas that he wrote and, more than anything, practised.

In the post-Cold War period, the impact of Left politics stood diluted with the triumph of Western capitalism. But Che Guevara is one iconic figure that looms potently large and stands for a strong opposition to the Right-wing dominance through his notion of armed resistance against opponents of socialism and in his own words, "a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine". He had experienced on his road journeys through Latin America the ruthless working of predatory capitalism and swore that he would not rest till he had brought about land reform and the end of American hegemony. Peasants in Cuba flocked to join his war of liberation, support that would enable Castro and him to finally gain victory in 1959 over the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista y Zald`EDvar, a lackey of the US. His fight, along with his comrade Castro, would be to oppose colonial rule, capitalism, and orthodox Marxism and American interference in Cuba.

"Che" translates as "Hey, you ...", or "Chum", or "Buddy", or "Pal", or "The Kid". He would often use this term in addressing his friends and, so often, that he was given the nickname of "Che". Murdered in 1967 in Bolivia, I remember the day he died. The shouts of his admirers and followers resounded across the world: "Latin America! No lo vamos a olvidar! We wonít let him be forgotten." He was already a legend to my generation; a symbol of revolutionary fervour. Paradoxically practical and idealistic, Che considered himself a soldier of the revolution. After admonishing the communist regime in Russia, he left his political position in Cuba, travelled to Africa and raised a battalion for the Congo Civil War. Later in Bolivia, he along with his army was surrounded by the American trained Bolivian forces at Vallegrande where he met his end. Fidel Castor remembered his close comrade Che forty years later: "I halt in my daily combat to bow my head, with respect and gratitude, to the exceptional combatant who fell on the 8th of October forty years ago....I give him thanks for what he tried to do, and for what he could not do in his country of birth because he was like a flower yanked prematurely from its stem."

As the biography suggest, Che still remains a potent political force in Latin America as is visible in the anti-American wave sweeping through Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico. The dream that he shared with the Left is now turning real, especially after the victory of democracy in a few countries. This could be rather contagious in spreading to Colombia, Peru and Guatemala in the days to come. As Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean playwright, says about Che Guevara, "Though communism may have lost its fire, he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution." The myth of the "rebel Christ on the Cross" and "Cid Campreador of the wretched of the earth" lives on.