This selection is part of a series marking the 30th anniversary of the death in combat of Ernesto Che Guevara. Argentine by birth, Guevara became one of the central leaders of the Cuban revolution that brought down the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959 and, in response to mounting pressure from Washington, opened the socialist revolution in the Americas. Che, as he is popularly known, was one of the outstanding Marxist leaders of the 20th century.
In 1966 - 67, he led a nucleus of revolutionaries from Bolivia, Cuba, and Peru who fought to overthrow the military dictatorship in Bolivia. In the process, they sought to forge a Latin America-wide movement of workers and peasants that could lead the battle for land reform and against U.S. imperialist domination of the continent and advance the struggle for socialism. Guevara was wounded and captured on Oct. 8, 1967. He was shot the next day by the Bolivian military, after consultation with Washington.
As part of the commemoration of this anniversary in Cuba, dozens of articles, speeches, and interviews by those who worked with Che were published, dealing with the Cuban revolution, its impact in world politics, and the actions of its leadership. Many of Guevara's collaborators and family members have spoken at conferences and other meetings, bringing Che to life for a new generation and explaining the importance of his rich political legacy today. These materials contain many valuable firsthand accounts and information, some of which are being written down and published for the first time. They are part of the broader discussion taking place in Cuba today on how to advance the revolution.
The Militant is reprinting a selection of these contributions, along with related material such as the article above, as a weekly feature, under the banner "Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution."
The article below appeared in the October 1997 issue of the French publication Le Monde diplomatique, under the title, "On the 30th Anniversary of the Death of Che Guevara: Che as I knew him." Its author, Ahmed Ben Bella, was the central leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front, which led the struggle for independence from France. Ben Bella was the president of the revolutionary workers and farmers government that came to power following the victory over Paris in 1962. He was overthrown in a counterrevolutionary coup led by Col. Houari Boumediene in June 1965.
We are reprinting it here as a final, twelfth part to the series of articles and speeches by those who knew and worked with Guevara that the Militant reprinted at the end of 1997 under the rubric "Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution."
The article is copyright 1997 by Le Monde diplomatique, and reprinted by permission. The translation, subheadings, and footnotes are by the Militant.
Che Guevara, Cuba, And The Algerian Revolution
On October 9, 1967, in a little schoolroom in La Higuera, Bolivia, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was assassinated. He had been taken prisoner the day before. Thus ended the life of a revolutionary whom Jean-Paul Sartre called "the most complete human being of our era." It had led him from Argentina to Guatemala, from Cuba to the Congo, and finally to Bolivia, always inspired by an ardent hope of relieving the sufferings of the poor. President Ahmed Ben Bella met him many times in Algiers from 1962 - 65 when the city was a haven for all the anti-imperialists of the world.
For thirty years Che Guevara has been challenging our consciences. From beyond space and time, we hear Che's call, which demands that we answer: yes, only the revolution can sometimes transform man into a being of light. We saw this light illuminating his naked body lying somewhere in distant N~ancahuazu',(1) in the photographs that appeared in newspapers all over the world. The message of his final gaze continues to touch the depths of our soul.
Che was a courageous fighter, but a conscious one, with a body weakened by asthma. Sometimes, when I climbed with him to the Chre'a heights overlooking the town of Blida, I saw him suffer an attack that turned him green in the face. Anyone who has read his Bolivian diary knows in what poor health he faced the terrible physical and mental ordeals with which his path was strewn.
It is impossible to speak of Che without speaking of Cuba and the special relations which united us, since his story and his life were so closely bound up with the country that became his second home before he turned to wherever the revolution called him.
I first met Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the autumn of 1962, on the eve of the international crisis around the missile affair and the United States blockade of Cuba.(2) Algeria had just achieved independence and formed its first government. As head of that government, I was due to attend the September 1962 session of the United Nations in New York at which the Algerian flag would be raised for the first time over the UN building, a ceremony marking the victory of our national liberation struggle and Algeria's entry into the concert of free nations.
Visits to Washington and Havana
The National Liberation Front's political bureau had decided that the trip to the United Nations should be followed by a visit to Cuba. More than just a visit, it was intended as an act of faith demonstrating our political commitment. Algeria wished to emphasize publicly its total solidarity with the Cuban revolution, especially at this difficult moment in its history.
I was invited to the White House on the morning of October 15, 1962, and had a frank and heated discussion about Cuba with the president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I asked him point blank: "Are you heading towards a confrontation with Cuba?" His reply left no doubt about his real intentions. "No," he said, "if there are no Soviet missiles. Yes, if there are." Kennedy tried hard to dissuade me from flying to Cuba direct from New York. He even suggested that the Cuban military aircraft that was to fly me to Havana might be attacked by Cuban opposition forces based in Miami. To these thinly veiled threats I retorted that I was a fellah who could not be intimidated by harkis, whether Algerian or Cuban.(3)
We arrived in Cuba on October 16 amid indescribable scenes of popular enthusiasm. The program provided for political discussions at party headquarters in Havana immediately after our delegation arrived. But things worked out very differently. As soon as our luggage had been dropped off at the place where we were supposed to stay, we threw protocol overboard and began a heart-to-heart talk with Fidel, Che Guevara, Rau'l Castro, and the other leaders who were accompanying us.
We stayed and talked for hours and hours. I naturally conveyed to the Cuban leaders the impression I had received from my conversation with President Kennedy. At the end of an impassioned discussion, around tables which we had pushed together end-to-end, we realized that we had practically exhausted the questions on the agenda. There was no point in a further meeting at party headquarters, and by mutual consent we moved straight on to the program of visits prepared for us across the country.
This anecdote gives an idea of the total lack of formality that, from the very beginning, was the norm for the relations uniting the Cuban and Algerian revolutions and of my personal relations with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Cuban troops aid Algerian revolution
The solidarity between us was spectacularly confirmed in October 1963, when the Tindouf campaign presented the first serious threat to the Algerian revolution.(4) Our young army, fresh from a war of liberation, had no air cover (since we didn't have a single plane) or armored transport. It was attacked by the Moroccan armed forces on the terrain that was most unfavorable to it, where it was unable to use the only tactics it knew and had tried and tested in the liberation struggle, namely guerrilla warfare.
The vast barren expanses of desert were far from the mountains of Aures, Djurdjura, the Collo peninsula or Tlemcen, which had been its natural milieu and whose every resource and secret were familiar to it. Our enemies had decided that the momentum of Algerian revolution had to be broken before it grew too strong and carried everything in its wake.
The Egyptian president, Abdel Nasser, quickly provided us with the air cover we lacked, and Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Rau'l Castro, and the other Cuban leaders sent us a battalion of 22 tanks and several hundred troops. They were deployed at Bedeau, south of Sidi Bel Abbes, where I inspected them, and were ready to enter into combat if the desert war continued. The tanks were fitted with infrared equipment that allowed them to be used at night. They had been delivered to Cuba by the Soviet Union on the express condition that they were not to be made available to third countries, even communist countries such as Bulgaria, in any circumstances. Despite these restrictions from Moscow, the Cubans defied all the taboos and sent their tanks to the assistance of the endangered Algerian revolution without a moment's hesitation.
The United States was clearly behind the Tindouf campaign. We knew that the helicopters transporting the Moroccan troops were piloted by Americans. The same considerations of international solidarity subsequently led the Cubans to intervene on the other side of the Atlantic, in Angola, and elsewhere.
The circumstances surrounding the arrival of the tank battalion are worth recalling since they illustrate better than any commentary the nature of our special relations with Cuba.
When I visited Cuba in 1962, Fidel Castro made a point of honoring his country's pledge to give us two billion old French francs worth of aid.(5) Because of Cuba's economic situation, the aid was to be provided in sugar rather than in currency. I objected, arguing that Cuba needed her sugar at that time more than we did, he would not take no for an answer.
About a year after our discussion, a ship flying the Cuban flag docked in the port of Oran. Along with the promised cargo of sugar, we were surprised to discover two dozen tanks and hundreds of Cuban soldiers sent to help us. A brief note from Rau'l Castro, scribbled on a page torn out of an exercise book, announced this act of solidarity.
Obviously, we could not let the ship return empty. We filled it with Algerian products and, on the advice of Ambassador Jorge Serguera, added a few Berber horses. This was the start of a kind of barter between our two countries that was carried on in the name of solidarity and was entirely devoid of commercial considerations. Circumstances and constraints permitting, it was a distinctive feature of our relations.
Che's internationalist work in Africa
Che Guevara was acutely aware of the countless restrictions that hinder and weaken genuine revolutionary action -and indeed of the limits on any experiment, however revolutionary - as soon as it confronts directly or indirectly the implacable rules of the market and the huckster mentality. He denounced them publicly at the Afro-Asian Conference held in Algiers in February 1965.(6) Moreover, the painful terms on which the affair of the missiles installed in Cuba had been concluded, and the agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, had left a bitter taste. I myself exchanged very tough words on the matter with the Soviet ambassador in Algiers. All of this, together with the situation prevailing in Africa, which seemed to have enormous revolutionary potential, led Che to the conclusion that Africa was imperialism's weak link. It was to Africa that he now decided to devote his efforts.
I tried to point out that perhaps this was not the best way to help advance the revolutionary maturity that was developing on our continent. An armed revolution can and must find foreign support, but it first has to create the internal resources on which to base its struggle. But Che Guevara insisted that his own commitment must be total and required his physical presence. He made several trips to Cabinda (Angola) and Congo- Brazzaville.
He refused my offer of a private plane to help disguise his movements, so I instructed Algerian ambassadors throughout the region to provide him with every assistance. Whenever he returned from sub-Saharan Africa, we spent long hours exchanging ideas. Each time he came back impressed by the fabulous cultural riches of the African continent but dissatisfied with his relations with the Marxist parties of the countries he had visited and irritated by their approach. His experience in Cabinda and subsequent contacts with the guerrilla struggle around Stanleyville were particularly disappointing.(7)
Meanwhile, parallel to Che's activity, we were pursuing another course of action to save the armed revolution in western Zaire. In agreement with Nyerere, Nasser, Modibo Keita, N'Krumah, Kenyata and Sekou Toure',(8) Algeria contributed by airlifting arms via Egypt, while Uganda and Mali supplied military cadres. The rescue plan had been conceived at a meeting in Cairo convened on my initiative. We were beginning to implement it when we received a desperate cry for help from the leaders of the armed struggle. Despite our efforts, we were too late and the revolution was drowned in blood by the assassins of Patrice Lumumba.
During one of his visits to Algiers, Che Guevara informed me of a request from Fidel. Since Cuba was under close surveillance, there was no real chance of organizing the supply of arms and military cadres trained in Cuba to other Latin American countries. Could Algeria take over? Distance was no great handicap. On the contrary, it could work in favor of the secrecy vital for the success of such a large-scale operation.
I agreed, of course, without hesitation. We immediately began to establish organizational structures, placed under the direct control of Che Guevara, to host Latin American revolutionary movements. Soon representatives of all these movements moved to Algiers, where I met them many times together with Che.
Their combined headquarters were set up in the hills overlooking Algiers in a large villa surrounded by gardens, which we had assigned to them because of its symbolic importance. The name of the Villa Susini has gone down in history. During the national liberation struggle it was used as a torture center where many men and women of the resistance met their death.
One day Che Guevara said to me, "Ahmed, we've just been struck a serious blow. A group of men trained at the Villa Susini have been arrested at the border between such and such countries (I can't remember the names) and I'm afraid they may talk under torture." He was very worried that the secret site of the preparations for armed action would become known and that our enemies would discover the true nature of the import- export companies we had set up in South America.
Che Guevara had left Algiers by the time of the military coup on June 19, 1965. He had warned me to be on my guard. His departure from Algeria, his death in Bolivia, and my own disappearance for 15 years need to be studied in the historical context of the ebb that followed the period of victorious liberation struggles. After the assassination of Lumumba, it spelled the end of the progressive regimes of the third world, including those of N'Krumah, Modibo, Keita, Sukarno and Nasser, etc.(9)
The date October 9, 1967, is written in fire in our memory. For me, a solitary prisoner, it was a day of immeasurable sadness. The radio announced the death of my brother, and the enemies we had fought together celebrated their sinister victory. But as time passes, and the circumstances of the guerrilla struggle that ended that day in the N~ancahuazu' fade from memory, Che, more than ever, is present in the thoughts of all those who struggle and hope. He is part of the fabric of their daily lives. Something of him remains attached to their heart and soul, buried like a treasure in the deepest, most secret, and richest part of their being, rekindling their courage and renewing their strength.
One day in May 1972, the opaque silence of my prison, jealously guarded by hundreds of soldiers, was broken by a tremendous din. I learned that Fidel was visiting a model farm only a few hundred yards away, no doubt unaware of my presence in the secluded Moorish house on the hill whose roof he could glimpse above the treetops. It is certainly for the same reasons of discretion that this very house was, not so long ago, chosen as a torture center by the colonial army. At this moment, the memories flooded back. A kaleidoscope of faces passed before my eyes like an old, faded newsreel. Never since we parted had Che Guevara been so vivid in my memory.
In reality, my wife and I have never forgotten him. A large photograph of Che was always pinned to the wall of our prison and his gaze witnessed our day-to-day life, our joys and our sorrows. But another smaller photo, cut out of a magazine, which I had stuck onto a piece of card and covered with plastic, accompanied us on all our wanderings and is the one that is closest to our hearts. It is now in my late parents' house in Maghnia, the village where I was born, where we deposited our most precious souvenirs before going into exile. It is the photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara stretched out on the ground, naked to the waist, blazing with light. So much light and so much hope.
1. The first guerrilla battle of Guevara's forces in Bolivia took place in the N~ancahuazu' region, where the base camp for the combatants was located.
2. On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy initiated the "Cuban missile crisis," or October Crisis as it is known in Cuba. The U.S. president ordered a total blockade of Cuba, threatened an invasion of the island, and placed U.S. forces around the world on nuclear alert. Washington demanded the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles, which had been installed in Cuba by mutual agreement of the two sovereign powers. Cuban workers and farmers responded by mobilizing massively in defense of the revolution. Faced with the determination of the Cuban people, and the knowledge that an assault on Cuba would result in massive U.S. casualties, Kennedy negotiated with Soviet premiere Nikita Khruschev, who decided to remove the missiles without consulting the Cuban government.
3. Fellah is the Arabic for peasant. Harkis were counterrevolutionary auxiliary troops organized by the French colonial army in North Africa.
4. In 1963 Moroccan forces, backed by Washington, invaded Algeria, which had won its independence from France the previous year after an eight-year revolutionary war. At Algeria's request, the Cuban government sent a column of troops under the command of Efigenio Ameijeiras, a veteran of the Cuban revolutionary war, to help stop the attack. The mere presence of Cuban troops forced the Moroccan government to back down and withdraw its forces.
5. Approximately $3.3 million at current exchange rates.
6. This speech appears in Che Guevara Speaks, published by Pathfinder Press.
7. Stanleyville was the former name of Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Between April and December 1965, Guevara led a contingent of more than 100 Cuban volunteers assisting revolutionary forces that were fighting the regime in Congo, which was backed by Belgian, South African, and other imperialist forces. In January 1961 Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the fight for independence from Belgium and first prime minister of the Congo, was murdered by proimperialist forces backed by Washington, after being disarmed by a U.S.-led United Nations "peacekeeping" intervention.
8. The presidents of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Egypt, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, and Guinea respectively.