Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Before and after Che Guevara

Legendary revolutionary freedom-fighter Ernesto Che Guevara died 50 years ago in a world very different from our own, writes Walid M Abdelnasser

The world recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the legendary internationalist revolutionary freedom-fighter of Argentinian origin and Cuban affiliation Ernesto Guevara. 

The world that Guevara came into and struggled with until becoming the legendary figure he has become was definitely different from the world that evolved after his assassination. He decided at an early stage to commit his life to the poor, deprived and toiling peoples of the world, particularly in Third World countries, and more specifically in Latin America. His aim was to realise the emancipation of these peoples and ensure their equitable share of power and wealth in their own countries as well as an equitable share in the decision-making processes and in wealth at the global level for the countries of the South.

His era was characterised by extreme polarisation in the world in the context of the confrontation between the Eastern Bloc led by the former Soviet Union and the Western Bloc led by the United States, in what came to be called the Cold War. 

As Guevara’s fame started with his association with the Cuban Revolution, together with the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, following the victory of that revolution on 1 January 1959, he had to face the dilemma of how to reconcile his inclination to lead the newly independent countries of the South to alliances with the Soviet bloc, as dictated by his ideological affinities, with his championing of, and participation in, the struggle for the cause of independence and the grouping together of the Third World countries in the Non-Aligned Movement in 1963, with Cuba as one of its founding member states.

Although the fight of Guevara in Latin America and Africa on the side of revolutionary leftist forces was mostly unsuccessful in terms of concrete political outcomes in his lifetime, his dedication to the cause he believed in, as well as his outstanding “revolutionary purity” and modesty and his lack of interest in any executive post or centre of power, made Guevara the legend he has become. There is equally no doubt that the brutal way in which he was assassinated and the hiding of his burial place for many years by his adversaries contributed to his legendary character.

The world has undergone drastic qualitative transformations since the assassination of Guevara. One important development, which ran contrary to the expectations of Guevara when he was alive, was the end of the Cold War with the end of communism in the former Soviet Union, as well as in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsequent disintegration. Although these developments took place more than a quarter of a century ago, the features of the post-Cold War world order have not fully unfolded yet, even though they have been taking shape here and there in separate ways.

A significant development not witnessed by Guevara has been the rise in the power of the left in the countries of Latin America. However, this left was not the revolutionary one that Guevara spent his life championing, symbolising, and fighting for, but it has instead been a democratic left that has reached power through electoral processes and that has functioned in the context of democratic pluralism. This was another development that has run contrary to Guevara’s early bet on the revolutionary path as the sole path for the left to reach power.

A third major change in the world after Guevara has been one related to that previously mentioned, namely that progressive and leftist forces have clearly realised that social and economic justice for the deprived social strata and classes cannot be achieved in the absence of political democracy and pluralism. 

Many examples in different countries of the Third World have led to the clear conclusion that any progressive social and economic change in favour of the interests of the people is both reversible and unsustainable if it is not accompanied by the political empowerment of the people through political freedoms and liberties. There must be a democratic political system that allows the people to safeguard their interests and protect and further develop any achievements and progress realised on the social and economic fronts in an institutional, systemic and participatory manner.

Yet, a fourth and last, but by no means less important, development has been the fact that in the post Guevara world an African-American, namely former US president Barack Obama, has been elected for the first time ever to the presidency of the United States. This was the country that during the height of Guevara’s struggle in the 1960s had witnessed the rise of the Civil Rights Movement led by figures such as Martin Luther King that aimed at ensuring that African-Americans were treated as full citizens of their country, enjoying equal rights and obligations. 

It was that same president Obama who moved towards the normalisation of Cuban-American relations and paid a historic visit to Havana, shaking hands with the leftist president of the country Raoul Castro.

The above are just some examples of the important changes that have taken place in the world in general, and Latin America and the Third World in particular, after Guevara. This is not an exhaustive list, as there are other features that have significantly changed and undergone qualitative transformations. An appreciation of them would be useful for the study of the evolution of the history of mankind over the decades after World War II, with all their achievements and failures.

The writer is a commentator.

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