On the 47th anniversary of the murder of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, we’re running a review of his book about his involvement in the revolutionary struggle in the Congo following the overthrow of the radical Patrice Lumumba. The African Dream: the diaries of the revolutionary war in the Congo was published by Harvill Press in 2000, and this review first appeared in issue 19 of revolution magazine in October 2002.
In March 1965, after a two-month trip abroad, Che Guevara was greeted at Havana Airport by Fidel Castro. He was not seen in public again until his corpse was exhibited in Bolivia in October 1967.
Guevara’s exploits in Bolivia hit the headlines at the time and have been relatively well-recorded, in his own published diaries and various biographies and other works. His April-November 1965 involvement in the Congo, however, has remained obscure. The African Dream, based on his Congo diaries and papers written by him immediately after leaving the country, therefore fills an important gap. This is especially the case as, unlike the Bolivian diaries, with their unflagging optimism, or the heroic depiction of the guerrilla war in Cuba in the late 1950s, this is a warts and all account of a disaster, one which affected Guevara deeply and which had an important impact on his future and on future Cuban state policy.
The Congo involvement was important for a number of reasons. The early 1960s were still very much the Cold War era – indeed this was shortly after the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. Rather than retreat in the face of US belligerence, the Cubans continued to go on the offensive.
Secondly, unlike Bolivia, which was very much Guevara’s own project, the Congo intervention involved the Cuban state. High-level Cubans taking part on the ground in the Congo included not only Guevara, but construction minister Osmany Cienfuegos and others.
Thirdly, while it could be argued that there was never any chance of success in Bolivia, the Cubans’ allies in the Congo – essentially the Lumumbist left – had strong bases of support and, on paper anyway, a good chance of defeating the conservative regime backed by Belgium, the United States and apartheid South Africa. (One of the major figures of the Lumumbist left, a mid-20s Laurent Kabila, did finally succeed in becoming leader of the Congo in 1997, before being overthrown and killed a few years later.)
Fourthly, it was the beginning of Cuba’s long-term involvement in Africa, culminating in Cuban troops playing a key role in driving the South African army out of Angola and helping hasten their retreat from Namibia. In turn, this hastened the end of apartheid. After the Congo fiasco, Cuba opted for supporting what it saw as radical regimes in Africa, such as the MPLA in Angola, rather than divided, unreliable and rather feckless ‘liberation’ movements on the continent.
What went wrong?
If the Congolese revolutionaries had a good chance of success, what went wrong? Essentially, almost everything that could have gone wrong did, and this is what forms the heart of Guevara’s book.
The Congo was chronically under-developed and this made it hard to develop a political programme which could appeal to the masses. For instance, redistribution of land to the peasants, which had been a critical issue in the struggle in Cuba, was irrelevant in a country in which much of the population lived a pre-modern existence, eking out a subsistence on their own land anyway. Furthermore, the working class was far too small to provide any mass base.
The primitivism of the country meant that Congolese fighters had the ritual dawa performed on them, thinking this made them impervious to bullets – a superstition which frustrated Guevara intensely but which he was unable to get rid of. The liberation movement was also hopelessly divided into factions, while the leaders were more interested in parading around as revolutionaries in the safety and comfort of foreign capitals than in fighting for the revolution within the Congo. Guevara is scathing about all of them but also does not hesitate in being critical about his own shortcomings.
Changes in Africa
The Cubans also faced a changing African political situation. Their chief ally in Africa, Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella, was overthrown during Guevara’s Congo months and post-independence regimes in the continent turned out to be less radical in practice than in rhetoric. For instance, the presence of large numbers of white mercenaries fighting for the Congo regime had been a major bone of contention with countries in the Organisation of African Unity. When the regime declared it was not renewing their contracts, which was not entirely true anyway, most OAU states were prepared to drop their opposition. Tanzania, which provided important logistical support for the Cubans and their Congolese allies, did an about-face.
In the end the Congolese fighters proved no match for the regime, its increasingly better-trained troops (thanks to Washington) and its white (largely South African) mercenaries. The 100 Cubans could put some muscle into the guerrilla forces but could not substitute for, let alone overcome, the immense weaknesses of the Congolese movement and its fighters.
The disorganisation and low morale of the Congolese even began to rub off on the Cuban contingent. In the end, Guevara was forced into a frustrating and humiliating withdrawal. This experience may have influenced his decision to fight to the bitter end in what clearly became a hopeless situation in Bolivia in 1967, rather than get out while he still had the chance.
These days, sections of the left can be found calling on Western powers to deploy ‘humanitarian imperialism’ in hot spots all over the world. Guevara’s do-it-yourself approach is clearly out of vogue but perhaps a useful counterpoint to reliance on a supposedly transformed imperialism.
This book should appeal not only to admirers of – and anyone curious about – one of the most iconic and attractive revolutionaries of the past century, but also to students of insurrection and guerrilla war in general, and of Cuban and African politics. It contains a moving forward by one of Guevara’s daughters, Dr Aleida Guevara March, and a very helpful introduction by Richard Gott. An index would have been very useful, however.