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.
by Philip Ferguson
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, (more…)