LA HIGUERA, Bolivia – Irma Rosales, tired after decades of tending her tiny store, sat back one morning with a box full of photos and remembered the stranger who was shot in the local schoolhouse 50 years ago.
His hair was long and greasy, she said; his clothes so dirty that they might have belonged to a mechanic. And he said nothing, she recalled, when she brought him a bowl of soup not long before the bullets rang out: Che Guevara was dead.
Monday marks a half-century since the execution of Guevara, the peripatetic Argentine doctor, named Ernesto at birth, who led guerrilla fighters from Cuba to Congo. He stymied the United States during the Bay of Pigs invasion, lectured at a United Nations lectern and preached a new world order dominated by those once marginalized by superpowers.
His towering life was overshadowed only by the myth that emerged with his death. The image of his scruffy beard and starred beret became the calling card of romantic revolutionaries around the world and across generations, seen everywhere from the jungle camps of militants to college dorm rooms.
– excerpted from an article by Nicholas Casey in THE NEW YORK TIMES issue of Monday, October 9, 2017
When Che Guevara was captured in Bolivia on October 8, 1967, he was wounded but very much alive. The Bolivian government and army, advised at the time by United States Rangers and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), made the decision to execute Guevara summarily, murder him then, because Che had become larger than life. He could not be allowed to live, and to put him on trial would have been too dangerous for his ultimate enemies – United States capitalism and imperialism.
For different reasons, including his good looks, iconic photographs of him, and the fact that he had, in Christ-like fashion, given his life for his fellow human beings, Che Guevara became an international legend who will be immortal. Che Guevara, incidentally, had become a famed guerrilla fighter despite having to contend with cruel attacks of asthma throughout his life.
It has not occurred to anyone in the Belizean media to comment on the fiftieth anniversary of Che’s anniversary, but Che Guevara’s life has major relevance to Belize, because of his activities in Guatemala, Mexico, and Cuba between 1954 and 1965. Guatemala has maintained an aggressive, racist claim to much of Belize’s territory for several decades, while it is possible, on the other hand, that had there not been a Cuban Revolution in 1959, Belize might not have not achieved independence, against the wishes of Guatemala, in 1981. Had it not been for Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, apartheid might still be flourishing in South Africa. Nelson Mandela might have died in jail. We’re just saying.
Che Guevara was a young Argentine doctor living in Guatemala City when the Guatemalan oligarchy and military, in a conspiracy with the CIA, drove the reformist Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz, out of office in 1954. Che had been travelling through various countries in South and Central America, gaining a first-hand knowledge of the Americas. Arbenz, a former Guatemalan army general, had been democratically elected to the presidency in 1951, but his land reform measures angered the giant American transnational company known as the United Fruit Company, el pulpo. Arbenz chose to leave Guatemala and go into exile in Mexico when the conspiracy destabilized and threatened his government. Arbenz refused to fight: he refused to arm the Guatemalan people to defend a revolution which the Guatemalan masses supported.
Che moved to Mexico City, where he met Fidel Castro and the group of Cuban guerrillas who were training and preparing to travel by boat to Cuba to begin fighting against the Fulgencia Batista dictatorship. Having seen what had happened to Arbenz in Guatemala, once Che decided to join Fidel and his guerrillas, Che was hard line in his thinking.
When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in early 1959, Che took charge of the executions which may have helped Castro’s revolution to survive. Certainly, Fidel’s decision to arm the Cuban people, urged on to do so by Guevara, contributed to the defeat of the Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, who invaded Cuba in April of 1961.
Revolutionary Cuba became the United States’ most bitter and implacable foe in this Caribbean region, while Guatemala always had been and remained Washington’s most faithful ally in this Central American region. Belize’s geopolitics has been heavily influenced by the fact that Belize is located almost directly between neoliberal Guatemala and communist Cuba – Guatemala right next door on our west, Cuba a few hundred miles to our northeast. As the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion proved, Guatemala, which had offered its territory for the training of the Cuban exiles, had begun a blood feud with Cuba. The blood feud was ideological. Guatemala was sweating Washington’s fever, as we would say.
Before we consider the subject of ideology, let’s examine Belizean geopolitics a little. The settlement of Belize was a geopolitical anomaly from the seventeenth century, because Belize was the only British-controlled area in Central America. In 1823, the United States announced the Monroe Doctrine, which essentially declared the Western Hemisphere to be Uncle Sam’s private property. In the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 and the Dallas-Clarendon Treaty of 1856, the United States pushed Great Britain out of the Mosquito territory in Nicaragua and out of the Bay Islands in Honduras. The British were allowed to remain in Belize (British Honduras). Although it was the British whom the Americans had fought for their independence in 1776, by the time of Dallas-Clarendon and Clayton-Bulwer, the British and the Americans were friends, white supremacists both. But the British and the Americans did not call themselves white supremacist: they referred to themselves as Christian and free market capitalist.
And so, we move from geopolitics to ideology. Capitalism is an economic system which believes man’s basic instincts to be selfish and extols competition between peoples to the point of justifying war, in accord with the thesis of “only the strong survive.” Capitalism’s proponents say capitalism is the most efficient, most productive, and most successful economic system in the world. It so happens, nevertheless, that capitalism is clothed, all over planet earth, in the garb of Judeo-Christianity. But the Jesus Christ whom capitalist countries say is the Son of God and around whom Christian religions are built, lived a socialist life and preached principles which have to be considered socialist, as opposed to capitalist.
For us Belizeans to have survived slavery, migration as refugees, and colonialism, we had to have been practicing some form of socialism, which is to say, sharing and caring amongst ourselves. The fact of the Belizean matter is that all our African and Mayan ancestors were in the same boat in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Individual native Belizeans did not emerge as successful capitalists until the twentieth century, and we recently referred to the first three of these as Isaiah Morter, Robert Sydney Turton, and Santiago Castillo, Sr.
Hard line communism, which first moved from theory to practice with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Chinese Revolution in 1949, is an atheistic philosophy. Communism is the extreme form of socialism, or socialism is a milder form of communism: take your pick. Pope Leo XIII had offered socialism as an acceptable form of communism with the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891.
The United States absolutely hates communism. The Americans branded Arbenz a communist, even though he was a mere socialist, and so they ran him out of town. Fidel Castro, for his part, publicly declared himself a communist, and so the Americans tried to overthrow him. But, they failed to do so. Castro’s Cuba was a huge and invaluable supporter of Belize’s right to sovereign and territorial integrity. Righteous Belizeans honor Fidel Castro.
It is of maximum importance to the United States and their Guatemalan allies that Belize should remain neoliberal capitalist. That is why the Americans, in their Webster Proposals of 1967, a few months before Guevara was murdered in Bolivia, called for Belize to become independent, but as a satellite state to neoliberal capitalist Guatemala.
The people of Belize violently rejected the Webster Proposals. Belize’s Premier, George Cadle Price, then began to experience pressure from the British and the Americans for him to cede land to the Guatemalans as a solution to the claim. Mr. Price’s determined quest for Belizean independence, while resisting the pressure to cede land, led him into the orbit of the Non-Aligned nations in the 1970s, a period during which Mr. Price’s “mixed economy” employed socialist concepts. All other Belizean Prime Ministers since Mr. Price’s time have been adherents of neoliberal capitalism. And even Mr. Price himself was coerced by the United States to dismantle the more militant trade unions which had grown here in the 1970s and had supported Mr. Price’s People’s United Party (PUP) in its critical 1979 general election victory. Weakening the power of Belize’s trade unions was a condition imposed by the Ronald Reagan government of the United States before Belize’s September 1981 independence would be supported by Washington.
The last socialist gasp in Belize occurred when then socialist PUP Education Minister Said Musa challenged the neoliberal Energy Minister Louis Sylvestre for Sylvestre’s chairmanship of the then ruling PUP in June of 1983. Musa lost, whereupon the PUP lost the Belize City Council to the neoliberal United Democratic Party (UDP) in December of 1983 and lost national power to the UDP in the general election of December 1984.
We close this editorial with a few paragraphs excerpted from an article by Zach Johnk which appeared on the same page of the same issue of The New York Times as the Nicholas Casey article from which we quoted at the beginning of this essay.
In January 1959, as the revolution ended and President Fulgencio Batista fled, the rebels entered Havana led by Guevara, who was recovering from a broken arm and could not lead the final assault himself.
In the months and years that followed, Guevara oversaw executions at La Cabaña prison before becoming a top-level economic minister and diplomat, traveling the world to promote Cuba’s ideals.
In October 1965, Fidel Castro confirmed the growing speculation: Guevara, an increasingly mysterious figure, had left Cuba. Castro read aloud a letter he had received from Guevara that said: “I feel I have completed the duty which the Cuban Revolution gave me. I say farewell to you.”
He added, “Other nations require my services and I must leave you.”
Those nations included Congo, where a six-month revolutionary effort failed, and then Bolivia, where he found himself on the run from the country’s army, which was aided by the CIA.
After Guevara was captured and summarily killed, it took several days for something close to the truth to emerge. The Bolivian Army initially announced that he had died in a clash and that he had “admitted that he failed in the seven-month guerrilla campaign he organized in Bolivia.”
The next day, the nature of his death became clearer: “A medical report indicated today that Ernesto Che Guevara was slain at least 24 hours after his capture in the southeastern jungle on Sunday,” The Times reported.
Still shrouded in mystery, however, was the location of his body, which was buried secretly in a mass grave. (His hands were cut off and preserved in formaldehyde to prove his identity.)
It was not until 30 years later that Jon Lee Anderson, who was writing a biography of Guevara, learned of the location, and the revolutionary was given a second burial with full honors in Cuba.
On that occasion, in October 1997, Fidel Castro described him as “the paradigm of the revolutionary” who is “everywhere there is a just cause to defend.”