Che and Gaza

Future Hope column, January 4, 2009

By Ted Glick

“In these circumstances one must have a great deal of humanity and a strong sense of justice and truth. . . We just strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.”
-Che Guevara, Socialism and Man

I wonder if, centuries from now, Che Guevera will be looked upon by people around the world in the way Jesus of Nazareth is looked upon by billions today, as a model for how one lives one’s life.

This will only happen, of course, if humanity is successful, short-term, in avoiding catastrophic climate change via a clean energy revolution and, longer-term, through a wide and deep justice-based revolution away from capitalism and towards a society organized on the principle of respect for one another and our natural environment.

These thoughts are prominent on the day after watching the movie “Che,” a four-hour semi-documentary focused on one successful and one thoroughly unsuccessful revolutionary war, the first in the late ‘50s in Cuba and the other in Bolivia in the late ‘60s. Che Guevara was a leader of both.

Yesterday was also the day that Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza. The Israeli government was urged on both by the Bush Administration’s to-be-expected overt support of Israel’s air strikes that left thousands dead and wounded and by President-elect Barack Hussein Obama’s deafening silence. Israel made clear, for the umpteenth time, that their illegal and brutal military occupation and encirclement of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem will only end when they are forced to do so because of a mixture of Palestinian resistance and concrete acts of international solidarity and pressure, as in a cutting off or reduction of military aid from the United States.

There is an uncanny link between the second half of “Che” and what is now taking place in Gaza. In both instances, people engaged in armed combat against an oppressive government—in one case, a socialist-oriented group and in the other a radical Islamic group—faced or are facing decimation.

“Che” reveals in close detail what took place in Bolivia after, under Guevara’s leadership, an armed guerrilla column was established with Cuban government support in an attempt to spread the socialist project beyond Cuba. This portrayal follows the first half of the movie showing how, a decade earlier, Fidel, Che and the Cuban people successfully defeated the U.S.-backed Batista military dictatorship during a two-years-long guerrilla war.

“Che” is not a full biography of the man. 90% or more of the film is devoted to a “you-are-there” rendering of the day-by-day realities of these two guerrilla wars. A small portion of it dramatizes a meeting between Che, Fidel and others in Mexico City in 1955, notable for Fidel’s explanation of the exploitative and brutal realities of Cuban society which was the motivation for his willingness to risk his life in the revolutionary cause. A more substantial section of it is devoted to Che’s visit to New York City in 1964 to speak at the United Nations. Most of the political motivation for what they did is revealed in these two sections.

The movie is well-researched. While based upon Guevara’s diaries, there were also, according to an article in the January 4th New York Times, “interviews that proved decisive. (Peter) Buchman, (Steven) Soderbergh and (Benicio) Del Toro traveled to Cuba several times and talked to Guevara’s family and friends, generals who fought in the Cuban revolution and survivors from the Bolivian expedition.”

The movie makes no explicit effort to explain why the Cuban armed uprising succeeded and the Bolivian one failed, but several reasons are indicated. One was the opposition from the Bolivian Communist Party to the Guevara-led effort. A related reason was the weakness of indigenous Bolivian leadership in the effort; Guevara is clearly the dominant figure. But perhaps most significant was the active role of the U.S. government in giving strategic and tactical military direction and weaponry to the Bolivian junta. This included sending military advisors and trainers who had honed their skills in the Vietnam war. This aid was decisive, leading to the eventual wiping out of Guevara’s guerrilla column.

Guevara’s character is played well by actor Benicio Del Toro. It is striking to watch Che’s heroic effort to prevent chronic asthma from precluding his full participation in the strenuous activity required during the revolutionary wars. He is portrayed as a no-nonsense, incisive leader of men (and a few women), prepared to make whatever sacrifices were necessary, including his life, to advance the revolutionary cause.

At the end of the film, after Guevara is wounded and captured and is being questioned by his captors, he makes the comment that, to paraphrase, “perhaps our failure will teach them lessons,” referring to Bolivians generally as well as the peasantry in the area where they had operated who were unwilling to support their effort. Given the emergence several decades later of the Bolivian Movement for Socialism and its success in electing Evo Morales to the Presidency, as well as the growth of the socialist project in Venezuela, Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America, it looks like he was right.

The film portrays Guevara dying as one would expect him to die. Sprawled wounded on the ground, an executioner orders him to stand up. Looking the executioner in the eye, he refuses and says, “Shoot me.”

Che Guevara, if alive, would feel solidarity with those under the gun in Gaza today. He would draw strength, as I did, from the young Palestinians and Arabs I marched with in their thousands yesterday through midtown Manhattan. Chanting, “Gaza don’t cry, Palestine will never die,” and “Free, free Palestine,” their anger, energy and determination were palpable.

Young Fred Hampton, Chicago Black Panther Party leader murdered by the police in 1969, said that “You can kill the revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution.” The movie “Che,” and the on-going resistance in Palestine and all over the world to a profoundly unjust world order, confirms this truth of history.

Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past Future Hope columns and more information can be found at