Cuba/Cuba Solidarity

‘I Embrace You with All My Revolutionary Fervor’: An Insightful New Book



I embrace you with all my revolutionary fervor: Letters 1947-1967 by Ernesto Che Guevara with a foreword by Aleida Guevara. Published on November 10, 2021, by Seven Stories Press, New York, NY. The book’s foreword can be read here.


IN REVIEW


By Geoff Mirelowitz

November 12, 2021—Che Guevara[1] is one of the most recognized and inspiring revolutionary figures of the 20th century. He is also one of its outstanding Marxists. The publication of this new collection of letters is, therefore, a welcome event. As the introduction explains, “A few of the letters are well known, but most have only now been released from Che Guevara’s personal archive held at the Che Guevara Studies Center in Havana, directed by his widow Aleida March, and are published in English for the first time.”

New book is now available here.

Che was a prolific letter writer. Many of his letters in this insightful collection capture his warmth towards friends, family, and comrades, as well as his sense of humor. Others offer new insights into his political thinking, both in the course of Cuba’s revolutionary war and after its victory in 1959.

In one of his most well-known letters, his farewell to Fidel Castro in 1965—as Che and other Cuban internationalists headed for the Congo to assist freedom fighters there—he wrote, “I leave here the dearest of my loved ones and the purest of my hopes as someone seeking to build a new society.” Those hopes and Che’s deep thinking about the process of building socialism, and the new men and women who will construct the new society, are among the most important topics discussed in this book. Chief among them is a 33-page letter Che wrote to Fidel only a few days before the departure for the Congo.

Self-portrait, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1950. (Photo: Courtesy Seven Stories Press)

The book allows us to trace Ernesto Guevara’s political development from the time he was 18 years old and set off on the first of his travels with friends across Latin America. “Incidentally, I had no social awareness as an adolescent and I did not participate in any political or student struggles in Argentina,” Che wrote in a 1963 letter. That changed as he became acquainted with the economic, social, and political conditions of the continent.

Che’s deep empathy with the oppressed found one of its earliest expressions while he was in Peru in 1952 where he worked briefly among patients suffering from leprosy. By this time, his university training as a medical doctor had begun. “The desire to practice leprology has hit me with some intensity,” Che wrote to his father, adding, “farewells like the one that the patients from the leprosarium in Lima gave us are what motivate us to continue.” He continued, “All of their love for us was due to the fact that we spent time with them without wearing masks or gloves, shaking hands with them as we would any neighbor…the psychological impact of this is incalculable for patients who are normally treated like savage animals.”

Political awakening

Che’s first overtly political awakening appears in letters written from Bolivia, the same country where he would lose his life 15 years later as he sought to help lead a revolutionary struggle. Writing to his mother from Bogota, Colombia, in June 1952 he observed, “This is the country where individual rights are most trampled upon.” In a letter to his father written from La Paz in July 1953, he said, “The government seems to be almost completely unable to halt or lead the masses of peasants and miners,” who were pressing Bolivia’s then-ruling Nationalist Revolutionary Movement to improve their conditions.

A month later Che was in Peru where he wrote to his mother he had stayed in Bolivia because “a revolt was expected at any moment and we had the healthy intention of staying to see it up close. Unfortunately…it didn’t occur.”

From Peru, Che passed through Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica before arriving in late 1953 in Guatemala. His decision to go to Guatemala was intentional because a popularly elected government led by Jacobo Arbenz was attempting to institute reforms such as land re-distribution in the face of hostility from sections of the military and the powerful United Fruit Company and its backers in Washington. As he was leaving Costa Rica in December 1953, he wrote to his aunt Beatriz, “In Guatemala, I’ll perfect myself and do what is necessary to become a true revolutionary.” He closed that letter referring to himself as “a nephew who loves you, he of the iron constitution, empty stomach and shining faith in a socialist future.”

“My medical knowledge is not expanding, and at the same time I’m absorbing another kind of knowledge that engages me much more,” he observed in an April 1954 letter to his mother. “I am certain of two things,” he continued, “first is that if I reach my truly creative phase at about 35, my exclusive, or at least main concern, will be nuclear physics, or genetics, or some other field that brings together the most interesting aspects of knowledge. The second,” he wrote, in language that now appears prescient and fateful, “is that the Americas will be the theater of my adventures in a way that is much more significant than I could have imagined.”

U.S.-sponsored coup in Guatemala

While in Guatemala Che participated in the resistance to the U.S.-sponsored coup that brutally overthrew the Arbenz government in June 1954. There, he began drawing lessons that would shape his political life. “Treason continues to be the birthright of the army and once again we have proof of the aphorism that the liquidation of the army is a fundamental principle of democracy,” he wrote to his mother in July 1954, adding, “even if that aphorism doesn’t exist, I believe it to be true.” Arbenz, he then observed, “didn’t consider that an armed people is invincible, despite the recent examples of Korea and Indochina. He could have armed the people,” to oppose the coup, “but he chose not to, and this is the result.”

From Guatemala, Che went to Mexico. There he continued thinking about his experiences while also engaging with his mother and others about the political situation in Argentina, where General Juan Peron was president. “The army only stays in its barracks,” Che wrote, “when the government serves its class interest; the only thing that changes is a certain democratic veneer, as we see in Mexico, where pseudo-democratic acts obscure what is really going on.” Later he wrote to Tita Infante, a fellow medical student in Argentina, following the coup that overthrew Peron in September 1955, “I am once again writing full of anguish because of what has occurred in Argentina.”

It was in Mexico that Che met Fidel Castro and other Cuban revolutionaries. “I was invited by a young Cuban leader,” he wrote to his parents in July 1956, “to join his movement, an armed movement to liberate his homeland and I, of course, accepted.” In the same letter he continued, “Regarding the medium-term, I see my future tied to the Cuban Revolution. I’ll either triumph with it or die there.”

Che Guevara (right) with Fidel Castro and Che’s daughter Aleidita in Havana. (Photo: Courtesy Seven Stories Press)

In that same letter, he explained that Mexican authorities had arrested him and many of the Cubans organized by Fidel, so he was writing from prison. In a July 15 letter to his mother, he sought to help her understand his decisions. “I’m neither Christ nor a philanthropist Vieja,” he wrote, using his affectionate term for her—“old lady.” He continued, “I’m exactly the opposite… I fight for what I believe in with all the weapons at my disposal, trying to lay out the other guy instead of letting myself get nailed to a cross or whatever.”

In the same letter, he mentioned the transformation in his own thinking. “I recall a phrase that I once thought was ridiculous, or at least strange, referring to such a total identification among a group of combatants to the effect that the idea of ‘I’ was completely subsumed in the concept of ‘we.’ It was a communist moral principle,” he continued, “and naturally might look like doctrinaire exaggeration, but it was (and is) really beautiful to feel this sense of ‘we’.”

‘Passion and audacity we possess as humankind’

This brought him to a conclusion that, with hindsight, one can see became fundamental to Che as he developed his thinking about the construction of socialism and the role of political consciousness. “All great work requires passion,” he wrote, “and the Revolution needs large doses of passion and audacity, things we possess collectively as humankind.” Finally, in what certainly reads prophetically, he wrote, “There’s no doubt that, after righting the wrongs in Cuba, I’ll be off somewhere else; and it’s also certain that if I were locked up in some bureaucrat’s office… I’d be stuffed.”

It is also in Mexico that Che deepened his study of Marxism. Writing again to his mother in October 1956 he wrote, “Now Saint Carlos is primordial,” using his humorous and affectionate term for Karl Marx. “He is the axis and will remain so for however many years the spheroid has room for me on its outer mantle.”

The section of the book titled “Letters from the Guerilla War in Cuba” consists of 14 letters. A particularly notable one was written on December 30, 1957, to “Dario,” a nom de guerre of Armando Hart, a leader of the July 26 Movement’s urban underground. Hart later became a central leader of the Cuban government and Communist Party following the victory of the Revolution. Guevara and Hart had expressed some sharp differences of opinion, in part because of misunderstandings exacerbated by the conditions of the revolutionary war that did not allow the two to speak face-to-face. (Hart’s December 25, 1957, letter to Che is printed in an appendix of the book titled, “Letters Sent to Che Guevara,” and sheds more light on this exchange.)

Che’s parents Celia and Ernesto (Sr.) arriving in Havana soon after the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in January 1959. (Photo: Courtesy Seven Stories Press)

Che expressed himself clearly and sharply, at one point dismissing an apology from Hart for “having involuntarily offended me…. For me there is no such thing as personal offense.” Yet in closing the letter, Che strikes an objective tone and makes clear the possibility of resolving the dispute. “I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to give this explanation to you in person. I think that would have been better for everyone. I send you greetings with the utmost affection, willing to clarify anything regarding this issue.”

March 1965 letter to Fidel

The largest number of letters in the book make up the section headed, “Letters as a leader of the revolutionary government (1959-1965).” They are also among the most thought-provoking. In her foreword, Che’s daughter Aleida refers to “Che’s previously unpublished letter to Fidel of March 26, 1965,” which she describes accurately as “one of the most important in the book.”  She says:

“It is a truly fascinating analysis of the situation in Cuba. He shares his thoughts about errors in the approach to political economy, the budgetary finance system, the internal functioning of the newly formed Communist Party and a range of other issues. He outlines his views about the importance of political consciousness in the challenge of creating a new society, explaining that the new human being will emerge in the process of transforming Cuba’s economy.”

From book foreword by Aleida Guevara

This concise description summarizes a true wealth of ideas Che expressed in this letter; ideas that any serious revolutionist and Marxist will recognize as deserving of the most serious study and discussion. Che does not mince words. “The [Economic] Calculus method is now obsolete,” he wrote, referring to what an editors’ footnote terms, “the methodology employed in a rival, Soviet-inspired system of economic management,” also known as the “Auto-Financing System.” In the years after Che’s departure from Cuba and his death, this system (sometimes referred to as the “economic accounting system”) came to predominate in Cuba, leading to deep problems addressed by Fidel and the leadership of the Revolution in the 1980s in what became known as the “Rectification Process.” [2]

Che in his office at the Ministry of Industry, Havana, 1963. (Photo: Courtesy Seven Stories Press)

“I want to turn now,” Che wrote to Fidel, “to explaining to you, as briefly and succinctly as I can, my ideas on the Budgetary Finance System.” This was the method Che fought to counterpose to the practices modeled on the bureaucratic management of the Soviet economy and those of other eastern European countries at that time, headed by Stalinist political leaderships. Rather than relying on expanding the political consciousness of working people— the “passion and audacity” that years earlier Che had insisted are prerequisites for revolution— these regimes relied on material incentives for individuals to organize the economy. “This is how the grand marshals with their grand marshal salaries, the dachas and the chiefs’ cars with their little curtains came about,” Che wrote.

Returning to the challenge in Cuba Che explained, “There is a big gap in our system: how do we get people to identify with their work so that it’s no longer necessary to use what I myself call material disincentives?” The complete honesty with which Che faced this challenge shines through when he wrote, “I still haven’t found the answers and I think we need to study this further. The answer must be inseparably linked to the political economy of this period.”

He then posed the question, “How to get the workers to participate? This is a question I have not been able to answer. I consider this my greatest stumbling block and my greatest failure, and it’s one of the things we need to think about because it’s bound up with the problem of the Party and the State, with the relationship between the Party and the State.”

‘A Party of cadres who are thinking beings’

Che then outlined his conception of what a communist party should be. “The Party and every member must act as the vanguard, and this means that their conduct must approximate that of the communist ideal. Their standard of living…should never exceed that of their colleagues. A communist’s morality is their most prized possession, their true weapon, so it must be cherished, even in their private life… naturally there is no place for thieves, opportunists or Pharisees[3] in the Party, regardless of past merit.”

Che continued, “All of this must be in the context of a ceaseless struggle against the tendency to bureaucratize the Party, turning it into yet another governmental mechanism of statistical oversight or an organ of executive power or a parliamentary body, with lots of people on the payroll and lots of driving around in jeeps, lots of meetings, etc., etc.”

One of Che’s key arguments concerns the importance of a culture of education, study, and principled debate among communists. “[We must] start educating party cadres in philosophy in a broader sense, including more advanced Marxist humanism. This is not a matter of labelling a position in a debate as either correct or incorrect,” he emphasized, “but rather of participating in study circles trying to analyze what the debate is about. [Let’s] turn the Party cadres into thinking beings, not only in terms of our country’s reality but also in relation to Marxist theory, which is not an ornament but an outstanding guide to action.”

Che in Bolivia, next to the Ñancahuazú river, 1967, shortly before he was captured by the Bolivian army and executed.

The book ends with several letters of farewell, “which I cannot read without crying,” says Aleida Guevara in her foreword. When she was about to turn six, Che wrote to his children from Bolivia. “I write to you from far away and in great haste, which means I can’t tell you about my latest adventures,” Che said. “Right now I want to tell you that I love you all very much and I think about you all the time, along with mama, although I really only know the littlest ones through photos, as you were very tiny when I left. I’m going to get a photo taken soon so that you can see what I look like these days—a little older and uglier.”

As Aleida Guevara put it in her foreword, “In his letters to family and friends… [Che] reveals himself candidly, spontaneously. So reading my father’s letters is a fascinating way to really get to know him.” This is absolutely true and the reason this book is a gift to its readers.


ENDNOTES

[1] Ernesto Che Guevara was born in Argentina on June 14, 1928. He graduated from medical school in 1953. Before getting his medical degree, and after his graduation, he traveled throughout Latin America. In 1955, he met Fidel Castro and joined the effort to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Originally the troop doctor he became a commander of the Rebel Army.

Following the victory of the Cuban Revolution, he became a central leader of the new workers and farmers government. He held a number of posts including President of the National Bank and Minister of Industry. He also often represented Cuba internationally. Guevara resigned his posts in 1965 and left with other Cubans, first for the Congo and later for Bolivia to assist the liberation struggles in those countries. He was wounded in battle, captured by the Bolivian army on October 8, 1967, and was executed the next day.

[2] Cuba’s revolutionary leadership initiated the rectification process in the mid-1980s in response to growing evidence of political demoralization and demobilization of Cuban working people. This was the result of the political course that was implemented many years earlier, based on economic and political policies largely copied from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. For more information see two 1986 speeches by Fidel Castro, “Important Problems for the Whole of International Revolutionary Thought” and “Renewal or Death,” both available in the magazine New International no. 6, published by Pathfinder Press.

[3] Che is referring to members of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, who claimed superior sanctity in interpreting the law but in reality did not carry out such professed beliefs. A second dictionary definition is “a self-righteous person; a hypocrite.”


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