50 Years after the Death of “Revolutionary Socialist” Che Guevara, Latin America is Realizing its Folly

che guevara latin america
In this 1967 photo provided by Felix Rodriguez, Rodriguez, left, is shown with Che Guevara, center, before Guevara was executed in Bolivia. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Felix Rodriguez)

In October 1965, Fidel Castro read a letter in public and confirmed that Ernesto Che Guevara had renounced his Cuban citizenship and resigned from all party posts. He waved good bye by saying “Other nations require my services and I must leave you. I feel I have completed the duty which the Cuban revolution gave me. Now, I say farewell to you.”
After a failed expedition to the Congo in 1965, Guevara decided to relocate.

On 3 November 1966, a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman named Adolfo Mena Gonzalez booked a hotel suite overlooking the snowbound heights of Mount Illimani in Bolivia. He was bald and had cigar in his mouth. The businessman was none other than Che Guevara who was in Bolivia on a mission to spread the socialist revolution. 
However, things did not worked out as planned. It all went wrong after Che and his comrades arrived in the arid, thorny Nancahuazu region of Bolivia. They lost radio contact with Cuba and their supplies ran low. Also, guerillas were plagued by illness and exhausted. Unlike Cuba, the locals were hostile and the local cadre resented taking orders from dominating Cubans. The Bolivian government propaganda sowed hatred towards the foreigners (Che and his comrades). According to government officials the guerrillas were there to rape women and kill children. When the United States got news of Guevara’s presence it sent CIA agents to assist the regime of René Barrientos in crushing the revolution.

On 31 August Bolivian army wiped out half of Che’s forces in an ambush. The remainder ran towards the mountains in a desperate attempt to break out of the trap. Che Guevara rode on a mule towards La Higuera where a local farmer informed on him. Amid a frantic gunfight, a bullet destroyed the barrel of Guevara’s carbine. Unable to fight he surrendered to Bolivian soldiers.

“Don’t shoot – I’m Che. I’m worth more to you alive,” Che Guevara reportedly said.

Fearing the effect of trial on world level Bolivians executed ‘Che’ on command of CIA in a school where he was kept as a prisoner. The man they hoped the world would forget became a legend. Today, Che Guevara is lionized by youth revolutionaries round the world. He was complex man with unwavering goal of spreading socialism around the world.

On December 11th, 1964, Che Guevara addressed the United Nations in New York. His main concern that day was “peaceful co-existence” between various countries, people, economic and social systems. According to him “peaceful co-existence” was being constantly challenged by imperialist forces of the world. By citing apartheid in South Africa, US aggression toward Puerto Rico, Vietnam war, disturbances in Cyprus, Laos and several Latin American countries, Che emphasized that paving the path for “peaceful co-existence” was an urgent issue that the UN Assembly must deal with. He bashed United States for imperialism and ended his speech with: Homeland or Death!

October 9, 2017 marked the 50th death anniversary of Che Guevara. Let’s analyze what happened to his dream of establishing unified socialist Latin America free from imperialism.

The movement best known as “Socialism of the 21st Century” disguised with attractive symbols of love, brotherhood, equality, and freedom, and represented by charismatic leaders like Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro quickly positioned themselves as a new solution to problems of Latin Americans. Candidates representing leftist parties and coalitions won several presidential elections consecutively. But, what happened?

Today the results are clear: the experiment with socialism in Latin America has failed.

In Argentina, disapproval toward the end of Cristina Kirchner‘s second term was high due to an acute economic crisis caused by mismanagement of monetary policy, excessive controls, and endless corruption scandals involving high-ranking public officials, including the president herself. She has often been at odds with the Catholic Church over the issue of poverty. In her words “Poverty reduction is no miracle, rather the result of social policies”. She also once accepted that Hugo Chavez was her political role model.

The recent elections altered the Argentinean status quo, with the victory of current President Mauricio Macri. For several years, Kirchner in her presidential term focused on aligning Argentina economically with China with the commitment to a centralized top-down economy that such alliances often demand. One of the major reasons for her defeat was that she pushed Argentina towards its left-leaning neighbors, Venezuela and Bolivia, rather than more market-focused countries in the region. Now, Macri is trying to cut tentacles of ‘left’ octopus that strangled Argentina for decades. 

In Brazil, ‘Socialist’ Iron Lady ‘Dilma Rousseff’ is the epitome of failure. Last year, she was thrown out of office by the country’s senate after an impeachment trial that ended 13 years of Workers’ party rule. In 2014, investigation began into allegations over corruption charges of state-oil company Petrobras for building contracts. Three years after the investigation began, Dilma Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor Lula was found guilty of taking bribe (beachfront apartment) by engineering firm OAS in return for his help in winning contracts with Petrobras. Downfall of Rousseff and Lula has been turning point in Brazil’s politics. Chronic mismanagement of indigenous infrastructure, poor planning, and endemic corruption have exacerbated the problem. Is ‘21st Century Socialism’ any different than any other political movement in terms of rhetoric and deliverables? This is the question that’s bugging Brazil today.

In 1979, Dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas (members of FSLN) promised to implement a progressive social agenda that included universal health care. After indulging in a decade of civil war against the Contras, the FSLN domestic agenda gradually declined until the party was defeated in 1990 elections. The Sandinistas returned to power when Daniel Ortega was chosen president in 2006. Today, Ortega is doing his best to distance himself from the values of left revolution. One example is ‘Interoceanic Grand Canal’ project ($50 billion USD) led by the Chinese-owned Hong Kong-Nicaragua Development Group. Its goal is to integrate Nicaragua into the global economy. The opponents of Ortega argue that the canal would strip Nicaragua of its national sovereignty, damage the environment, displace thousands of people and violate the rights of indigenous people. In a stark departure from the ethos of revolutionary socialism Ortega embraced foreign direct investment. He also enjoys good relationship with the Nicaraguan business class that is represented by the Superior Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP). 

Since the 1990s, after economic reforms Chile earned a reputation for being the best economy in Latin America. Chile’s policymakers built up institutions with strong foundations, developed new industries that helped foster more than two decades of impressive growth. Still, Chile is facing challenge by extraordinarily high levels of inequality. Recently there have been a number of violent protests. Voters have grown disenchanted with current left-of-center president Michelle Bachelet. She is so unpopular right now because of her policies such as increasing corporate tax, pension system plan and uncertainty in dealing with institutions of free market like IMF. Voters will elect Chile’s new president in November this year. Its widely expected that right-of-center billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera who served as president from 2010 to 2014 would win the elections.

About Venezuela the less said the better it is. Nicolás Maduro continues to grant himself more and more power. Opposition members are languishing in jails. Anyone who follows the mainstream media has come across increasing concern over Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. The only solution to this crisis is for Nicolás Maduro’s government to step down and leave room for the opposition’s coalition party (the Roundtable of Democratic Unity) to take power and stabilize the country. Nothing is being done to stop shortages of basic goods. Citizens are forced to check garbage cans for food and are forced to wait in long lines to get into pharmacies that have no medicine. This is the state of the country that was once the richest in Latin America.

Last year, the paragon of ’21st Century Socialism’, Fidel Castro died leaving behind legacy of free healthcare and education. But it is equally true that he is also responsible for the central planning blunders and government controls that have wreaked havoc on the economy on Cuba. The US embargo has worsened the situation leaving most Cubans scrabbling for decent food and desperate for better living standards. Recently there was a report in international media about thousands of Cuban doctors who work abroad under contract with the Cuban authorities demanded to be released from what one can call ‘form of slave labor’. Cuba’s Communist government makes millions of dollars every month by sending doctors to different countries for providing health services. But the problem is that these doctors get a small cut of the fees paid by patients as the Cuba’s government takes the rest of the amount. There is strong censorship over press and electronic media by the government agencies. The freedom for which Cubans supported the revolution died the day Fidel Castro took power.

After years of fighting Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia also known as FARC finally bid farewell to arms in June. This is historical achievement Colombian government as the 52-year conflict came to end. The guerrillas who walked the path of Che Guevara realized that nothing has been achieved so far and the future remains bleak if they continued the armed rebellion. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for signing the peace accord with the FARC. The deal remains highly controversial in Colombia although voters rejected the accords by a narrow margin in a referendum last year. Many Colombians argued that the guerillas, who were promised amnesty, did not serve any sentence for their crimes. Because of immense public pressure Mr. Santos got the Colombian Congress to approve a revised deal with FARC. 

Che Guevara is still there in form of murals, statues and even on t-shirts but guerillas have left. Today the irony is that the youth who wears Che Guevara printed t-shirt may work for a company which has ‘Yankees’ as its client. The capitalist or imperialist forces (as you may like to call) which Che Guevara despised till his death have converted his face into a youth icon and minting money by selling different accessories.

You see its capitalism that has emerged victorious. Indeed, capitalism has many problems and I don’t imply that if it’s best for ‘west’ then it’s best for the ‘rest’. The point is between ‘Collectivism’ and ‘Individualism’ the latter defeated the former. The Left must realize that it can only survive by reducing state planning and empowering citizens but not at cost of others (rich). Proclamations about the evils of ‘imperialism’ sound odd now. They don’t have any meaning in the era of globalization. The failures of the much-touted “socialism of the twenty-first century” implies only to a utopian dream but a dystopian future. By putting too much faith in socialism, the idea that capitalism cannot be completely reformed has been obscured.

As long as wealth enters the country, projects that build popular power and help the poor could coexist with capitalism. But as soon as capitalism comes into crisis (which it always does) and the funds dry up, wealth redistribution comes into direct conflict with the capitalist class’s needs. Growing economic problems in Latin America has put pressure on left-populist governments. In quest for power, competition has broken out among socialism, conservatism and liberalism. 

The Latinos have lost faith in socialism even though they continue to be skeptical of unregulated capitalism. The Right leaning political class of Latin America believes in the formula: get rid left-dictator style politicians, privatize the state-owned companies and open the markets, welcome the United States and US-backed institutions like the IMF into the country. The fall of the Soviet Union was historic event but as it is the case, some lessons are learnt the hard way. If the Latin American politicians continue to tread the path of their ideological masters then they too would meet the same fate.