The Middle East Uprisings and Lessons from Che

Anti-government protesters, some carrying posters of Che Guevara, march in Yemen in April of 2011. / AP Photo by Hani Mohammed

Brothers and Sisters! You have put back in the world’s consciousness the actuality of resisting oppression and overcoming tyranny. You have shaken the greedy to their roots and they are alerted. You have won the possibility of creating new societies, new justice, and new tolerance. History teaches us that even more difficult than overcoming oppression and throwing out some of the bad guys is the process of building new and fair societies that share wealth and grow and develop everyone instead of just a few. This manifesto is a congratulation, an aspiration, and a blessing for your futures to be long, loving, and splendid! May we unite and collaborate for better lives for all!

Brothers and Sisters! Your struggles continue. I weep and roar for your murdered lives, for your vacant families, for those of you incarcerated, tortured and starving, for your killed hopes and great emotional and physical traumas, for the scarred survivors, and for the great weariness, and for all our broken hearts. You who have been assaulted and murdered for speaking your minds, holding to your truths, daring to assemble and protest the great oppressions, the dictators, too rich oligarchs, militaries, and the religious and ethnic cults holding you in their grips, willing to kill you, their own people, to keep their thrones and privileges—for you I accuse. Let us all scream for an end to shooting you down—snipers from your own roofs, tanks unloading their shells into your bodies and homes, your helicopters bombing you, thugs and thug police breaking your soft bodies, the murders of wives and children. Let us sing your praise for your willingness to risk all—your selves and families, your futures, ending the living of lives that are suppressed and repressed, for seeking your own versions of freedom and profound democracy, for finding new collectivities, your voices—and for just trying to create new opportunities for truth, love and connection, for an end to poverty and discrimination, for justice and accountability. Let us all come to your aid and defense!

Egyptians in Tahrir Square call for the end of Mubarak's dictatorship in January of 2011. / Photo by Joseph Hill

Brother and sisters! It is all too easy for conceptions of difference to block our recognition of solidarity. We are of varied cultures and religious backgrounds, of different tribes and ethnicities, of different races and classes, educated and illiterate, of different sexes, with different aesthetics and different mind streams. Cultured on prejudice, inflamed against each other in order to divide, isolate, and prevent recognition of our mutual self-interests, taught to nurse hatred and old grudges, importuned to fight with each other rather than the common enemy of oppression and exploitation, it is far too easy to make each other into the “other.” Those of us who are relatively safe in our own cocoons stay blind or unresponsive to the suffering of others, and fear to risk that safety. Even as the world divisions grow and the poor sink relatively and often absolutely lower and the rich climb higher, even in times of mass education and facile communication, even as information becomes more accessible and awareness increases, we huddle in our own igloos, the cold outside left for the others. We think, perhaps the storms won’t come our way. But they do—and they will—and our isolation from each other is the worst of illusions. Connect!

Brothers and sisters! We are citizens of the world. We need to see our commonalities and hold these dear—our love of freedom and self-expression; our joy in friendship, caring, and sharing; our empathy for each other’s pain and suffering; our love of our children and hopes for their future; our deep and true knowledge that inequity and injustice breeds division, exploitation and negativity; our love for nature and our capacity for awe and spirit; our profound creative gifts. Our intolerance must be for all things that betray this awareness!

Brothers and sisters! There are great dangers that cannot be denied and that threaten our and our children’s futures. To pretend otherwise is to stay in the thrall of immediate gratification and to the contrary, we are unique creatures capable of planning and understanding the greater good. Our destruction of our planet is growing at a headlong pace. Feeble efforts have gone nowhere. It is no longer clear that we can avert the effects of environmental catastrophe. To not unite and take measures to reduce environmental impact, protect the planet as much as possible, and plan for the inevitable changes that are coming is to act as acquisitive, blind animals; it is a foolishness that serves our base appetites and particularly the appetites of those and their institutions who only want more and more—empty acquisitiveness. It is the war between ravenous materialism and the collective spirit that is occurring, and it is clear which one is winning—it is all around us and we are all involved—denial is psychotic. To fashion a better world we must support liberation from tyrants, and tyrannical systems, from global and local exploitation and the institutions that further those processes. We must cultivate and support core human freedoms and rights. The Western world is having its bare-bones social welfare programs hacked away. Much of the rest of the world has none of that to hack. Finance capital—the making of money on money, our money—is a monopoly practice that controls more and more of the wealth and therefore the quality of life of all human beings and of nature itself. Governments are sunk in heinous corruption and represent only a few—and you know who. Hopelessness is everywhere and when there are outbreaks of resistance, these are crushed. So few of us see our self-interest, our minds having been taken over at least to some extent by the blaring of the values of the mass media and education that serves rulers’ interests. There are so many of us and so few institutions that truly represent us. Gigantic corporations and conglomerates with their purchased political allies run the place and run us without much resistance. We honor and support the resistance of those standing up to tyrannies new and old!

The news of the peoples’ wars has become scant these past weeks, as if we outsiders are to lose interest and go back to sleep. The media has mostly moved on as if the novelty has left and yet the resistance and the carnage continue. I search the New York Times and the Internet news for information about you and it is scant. Only Al Jazeera, which is not available in most television packages—prejudice at work—still provides deeper coverage. Besides the triviality of most Western media, the information shutdown reflected the slow and awful process of overthrowing Gaddafi, the murderous closing down of Syria to the outside world with no external support save for sanctions that cut off nothing much to that goon Assad, the turning the other cheek to Saudi princes and Saudi oil while they murder their people out of view—the bulk of western media reflects official policy with scarcely a demurrer. And here in the good old United States, without an organized opposition, Obama and the Right continue to strip us of social welfare, now threatening Medicare and Social Security, while joblessness and poverty accelerate. Here, the media focus us on irrelevant and disturbed ambitious personalities who are either rich or trying to become rich as politicians and the corruption grows ever greater. If the definition of a banana republic is that its politicians are bought and sold by its controlling economic powers, the United States has become a banana bunch—and the fruit is rotten and nauseating.

Brothers and sisters, let us turn to Che Guevara and see what we can learn from him.

Che Guevara walks in the streets of Havana, Cuba in 1960. / Photo Courtesy of Che Guevara Museum

Most of you know him from t-shirts and meaningless advertising emblems that do not convey much, except his determined revolutionary look. In my time, in the sixties, while he was alive and vibrant, transfixing many of us with his willingness to fight for what he believed was to be a victory of oppressed and impoverished peoples, we watched his actions and studied his writings. Che was an Internationalist. Argentine himself, he saw human oppression not as a national problem, but rather as one confronting all of us. Politics were personal for Che and that insight remains at the core of bringing a new spirit of love and connection to our lives. The choices we make for our own behavior in the world, for our own growth and development, as persons seeking to end hunger, poverty, and exploitation, those choices actually make up our character and demonstrate our commitments. For Che, being a leader meant risking his life in combat alongside, or in front of, his warriors. Leadership was to be by example, not by sending others into battle in his stead. And while this is laudatory and has great merit, loss of leaders is detrimental to a cause. As in most things, there is a balance to be found, in this case between leading by example versus losing the cause because leadership is risked and destroyed.

The Cuban Revolution was fresh and vibrant when Che sought to extend its promise of justice, development and creativity to other peoples and build a new world of socialist humans—he said ‘man’ (but feeling his own personal liberating trajectory he surely would have embraced feminism had he lived to experience its full possibility and political presence). Che abhorred prejudices of all sorts—race, tribe, sex, and religion. He knew these were false divisions that fractured the unities of justice for all and basic human rights: to be represented, protected, nourished, housed, clothed, healed, and respected. He knew that prejudices served rulers and oppression and kept citizens from uniting behind their true self-interests and commonalities.

The Cuban Revolution had consolidated its organization with nationalizations of foreign businesses, land reform, and social welfare development when Che left for Bolivia to attempt to bring revolution to Latin America. Cuba had defended itself against a U.S.-backed military invasion at the Bay of Pigs and weathered the missile crisis. But in defending itself against its hostile neighbor, it had become a near vassal of the Soviet Union, fully allying itself politically in the international arena and absorbing the Soviet economic system—dependent on the USSR for planning, supplies and basic economic support. This was an old problem: building a new egalitarian social system from poverty and lack of industrialization while defending against internal and external enemies. In its early days, the Soviet Union had confronted the same grave difficulty and failed to defend the egalitarian and democratic form of the revolution, ending up in the horror of Stalin’s totalitarianism and oppression. It was and is no small difficulty. In the West, the label of ‘export revolution’ was continually used to attack all attempts to end imperialism in other countries by indigenous national movements. The truth was and is that isolated progressive movements have great difficulties in sustaining, organizing and defending themselves against militant, historically exploitative entrenched interests that seek to maintain their greedy hold on power. And as a result, there have been deformations of the revolutionary impulse that have left us without a history of actual socialism—that name having been sullied again and again by reactionary leadership and betrayal of the goals and the murder of the peoples, and especially the vanguards of the revolutionary movements.

A mural of Che Guevara photographed in Tunisia in 2007. / Courtesy of Deanka

Che left Cuba with all of this in his mind and the powerful aspiration to help peoples in Latin America throw off their obvious exploitation. If revolution could occur in Latin America, Cuba’s isolation in the hemisphere would lessen and the dependence on the USSR could shift toward a Latin American political and economic unity and mutual reliance that would be original in its culture and new and sparkling in the world. Hopefully, the mistakes of China and the USSR could be avoided. And Latin America appeared to Che ready to throw off its yoke of oppression, especially given the successful example and leadership of the Cuban revolution. As in the Middle East today, great masses of people lived ruinously at the poverty level, isolated from the wealth that grew around them through the exploitation of their labor as peasants, agricultural and industrial workers. Hopelessness, cultural oppression, destruction of families, crime as a way of life, oppression by military forces controlled by the national elites under the aegis of foreign capitalism—all of this was present. And it suggested that human self-interest would take hold and the impoverished and exploited would unite and act if there was great and just leadership that educated and united—just as now in the Arab world. There was an inspired sense of possibility. Indeed, small flames of uprisings ignited in many places.

But unlike today’s Middle East situation, liberating movements failed to develop sufficiently enough to throw out the goons in power, the forces of reaction having been alerted and mobilized militarily with U.S. support. Instead, reaction triumphed, murdering progressive forces in the tens of thousands and repressing societies for decades thereafter. Che’s calculation was incorrect. Conditions do not dictate revolution. People do. And that is a much more complex assessment, as can be seen in the various situations in the Middle East. Economic self-interest is a powerful force indeed, but so are other factors. An uneducated mass of people tends towards fear and divisions based on immediate self-gratification. Loyalties tend to be based on historic personal ties to hierarchies that are local, military and governmental. Religious influence and local, community-based religious institutions act as internal and external controls. Poor societies tend to have militaries that act internally and locally as support to police, rather than focusing on external enemies. Awakened self-interest on the individual level has at least two requirements: my own realization that my situation is hopeless and risking my life is more important than holding on to my near suicidal conditions. And secondly, that my personal welfare depends on making alliances with others—building unity with other oppressed people—and that I will conduct myself ethically accordingly.

Che’s miscalculation cost him his life, those of his comrades and many others. He had selected Bolivia as his theater of action. Poverty was extreme. There was a workers’ movement based on trade unions and primarily located in the mines that ate up people’s lives. There was a history of armed insurrections by some of those worker organizations. There had been slaughters. Che was an avatar for armed insurrection. But, in Bolivia, he was an outside agitator, foreign, and relying on his theoretical understanding of the causes of insurrection and liberation. The Cuban strategy had been based on support for the rural guerrilla movement by the urban intelligentsia and the worker’s movement. A new energy for change had been ignited by Fidel’s failed attempt at taking the Moncada fortress years before the guerilla began and there was a unifying focus—an historic, outside, imperialist aggressor with a puppet government under its control. The political parties of the left in Cuba and Latin America at large had lost their interest in revolution and were marginalized and ineffective, the so-called communist parties following the Soviet Comintern’s international line. In Bolivia and elsewhere, this meant that there was a resistance to supporting guerrilla movements within the forces that could have assisted Che and others. Divisions within potential allies, bureaucratization of opposition parties, splitting of motivated mass movements was and is a great damper on the success of movements for fundamental change.

Following the success of the Cuban Revolution, the United States, in concert with local Latin ruling elites, had upped its vigilance and readiness to intervene with covert operations and outright support. It would block with all its huge might further insurrections. Involved in a guerrilla struggle in Vietnam, U.S. military technology and intelligence had vastly improved since the Batista period. This would make Che’s military operation more difficult, especially as it was only one small guerilla unit with little mass and peasant support and no significant accompanying urban insurrection. Under these conditions, armed struggle was destined to fail. The Cuban model was not imposable on other situations. Armed struggle, having succeeded in Cuba, was deemed the appropriate means for revolution in other contexts that in fact were not ripe for supporting it. Che’s humanism embraced the use of arms based both on strategy and the clear view that people were dying of disease, malnutrition, poverty, and oppression at a greater rate than would die from a revolutionary transformation. While this is certainly true in many places now as well as then, Che underestimated the difficulty of a person taking up the gun. Mass movements tend to have a greater ability to practice a degree of non-violent confrontation—even at the risk of the lives of the activists—than they do in taking oppressor lives, as this is the humanist path. Certainly, it has been true that once a military confrontation has been engendered, men seem willing to move into a violent fray and kill others for a cause. But this takes finance, military supplies, organization and coordination. Looking at Libya, the difficulty of forming a military resistance that is effective and only indigenous is clear. Against a well-armed and determined ruler willing to slaughter his own people en masse, there is grave difficulty—as in Syria, as in Yemen, as in Saudi Arabia, as in Iran, as in… Libya still would be a quagmire without the military assistance of the oil-motivated West. There was no certitude that Gaddafi couldn’t suppress the rebellion and kill enough of his own to make sure of that. These are the difficult lessons of making revolutions.

So, what do you do when you have manifested, actually won, the possibility of building new societies? This is what confronted Cuba and Che after chasing out the scoundrels. This is what confronts the Libyan, Tunisian, and Egyptian peoples and hopefully many more, not just in Arab lands. History warns that you can create new forms of awful conditions for our ‘liberated’ peoples with new faces at the helm and more dead in the ground. You may butcher or imprison your enemies as well as your friends who disagree, install new—and old—forms of prejudice, create gulags and prying, spying bureaucracies. The next succeeding reaction against new tyrannies may create/restore the old monarchies, so to speak, as in China, or new gangster cliques, as in Russia and some of the other remnants of the old USSR. Materialism triumphs under such conditions, and that is a great loss to those of us who value and are motivated by love and spirit.

Cuba, with Che among its early leadership, nationalized industries, the banks and foreign held assets, distributed land, eliminated private property, and developed the key aspects of a welfare state—free education and health care for all, elimination of rents and landlordism, food subsidization, and national development policies that emphasized building from the impoverished bottom up. Faced with an implacable gigantic external foe, faced with internal opposition, with racist and class structures and the remains of the old capitalist and feudal landholding systems, with machismo and Catholicism, with the need to direct labor towards building a new society with desperate needs for aid to create opportunities, with a desperate need to arm against invasion and terrorism, the Cuban leadership made decisions that would consolidate its power, but also distort and severely constrain the democratic and freedom passions of its revolution. They would substitute a centralized and self-perpetuating leadership and a form of materialism that failed over time to truly eliminate materialism as the main motivation for self-development. And that is its greatest tragedy, for with the egalitarianism and communitarianism of a new society, there is great motivation to make sacrifices, to look ahead beyond immediate gratification, and to develop new forms of soul experiences and sharing. Unfortunately, that has thus far been an early phenomenon, early in revolutions, and not sustained. And, in fairness, it is not yet knowable if under such fierce pressures, against implacable foes, with populaces mostly untrained in sharing and mostly uneducated, with the great universal human difficulty of understanding and respecting each other, it is not knowable if love, and thoughtfulness, respect, and collaboration can triumph and be sustained. Many of us are dying to find out.

Besides seeking an end to oppression wherever he saw it, in addition to his keen awareness of the danger to a radical anti-imperialist nation on the shores of the behemoth, Che had impatience with growing bureaucracy and a great need for action. He could not sit still. His personal need was to bring his revolutionary clarity, his theoretical view into practice, to test theory in the field of change, no matter the personal cost. In this, Che continues to exemplify and inspire much of the best in us: love, solidarity, generosity, study, self-sacrifice, dedication to truth-finding, comradeship, putting others above our self, perseverance, discipline—and more. Che’s tale is also a cautionary one. History making is fraught with difficulties and setbacks. In its deepest humanitarian meaning with its vision for a united world of love, collaboration, and respect, the global revolution lies on the far horizon. As 2011 closes, that prospect seems even a bit more distant, more uncertain, fraught with difficulties, not achievable in single life times, but nonetheless, the clearest best possible direction for the realization of the nurturing and love capacities with which humans are endowed. The great internal and external battle between our “nurturing-woman, cooperating for the greater good” side and “the survival of the fittest” side shall continue—unfortunately.

You who have dared to open your national doors and your hearts to a new human condition, may you and we—your brothers and sisters—bring new hope and joy to this bittersweet world. May you have the courage and discipline to take down the institutions that persist and represent the old military and exploitative orders and create—as quickly as you can, for people are impatient—new forms of cooperation and development with respect for others, tolerance for beliefs that are personal and do not control others, and love for this planet in distress. Solidarity and Best Wishes!


For an excellent recent review of Che Guevara’s life and contributions and a noteworthy political commentary, see O. Besancento and M. Löwy, Che Guevara: His Revolutionary Legacy (Monthly Review Press, 2009). For a movie view of Che’s life and contributions, do watch the thorough Che: A Revolutionary Life, by Steven Soderbergh (IFC Films, 2008).


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