By Saad Hafiz:
It has been reported from the interrogation of the Bin Laden widows in Pakistan that Osama Bin Laden admired Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Che Guevara was the charismatic Argentine-Cuban revolutionary and close confidante of Fidel Castro, who was executed in Bolivia in 1967. It is worth exploring Bin Laden’s admiration for Che beyond just as a fellow political outlaw and rebel against US domination.
There are definitely some eerie similarities in the story of the life and death of Che and Bin Laden, the most conspicuous being that both men had ‘declared war’ on the United States and also suffered violent death in actions which smacked of US frontier justice. We know that the Americans extracted their pound of flesh in Bin Laden’s case in a brutal fashion with elite Navy Seals armed to the teeth flying at night in radar evading stealth helicopters crossing into Pakistan, a sovereign allied nation, shooting their target, returning with the body and burying at sea. Che in contrast was wounded and taken alive and interrogated by a C.I.A. agent and Bolivian officers, and then executed, shot to death at close range. The C.I.A. agent in charge ordered Che’s executioner to shoot him from the neck down so that it looked like he had died in battle, and he did. After a fingerprint check against existing records, Che’s hands were amputated, put in jars with formaldehyde, and placed in the custody of Bolivia’s intelligence chief. At that point, a mantle of secrecy descended, and it became clear that those who knew where Che’s remains had ended up were not going to talk. The point, as some of the officers later explained, was that they did not want a burial place where Che’s legion of admirers could come and venerate him. More than anything else, they wanted the potency of Che’s message to die with him.
However, Che’s ideas of an independent, united Latin America, with social justice did not die with him and continue to resonate nearly fifty years after his death, whereas the murderous and divisive Al Qaeda ideology is generally discredited after Bin Laden’s demise. While Bin Laden quite rightly belongs in dustbin of history, El Che despite his imperfections remains a potent symbol of hope and struggle, reflected in a saying about his legacy written on many walls throughout Latin America: “You may cut the flowers, but it will not stop the spring.”
Unlike Bin Laden, Che was a daring and courageous commander who led from the front, but can hardly be considered an outstanding military tactician and guerrilla fighter like the Vietnamese General Giáp whose forces thrashed French and American forces in Indo-China. From his Cuban experience in the overthrow of the detested American-supported Batista dictatorship, Che argued that small groups of determined armed fighters (called ‘focos’) could take to the mountains and use armed actions to rally other forces–triggering the crisis and collapse of hated governments. In the early 1960s, several attempts at armed focos were made–in Peru, Argentina, Venezuela and other countries. None of them succeeded including the one in Bolivia that ultimately led to Che’s own death.
In his fight against US imperialism, Che sought and failed to create ‘one, two, three, many Vietnams’ to draw in the U.S. military, sap its strength, and ultimately bring about a new, socialist world order. After 9/11, in a strange unintended way and aided by colossal US stupidity, Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have been far more successful when compared to Che in drawing in and sapping the strength of the US military through the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many fellow luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Garcia Marquez admired Che for his idealism and for serving as an inspirational symbol of hope for the struggling masses around the globe. Fidel Castro said of Che: “A man of profound ideals, a man in whose mind stirred the dream of struggle.” The larger than life image of Che, emblazoned on tee shirts and trinkets sold all over the world, is that of a poster child and highly romantic martyr of the people’s cause, a revolutionary leader, strategic thinker and action figure of the 20th century.
To his detractors, mostly Cuban exiles who fled to the US after being on the losing side of the Cuban revolution in 1957, Che was a blood-thirsty narcissistic murderer, a Latin Beria who enjoyed executing enemy prisoners at close range and who helped to establish and operate “Gulags” for opponents of the Cuban revolution. There is no evidence, however, that Che ever condoned the targeting of civilian non-combatants during his guerilla operations, in contrast to Bin Laden who had the blood of over three thousand innocent Americans on his hands.
Latin America, in particular has passionately debated Che’s mixed legacy since his death. On the one hand, Cuba has consolidated as an independent nation in the face of an adversarial relationship and a punitive fifty year old US economic embargo and can rightly boast about offering universal healthcare and education for all citizens, but on the other hand free elections have not been allowed in the country since the Revolution. Ironically, unlike Cuba, a new scenario has been developing on the South American continent for the past two decades and for the first time in history, in which elected officials have come to power with the interests of their citizens at heart to an unprecedented degree. These leaders are not always Marxists or revolutionaries in the Che mould—just like those non-Marxist patriots who chose armed struggle in the 60s—but they share a common and explicit belief in their national independence and reject the hegemony of the United States, which is pretty much the cause for which Che started his original struggle.