By David Seddon
The idea of Guevara as a latter-day Don Quixote, setting out on his adventures to undo wrongs and bring justice to the world, and, despite a series of disastrous encounters, managing to survive with spirits undiminished until the very end, is one that appeals to the romantic in all those who see themselves as revolutionaries.
The death of Fidel Castro on 25 November 2016 prompted me to re-visit the extraordinary history of the Cuban Revolution and in particular the role of the Cuban government under Castro in supporting what they considered to be progressive movements and radical governments throughout the world, including in Africa, over a period of three decades from the 1960s to the 1980s. Diplomatic recognition, political support and military assistance were all provided to national liberation struggles and independent states in Algeria and Western Sahara, in Eritrea and Ethiopia, in Zanzibar, and in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. The military victories won by Cuban soldiers in Angola, in 1975-76 and again in 1987-88, against the South African army were in my opinion a crucial part of the eventually successful struggle against White rule in Namibia and in South Africa itself.
Cuba first helped the Algerian liberation struggle in 1961, sending a large consignment of American weapons captured during the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion; and after Algeria gained independence in July 1962, the Algerians reciprocated by helping to train a group of Argentinian guerrillas, even sending two agents with the guerrillas from Algiers to Bolivia in June 1963. But the earliest attempt to provide systematic support to a potentially revolutionary movement in Africa involved sending an elite group of Cuban guerrillas – all volunteers and the majority of them black – to the eastern Congo in 1965. One of the few white Cuban guerrillas involved was Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
The Congo: background
The Congo’s independence from Belgium had been followed in June 1960 by the election of a left-wing prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. This in turn was followed in rapid succession by an army mutiny, the secession of the country’s mineral-rich province of Katanga under Moise Tshombe, the return of Belgian troops, and the arrival of United Nations peace-keeping forces, at Lumumba’s request, to protect the country’s territorial integrity and his new regime. When Lumumba also asked for Soviet military assistance he was deposed by President Kasavubu, whose decision was supported by the commander-in-chief, Joseph Mobutu. The subsequent murder of Lumumba and the death in a plane crash of the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, led to a chaotic situation in the Congo.
By early 1964, the country was left in the hands of a weak and unpopular prime minister, Cyrille Adoula, who had closed down the Congolese parliament, the UN was planning to withdraw and four different rebellions had broken out, most of them operating under an umbrella group of leftist opposition groups called the National Liberation Council, that had effectively replaced the parliament. One of the rebel movements, which affected the northeast of the country, was led by a local politician, Gaston Soumaliot, whose lieutenant, Laurent Kabila, orchestrated a related movement further south. For a few weeks in mid- 1964, these rebel forces controlled much of the eastern region of the Congo. Meanwhile, a former colleague of Lumumba’s, Christophe Gbenye, backed by China and the Soviet Union, controlled much of the rest of the country.
In March 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sent Averell Harriman to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) to assess the situation. Together with Cyrus Vance, the US deputy defence secretary, Harriman drew up plans for an American airlift to the Congo, and in May, planes and helicopters began arriving. In July, Moise Tshombe seized power, replacing the ineffective Adoula, and called for help from the USA, Belgium and South Africa to support his regime. His call was heeded and the Congolese army was reinforced by Belgian officers and white mercenaries from Rhodesia and South Africa. The main immediate task was to crush the rebellion of Gbenye, who had established his headquarters and government in Stanleyville (Kisangani). In November, Belgian paratroopers were flown in from Britain’s South Atlantic base on Ascension Island with the permission of the newly elected Labour government under Harold Wilson and dropped on Stanleyville, at the same time as the mercenaries arrived.
Guevara looks to Africa
In response, a group of radical ‘front-line’ African states led by Algeria and Egypt announced that they would supply the Congolese rebels with arms and troops, and called on others for help. The government of Cuba announced that it was ready to oblige. In December, Guevara – already one of the most internationalist of the Cuban leadership – made an impassioned speech, in his capacity as the Cuban delegate to the UN General Assembly, in which he referred to the ‘tragic case of the Congo’ and denounced ‘this unacceptable intervention’ by the Western powers, referring to ‘Belgian paratroopers and transport by US aircraft, which took off from British bases’.
Leaving New York, he embarked on a tour of African states, visiting first Algeria and then Mali, Congo-Brazzaville, Senegal, Ghana, Dahomey, Egypt and Tanzania. In Dar es Salaam, he met Laurent Kabila, who sought help to maintain what was left of the liberated area in the east and southeast of the Congo, and in Cairo, he met Gaston Soumaliot who wanted men and money for the Stanleyville front in the Congo; and in Brazzaville, he met Agostinho Neto, who requested the Cubans to provide support for the Angolan liberation army, the MPLA. He was excited by what these men told him about the potential for an effective liberation struggle – and for a role for Cuba in providing support – in these three cases.
In February 1965, Guevara flew to Beijing to see what help the Peoples’ Republic of China might provide to the rebellions in the Congo. There he met, among others, Chou en Lai (who between December 1963 and February 1964 had himself visited some ten African countries with a view to assessing how best China might intervene). Soon after his meeting with Che in Beijing, Chou was to make a second visit to Algiers and Cairo, in March 1965, possibly to meet the Congolese rebel leaders about whom Che had informed him, and then in June, he flew to Tanzania where he certainly met both Kabila and Soumaliot.
In the meanwhile, Guevara himself flew back to Cairo, where he talked with Colonel Nasser about his plan to lead a group of guerrillas himself. According to an account of the meeting by Nasser’s son-in-law, the editor and journalist Mohammed Heikal, Nasser was less than enthusiastic and warned Guevara about the dangers of romanticism – and warned him ‘not to become another Tarzan’; ‘it can’t be done’, he said. Guevara was clearly not impressed by this sceptical response. He was already, I suspect, a man with a mission – which was to bring his own personal experience of helping build a revolutionary movement (that had been so successful, in his view, in Cuba, and had been achieved by a handful of committed guerrillas) to bear on other situations elsewhere in the world.
Guevara returned to Cuba, to be greeted at the airport by Fidel Castro. It was the last time he would be seen again in public, until after his death two and a half years later in October 1967, in Vallegrande in Bolivia. Before he left Cuba he wrote a farewell letter to Fidel – which was read out publicly in Havana six months later, in October 1965 – in which he effectively declared that he no longer felt obligated to the Cuban Revolution but to the project of extending its influence and its impact elsewhere: ‘other nations are calling for the aid of my modest efforts… I have always identified myself with the foreign policy of our Revolution, and I continue to do so’. It was a statement made by a man who felt that his destiny was now to ‘export’ the revolution by leading a guerrilla movement in Africa. If he had been able to integrate, as an outsider and an Argentinian, with the Cuban revolutionaries, why not with African revolutionaries, whether in Angola or in the Congo?
Three weeks later, he flew secretly from Havana with a small group of Cuban troops, first to Cairo and then to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Tanzania was at that time a leading radical African state under President Julius Nyerere, which had just created a union with revolutionary Zanzibar. While one ‘column’ of 120 Cubans was to be shipped piecemeal to Tanzania and across Lake Tanganyika into North Katanga, a second ‘column’ of 200 men (the ‘Patrice Lumumba battalion’) was to fly to a base on the other side of the country, near Brazzaville, across the Congo River from Leopoldville (Kinshasa), the capital of the Congo. The eastern ‘column’ was to be officially led by Captain Victor Dreke – a Cuban of African descent about whom Che later wrote to Fidel: ‘he was…one of the pillars on which I relied. The only reason I am not recommending that he be promoted is that he already holds the highest rank”. Guevara was part of this ‘column’. The western ‘column’ was to be led by Jorge Risquet Valdes Santana, a member of the central committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
Guevara’s group was greeted at the airport outside Dar es Salaam by the new Cuban ambassador, Pablo Rivalta; the Embassy had been established only a few months before. Guevara was concerned that their arrival risked being noticed by the CIA, but the Americans had just withdrawn their ambassador from Dar and were otherwise occupied. The Congolese in Dar, however, also paid them little attention. The rebel leaders, including Kabila and Soumaliot, were away in Cairo supposedly trying to reduce the political divisions within their revolutionary movement, and only relatively junior personnel were available. It seems that the planning for the Cuban intervention in the African armed struggle was, from the outset, somewhat lacking and that co-ordination with the African leaders was somewhat limited.
DAVID SEDDON is co-author (with David Renton and Leo Zeilig) of Congo: plunder and resistance, Zed Books. He is also the coordinator of a series of essays on ‘popular protest, social movements and the class struggle’, under the project of the same name, published on the RoAPE website between 2015 and 2016.