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…. Continued from last Friday.
Nevertheless, on 22 April 1965, Guevara and his small group of Cubans travelled by road to the lakeside town of Kigoma, where they established a supply base. Near Kigoma is the village of Ujiji, where Dr David Livingstone and Mr Henry Stanley had met a century before, in 1871. It is not known whether Guevara was aware of this well-known episode in the history of imperialism in Africa, or of the proximity of Ujiji to his anti-imperialist base in Kigoma, but he was savvy enough to give each of the Cuban leaders a number in Swahili – Dreke was Moja (one), Tamayo, a close collaborator of Guevara’s over several years and already one of the most significant figures in Cuba’s international military activities, was Mbili (two) and Guevara himself, misleadingly and confusingly as it turns out, was Tatu (three).
The Cubans crossed the lake and were welcomed at the village of Kibamba by a well-armed group of the People’s Liberation Army, dressed in khaki fatigues provided by the Chinese. They communicated with the Cubans in French. The Cubans made camp just outside the village. This was the start of what was to be a seven -month campaign in what the mercenary leader Colonel Mike Hoare called ‘the Fizi Baraka pocket of resistance’ against the Tshombe regime, which covered an area twice the size of Wales. Over the next few months, between April and October 1965, more Cubans arrived, in dribs and drabs, from across Lake Tanganyika, to join their compatriots and together the Cubans and the Congolese developed a plan to explore the terrain they ‘occupied’ and the Cubans began to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their allies, and of their enemies.
As regards the latter, they noted in their exploratory sorties that the forward bases of the enemy were well defended, supported by small planes and helicopters and white mercenaries; as regards the former, they considered the morale and the competence of the Congolese rebels to be low and found that their leaders, including Kabila, were regarded as strangers – or more pejoratively still as ‘tourists’. The commanders in the field ‘spent days drinking and then had huge meals without disguising what they were up to from the people around them. They used up petrol on pointless expeditions’. On 7 June, in an unexplained accident, the most senior rebel leader present (Kabila was still in Dar es Salaam), Leonard Mitoudidi, was drowned in Lake Tanganyika.
Not long afterwards, instructions came from Kabila that the Cubans should organise an attack on a garrison at Bendera on the inland road which was defending a hydro-electric plant. Guevara was unhappy with the plan; but it was decided to go ahead anyway. On 20 June 1965, a combined force of Cubans, Congolese and Tutsis (some of whom were originally from Rwanda) set off with the idea of attacking the plant and the barracks. The operation was felt by the Cubans to be a disaster – many of the Tutsis ran away, the Congolese refused to take part, and four Cubans were killed, revealing to the enemy that Cuba was now involved in the rebellion on the ground. Colonel Mike Hoare, on the other hand, was apparently impressed and noted in his memoirs that ‘observers had noticed a subtle change in the type of resistance which the rebels were offering the Leopoldville government… The change coincided with the arrival in the area of a contingent of Cuban advisers specially trained in the arts of guerrilla warfare’.
The Cubans, however, were depressed and disillusioned. All of the Cubans had been ill at one time or another since their arrival; Guevara himself suffered from bouts of asthma and malaria. There were small military successes – like the ambush of a group of mercenaries in August. But progress appeared to be negligible and the political climate was undoubtedly deteriorating. Differences between the various rebel factions and their leaders seemed to be coming to a head, and a coup d’etat in Algeria, which replaced Ben Bella – one of Guevara’s principal supporters – by Houari Boumedienne, the army commander, led to a reduced commitment to the Congolese rebellion on the part of the international community of radical states. But Guevara kept his concerns to himself and when Soumaliot went to Havana early in September 1965 he was able to convince Castro that the revolution was going well; and nothing was done to stop the regular monthly flow of newly trained guerrillas arriving in Tanzania from Cuba.
The white mercenaries, together with the Congolese troops of Tshombe, were now developing a counter-attack, which threatened the entire Cuban position. However, the Cuban training must have counted for something, for, as Hoare recorded later, ‘the enemy were very different from anything we had ever met before. They wore equipment, employed normal field tactics, and answered to whistle signals. They were obviously being led by trained officers. We intercepted wireless messages in Spanish… and it seemed clear that the defence… was being organised by Cubans’. But by October, after the Cubans had been in the Congo for barely six months, they and their Congolese allies were on the back foot. Guevara was forced to retreat to their Luluabourg base camp and foresaw a long, last resistance.
Events, however, proved as unpredictable as ever, and President Kasavubu was eventually convinced that he would never get the approval of the majority of African states in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) if Tshombe continued as prime minister and effectively lord of Katanga, and so Tshombe was sacked and replaced by Evariste Kimba. It looked for a moment as though the rebellion was saved, but in reality the ‘overthrow’ of the Tshombe government was to prove the prelude to a political reconciliation that would undermine the rebellion and lead to the collapse of the support it had been receiving from African states.
On 23 October 1965, Kasavubu attended a meeting of African heads of state in Accra, presided over by Kwame Nkrumah. He announced that the rebellion in the Congo was virtually at an end and it would, therefore, be possible to dispense with the services of the white mercenaries, and to send them home.
This was enough to sway many African leaders. It was a signal defeat for the radical African states and enabled a more conservative alliance to emerge in the OAU and marked a turning point in the late colonial history of the African sub-continent. On 11 November 1965, sensing that the climate was now favourable, Ian Smith, the White Rhodesian leader unilaterally declared independence from the United Kingdom; in South Africa there was a renewed attack on the ANC which effectively crushed the mass movement against apartheid for half a decade; and the Portuguese were encouraged to maintain their grip on Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau for another decade, until 1975. Ben Bella, as previously indicated, was overthrown; Nkrumah was removed from power while on a visit to China early in 1966, and ‘the Mehdi’ Ben Barka, the Moroccan radical leader who had been organising Cuba’s Tri-Continental Conference – a gathering of revolutionary movements from all over the world, to be held in Havana in January 1966 – was kidnapped in Paris and murdered.
Meanwhile, back in the Congo, when Mike Hoare heard of Kasavubu’s speech and pledge to send the mercenaries home, he flew to Leopoldville to see Mobutu in person. ‘The general was furious’, he recalls, ‘he had not been consulted…and felt bitter in consequence’. Kimba, the new prime minister, was persuaded to make a statement to the effect that there was no intention of sending the mercenaries home until the Congo was thoroughly pacified. Guevara was also struggling with the turning political tide in Africa. On 1 November 1965 he received an urgent message from Dar es Salaam warning him that the Tanzanian government, as a result of the Accra meeting, had decided to pull the plug on the Cuban expeditionary force. President Nyerere, all too aware of the internal feuding within the Congolese leadership and concerned about its implications, felt he had little choice.
But Guevara had already considered the option of remaining behind, whatever happened, ‘with twenty well-chosen men’. He would then have continued to fight until the movement developed or until its possibilities were exhausted – in which case, he would have decided to seek another front or to request asylum somewhere. It really seems that he felt he still had a mission outside Cuba. He asked for help from China and was advised by Chou en Lai to remain in the Congo, forming resistance groups, but without entering himself into combat. On 20 November, however, he sounded the retreat and organised the crossing of Lake Tanganyika back into Tanzania. ‘All the Congolese leaders’, he wrote, ‘were in full retreat, the peasants had become increasingly hostile’.
Fidel Castro himself would say, years later, that ‘in the end it was the revolutionary leaders of the Congo who took the decision to stop the fight, and the men were withdrawn. In practice, this decision was correct; we had verified that the conditions for the development of this struggle, at that particular moment, did not exist’. Whether that was indeed the case or merely the product of a fait accompli, is debatable. In any case, however, after a few days in Dar es Salaam, most of the Cubans flew home, via Moscow, to Havana, where there was a debriefing. Victor Dreke returned to Cuba to head a military unit preparing internationalist volunteers; and in 1966, he headed the Cuban military mission to Guinea-Bissau/Cape Varde, where he served alongside Amilcar Cabral. He then performed a similar function in the Republic of Guinea. He returned to Guinea-Bissau in 1986, heading the Cuban military mission until 1989 . Jorge Risquet became Head of the Cuban Civil Internationalist Mission in the People’s Republic of Angola between 1975 and 1979 in support of Agostino Neto and the MPLA. Other members of Guevara’s guerrilla force were also later to be involved once again in Africa.
Che Guevara himself remained after the Cuban military mission, in Dar, in the Cuban embassy, to write his account of the ‘Congolese campaign’. Early in 1966, he travelled to Prague and then, eventually, returned to Cuba, where he helped prepare the expeditionary force that would eventually, in November 1966, establish itself in eastern Bolivia. There, unlike the situation in the eastern Congo where he was prepared to accept the ‘Number Three’ position (as Tatu), for whatever reason, he insisted on openly leading the force. His insistence on this meant that he received no support from the Bolivian Communist Party, which left the Cuban guerrillas effectively isolated.
In March 1967, only three months after they had arrived in the region, the Cubans and their Bolivian allies were discovered by the Bolivians and in April they were forced into action against the Bolivian army. With no external support, the guerrilla band slowly dwindled in numbers and its morale ebbed away. In October 1967, Guevara was captured and shot the next day.
In one way, it might be said that, in deciding to fight on against hopeless odds, he had learned nothing from his experiences in the Congo; in another, it might be said that he had already contemplated such a situation in the Congo, when he seriously considered staying to fight on with ‘twenty well-chosen men’, and probably even from April 1965 when he wrote his letter to Castro, renouncing his positions in the party leadership, his ministry post, his rank of commandante and his Cuban citizenship. He was, after all, let us remember, an Argentinian and not a Cuban; he had always been, to a certain extent, an outsider. He was also an idealist who had travelled widely in Latin America on his motorbike as a young doctor, had become familiar with the lives of the poor and had come to believe that something could be done to change those lives through revolution. He had participated in the extraordinary success of the Cuban Revolution and seen what could be done by a few determined men.
Tellingly, already in 1965, when he left for the Congo, he had written to his parents in Argentina, saying: ‘once again I feel under my heels the ribs of Rocinante.’ The idea of Guevara as a latter-day Don Quixote, setting out on his adventures on his ancient horse to revive chivalry, 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. It was always, however, a dream – something he recognises in his diaries of ‘the revolutionary war in the Congo’.
See, ‘The African Dream: the Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo’, by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Grove Press, New York, 1999. Translated from Spanish by Patrick Camiller; first published in Great Britain by The Harvill Press, London in 2000. Introduction by Richard Gott, Foreword by Aleida Guevara March, paperback, pp. 244.
NB. This account draws heavily on the Introduction by Richard Gott to Ernesto Che Guevara’s account, drawn from his diaries, of the Cubans’ involvement in the rebellions or revolutionary wars in the Congo in the mid-1960s. But some of the commentary is my own, and for that, of course, Gott is not responsible.
* 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.