GRAND CAYMAN, CAYMAN ISLANDS: According to reports, during the interrogation of Osama bin Laden’s widows, it came to light that he was an admirer of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Che Guevara was a charismatic Argentine-Cuban revolutionary and close confidante of Fidel Castro, and 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 America and suffered a violent death in actions which smacked of US frontier justice. However, their respective legacies seem vastly different as Che’s ideas of an independent, united Latin America, with social justice continue to resonate nearly 50 years after his death, while the murderous and divisive al Qaeda ideology is generally discredited after Bin Laden’s demise.
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. 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 his fight against US imperialism, Che sought and failed to create “one, two, three, many Vietnams” to draw in the US 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 compared to Che in drawing in and sapping the strength of the US military through the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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 America’s hegemony, which is pretty much the cause for which Che started his original struggle.
While Bin Laden quite rightly belongs in the 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.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 3rd, 2012.