The Blanket

Che Guevara

Anthony McIntyre • 5.9.02

Che Guevara is a name that most of us as 1970s teenagers knew quite well. Name recognition did not always convey much more than that. I didn’t realise in any real way who he was or what he stood for. Cuba was somewhere that hijackers used to tell pilots to take their planes to. My exposure to Guevara came from hippie-looking types who seemed to enjoy chanting ‘Che lives’ as they punched the air. In my mind he was associated with non conformity, pot smoking, long hair, and ’hey man’ phraseology and was just something people aligned themselves as they went through a particular phase in their lives. I always noticed that it was people only a few years older than myself who revered him. My father or his age group seemed to behave as if he had never existed. Guevara could have been the name given to a steeplechaser for all they seemed concerned.

In the Long Kesh, Che seemed to feature more visibly in the INLA cage than he did in our Provisional IRA cages. They had a much more leftist vision than possessed by ourselves. In Cage 10 one Provisional Newry lifer used to adorn his cubicle walls with posters of Adolf Hitler. Whether he was of a right ideological bent or simply using Nazi memorabilia to subvert the cage authority I never actually concluded on. It was hardly the type of thing you would find in the INLA section.

Later in the H-Blocks when the Blanket protest was in full swing there was some discussion about Che’s foco theory of revolution but little else. Although with our belief in will over all else and its promise of instant results, the foco suited us better than the laborious task of ‘mobilising the organised working class’. Wiser voices like Pat McGeown would frustrate us when he pointed out that calling ourselves ‘Marxist’ was merely a fad if we ignored all the lessons of Marx. ‘Stupid old cunt, he’s in jail too long’, I would comment to Bamber Nash, my cell mate for much of 1980. The thing was, however, that Pat was barely nine months older than me, had been in jail a mere four months longer than I had, and was a much wiser person. But such was the idealist passion and conceited arrogance of youth that none of this seemed relevant at the time.

Later, when the protest was over and access to a wide range of political literature was no longer restricted, Marxist material abounded. If Guevara figured prominently in our homespun education situation I don’t recall it. Plenty of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Fanon, Freire, Connolly, Fromm, even Marcuse and a smattering of Habermas but surprisingly little of Che. Revolutionary education systems were borrowed from Mozambique but not Cuba although the latter figured more prominently as something to be emulated. More perhaps out of revolutionary chic than knowledge.

This was the personal backcloth to a visit I paid to the Culturlann yesterday evening to attend a Marxist Forum organised by the Socialist Workers Party. The purpose of the forum is to stimulate interest in a critique of capitalism and yesterday’s topic was on Che Guevara, dextrously managed by Brian Kelly.

Initially, it seemed that the event would flop; there seemed to be about six of us there and the empty chairs were embarrassing. But quite suddenly row after row filled as people, many of them youth, took their places. Brian was spared the blushes that invariably go with delivering a lecture that no one shows any interest in.

The first point raised by Brian in his address was the manner in which Che imagery had drifted back into public focus. He explained that there were two aspects to this. The first is the attempt by those Che despised - the capitalists - to present the revolutionary as somehow symbolic of an aggressive market capitalism. Che jeans were now on the scene. Also there had been an attempt by a British vodka company to use a famous photograph of the late guerrilla to help sell their product. More positively, young people who are coming to embrace the anti-capitalist struggle are finding inspiration through Che. Unlike the Stalinist dictators such as the venal Honecker and Ceausescu who have blighted the image of socialism throughout its history, Che’s appeal has a force grounded in a seemingly incorruptible image.

Brian Kelly continued his lecture by providing his listeners with some detail about Che’s background. Born in Argentina to high society parents, he had little initial interest in politics. Up until the age of 25 he showed little other than a cursory identification with the poor of his native Argentina. Even though his tour of Bolivia coincided with a serious uprising in the impoverished country there was no mention of it in his diary. What really drove Che to revolutionary politics was that his medical training had endowed him with a certain awareness about the appalling lack of health care for the bulk of the South American populace. On his travels he also came to identify with indigenous peoples whom in regions like Guatemala were held down by a brutal and oligarchic plutocracy. When, in 1954, the left leaning Arbenz government tried to expropriate some land held by the United Fruit Company and make it available to the poorer sections of society the American government organised a coup from its embassy in Guatemala. This for Guevara was a major turning point.

Brian Kelly went on to outline the success of the Cuban revolution in overthrowing the corrupt regime of Batista but contrasted this with the fiascos led by Che in both the Congo and Bolivia, the latter which resulted in his death. So convinced that his foco theory could be applied anywhere, Che Guevara never even made the leadership of the Bolivian national strike aware of his presence in the country.

Overall, there were two conclusions that Brian Kelly wished to draw from the life and experience of Guevara. Firstly, the ideological and moral hostility that he displayed towards capitalism was something that people today need to take forward with them in the struggle against globalisation and the rule of capital. Second, was the need to organise mass resistance rather than isolated acts of guerrilla warfare.

Some lively discussion followed the lecture. Douglas Hamilton, who recently spent some time in Cuba and who is a strong advocate of the manner in which the nation conducts its affairs, made a number of interesting observations, some of which challenged Brian Kelly’s depiction of the revolution as largely divorced from the masses and which succeeded largely as a result of the Batista regime being little other than a rotten door waiting to be kicked in. One woman asked if the Marxist Forums would remain simply as discussion groups or would they seek to take on an organisational format which would help resist moves by Stormont to introduce PPP and PFI. A member of the Socialist Party called for the gains of the Cuban revolution to be staunchly defended but argued that Cuba could not survive without the development of socialism throughout the region. It was, he warned too precariously perched in a region totally dominated by imperialism.

If there was a drawback to the evening it was that no questions were raised about the human rights abuses that the Cuban regime have perpetrated and which have been documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. For those of us who feel that Cuba must be protected from a carnivorous capitalism waiting to feast on the intestines of the country while children starve, and who firmly believe it must be prevented from sliding into the economic morass that characterises those countries the US favours in the region, it is imperative that human rights issues are not put on the long finger.

Nevertheless, Brian Kelly caught the imagination of his audience with the lecture. Lucidly and concisely, he conveyed both the passion and moral temperament of Che vis a vis the cynicism and ruthless indifference of those he struggled to overthrow.

On leaving the meeting myself and Davy Carlin were followed and verbally abused by the Pig Service of Northern Ireland. Davy advised me to keep close to street lighting rather than go up the more poorly lit Giant’s Foot. With policing attitudes pretty much the same as before I wondered what Che would have thought of the Good Friday Agreement. Could we really be like him and support it?





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Our task must be to free widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
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Index: Current Articles

5 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Why Doesn't Britain Leave
Sandy Boyer


Che Guevara

Anthony McIntyre


Perfecting the Violence of Curfew
Sam Bahour


Understanding Culture
Billy Mitchell


Brian Mór


Brian Mór


Brian Mór


2 September 2002


I See Dead People

Anthony McIntyre


Faith & Politics
Billy Mitchell


Rose Tinted Culture
Sean Smyth




The Blanket




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