On 18 October 1967, 10 days after Che Guevara’s death, the details of the revolutionary hero’s last moments finally emerged. Before a nation in mourning, Fidel Castro gave this speech. In this emotive text brought to you by Pambazuka News, ‘El Lider Máximo’ revisits the journey of his comrade-in-arms, revealing Che’s human side, his military prowess, his philosophy and his great revolutionary pedigree.
It was a day in July or August of 1955 when we first met El Che. On that night, as he himself recounts, he became part of the future Granma expedition. Although up to this point, the expedition had neither ships, weapons, nor troops. This is how El Che, together with Raul, became one of the first two names on the Granma list.
Twelve years have since gone by: Twelve years full of war and history, during which the cruel hand of death has taken many valuable and irreplaceable lives. But during this time, we have also seen the rise of extraordinary people in this our revolution. During this period, we have seen bonds of affection and friendship form between these men of the revolution and the ordinary people that defy description.
So tonight we come together, you and I, to attempt to put into words the feelings we hold towards this man, one of the best known, most loved and admired, and undoubtedly the most extraordinary of revolutionary comrades. To convey to him and to those who fought and fell beside him, and wrote and glorious and indelible page in the annals of history.
Che was the kind of man who drew the affection of others, by virtue of his simplicity, his character, his nature, his personality and authenticity, not to mention his other extraordinary qualities.
At the offset, he was just our troop doctor. However, little by little, bonds and shared feelings began to develop. He appeared to us to be consumed by a burning hatred for imperialism. Not only had his political consciousness grown significantly at this point, but he had also witnessed first-hand the case of Guatemala, where foreign imperialist mercenaries had destroyed the revolution. For him there was no need for convoluted arguments. He knew that Cuba was in the exact same situation. He knew that there were men willing to fight this situation, that these men were inspired by patriotism and a fierce revolutionary spirit. This was enough for him.
Thus, he embarked with us on the journey to Cuba towards the end of November 1956. I recall that the journey was particularly arduous for him; the circumstances of our departure had not allowed him to take along the medications he depended on. He endured the voyage in the grip of a terrible attack of asthma, with neither respite nor a word of complaint.
We landed and began our first advance on foot. We suffered our first defeat and retreat, only to regroup – as you are well aware – as the small remaining band of the Granma expedition. El Che was our doctor.
Then came our first victory, and El Che became a soldier, all the while continuing in his role as troop doctor. By our second victory, Che was not just a soldier, but also one of the most courageous, displaying for the first time the remarkable individual prowess that would henceforth define him.
Our force continued to grow and soon we were faced with a decisive and crucial battle in our campaign. It was a difficult one. We had unreliable intelligence, and had to attack a well-defended position on the coast, in broad daylight, with our rearguard under constant attack. At this tenuous point, a Herculean effort was required: Comrade Juan Almeida in the fore was faced with an impossible task. One of our flanks was completely exposed and neutralised and risked compromising the entire operation. Suddenly, there was El Che, still just a doctor, assembling three or four men, only one of whom was armed with a carbine, and launching a support attack from that flank.
On that occasion, he both fought and treated the injured with equal valour. He attended to wounded comrades, as well as to the enemy combatants, where necessary. And when we were forced to retreat, leaving behind all our arms, we embarked on a long march, harassed by different enemy forces. At this point we had to leave someone behind to care for the injured. Che stayed behind, with a small group of soldiers, treated the injured and saved their lives before they all later rejoined the column.
Next came the battle of Uverro, which was much the same. There was another occasion, also in the earlier days, that has never been discussed. Our little troop was betrayed and came under heavy aerial attack. We were retreating from the bombs, when I remembered that some weapons had remained in the hands of a few peasant fighters who had earlier fought alongside us and subsequently asked to rejoin their families. There wasn’t, at that point, sufficient discipline within our ranks. And in that moment I believed that those weapons were gone for good. I had hardly verbalised the dilemma when Che offered to go and recover the weapons. While bombs rained down on us, Che sped off on his mission.
This was one of Che’s enduring qualities; an immediate willingness to undertake the most dangerous of missions. This no doubt gained him admiration, and in double measure, since he was a man who fought alongside us and yet he was a foreigner. He was a profound man, whose spirit overflowed with dreams of battles all over the continent. He was a man who consistently showed a spirit of altruism and abandon: Always ready to take on the most difficult task and risk his life.
He earned the rank of commander and leader of the second column that was based in Sierra Maestra. Here he grew in stature and earned a reputation as a brilliant soldier in a war that would take him to even greater heights.
Che was a peerless soldier and peerless leader. From a military point of view, he was extraordinarily capable, courageous, and aggressive. His only weakness as a soldier was his excessive taste for attack and obliviousness to danger.
Our enemies can draw whatever conclusions regarding his demise, but Che was a lord of war! A master guerrilla! And he had limitless faith. He showed this on two specific occasions: The first was when he traversed an entire island at the head of his column, not knowing where he was going and achieving, Like Camilo Cienfuegos, a remarkable military feat. Again during the incredible campaign in the province of Las Villas, he mounted an audacious attack, and infiltrated a town defended by heavy artillery, tanks and several thousand infantry… with barely three hundred men. These two campaigns cemented his status as a unique leader, an exponent of revolutionary war craft.
There are those who, in his heroic and glorious death, try to debunk the truth and validity of his ideas on guerrilla warfare. A true exponent can die in his craft, especially one as dangerous as revolutionary war. But what will never die is the craft to which he dedicated his life and mind. What is so strange about an artist dying in his work? To tell the truth, it is surprising that he did not die earlier, on the numerous occasions when he risked his life for our revolution. And how many times did we prevent him from risking his life on minor skirmishes?
And so it happens, that in one of the many battles he waged, he lost his life. We do not know enough to understand the circumstances of this last battle, to judge whether he acted with excessive courage. But yes, we reassert that as a guerrilla, his Achilles heel was precisely his excessive audacity and disregard for danger. It is on this score that I differed with him, because for me, his life, his experience, his leadership qualities, his prestige, and all that he embodied alive, were worth much more than he considered himself.
What shaped his character most profoundly however, was the idea that men possess a value that is relative to history, the idea that causes are not defeated when those who champion them fall, that the inexorable march of victory continues, and will not stop because the leaders die. This is a fact: Who can dispute it? This is evidenced by his faith in people, in ideas, in leading by example. More so, as I said a few days ago, how we wish it was him who was victorious, to see him lead the victorious march, under his command. There are too few men with his experience, his vision and unique capabilities. All the same, we know how to appreciate his example and we cherish absolute conviction that his example will be followed and will inspire similar men to lead the people.
It is not easy to find as many qualities in one person as Che possessed. It is not easy for one to develop into a man such as him. I must say he was a difficult man to measure up to, and impossible to surpass. But I will say that men like him have an ability to inspire similar qualities in others.
In Che we admire not only the accomplished fighter. We admire the fact that he was able to, with just a handful of men, fight against an entire oligarchic army under the control of Yankee imperialism and supported by neighbouring oligarchies.
Searching the pages of history, one would probably not encounter another example of one who stood with so few against such mighty forces. This demonstrates Che’s self-belief, belief in others and their ability to fight for what’s right. Our enemies believe they debunked his general concept of the guerrilla, by having defeated his ideas on revolutionary armed struggle. All they succeeded in doing, with a stroke of luck, was to end his life. We do not know to what extent even this stroke of luck was aided by Che’s excessive enthusiasm that I have spoken of, and was evident even during our own liberation struggle!
In the battle of Dos Rios, the apostle of our liberation Jose Marti was killed. In the battle of Punta Brava, Antonio Macco, veteran of a hundred battles, was felled. In this nature of struggle, many patriots die, but this has never signalled an end to the Cuban cause. The death of Che, as I have said, is a hard blow, a terrible blow for the revolutionary movement. Through his death we have lost our most experienced and capable leader. But those who believe that we have lost his tactical genius, his ideas on guerrilla warfare, are wrong. The fallen mortal, who was always at the mercy of bullets, was a soldier, a leader a thousand times more capable and worthy than those who, by a stroke of luck, killed him.
How then shall the revolutionaries face this blow? How do they face this loss? What would Che say if he could speak about this loss? Speaking at the Latino-American Solidarity conference, he said, ‘If somewhere in the world death comes unexpectedly upon me, I shall welcome her, as long as my war cry is heard by another ear, and another hand takes up a weapon.’ The war cry will not be heard by one ear, but by a million willing ones. And it is not one, but a million hands inspired by his example that will reach out and take up arms! New leaders will emerge. Eager men with attentive ears and ready hands will need leaders. Those leaders will emerge from among the people like they have done in all revolutions. Admittedly, they will never see as gifted and experienced a leader as Che. Nonetheless, these new leaders will be formed and hardened in battle and emerged from amongst the millions of keen ears and willing hands that will reach out to take up arms.
We do not seek to imply that Che’s death will have an immediate effect on the revolutionary struggle. Not even Che envisioned an immediate victory from his battles against oligarchies and imperialism. His revolutionary spirit was prepared for a long struggle – five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, if necessary. It is within this perspective that we must understand the invincible force of his legacy.
Those who rejoice in Che’s death seek in vain to deny his successes and leadership qualities. Che was an extraordinary military leader. But as we remember Che, when I think of Che, it is not essentially of his military qualities. No. War is a means and not an end. War is an instrument in the hands of the revolutionary. Revolution is the goal. It is in the realm of ideas, feelings and virtues, and acute vision that the loss of Che hits us hardest.
Che embodied a rare range of virtues within him. He was a man of absolute integrity, of unfailing loyalty, of total sincerity, a stoic and Spartan man, a man of blameless conduct. When a man dies, there is a tendency to give speeches extolling his qualities. Rarely, however, can we extol them as truthfully as we do here with Che. He was a true example of revolutionary virtue. But he had another quality, besides his intelligence, willingness, experience – his heart. He was extraordinarily human and sensitive. For this reason, I reflect on his life and conclude that Che was indeed a rare man. He brought together the revolutionary virtues, sensitivity, and iron character, a will of steel and incredible tenacity.
To future generations he bequeaths a heritage of experience both on the battlefield and in the intellectual domain. He wrote with classic virtuosity, and his accounts of battle know no equal. His intellectual depth was impressive. He wrote with gravitas, and I have no doubt that some of his writings will live on as classics in revolutionary thought. His vigorous mind leaves us with a multitude of mementos, accounts of events that would otherwise have been forgotten.
As a tireless worker for the fatherland, he never took a day off. He took on numerous responsibilities: Head of the central bank, head of the planning commission, minister for industry, head of the military divisions, leader of political, economic and social delegations. His versatile mind allowed him to tackle any task. He ably represented the country at numerous international conferences, in the same evocative way he spoke to his troops under enemy fire. It was with the same assiduous approach that he served as a model worker at the head of every organisation where he was deployed. For him, there were no days off, no moments of respite: Passing by his office, I would see lights burning late into the night. He was always working or studying, or both. He was a tireless reader of everything.
His thirst for learning about the human condition was insatiable. He sacrificed sleep to study, and on statutory holidays he threw himself into voluntary work. He was the inspiration for, and the leading example of volunteerism, which is today shared by thousands across the country and continues to grow.
As a true revolutionary communist, he had an infinite faith in moral values and conscience. For sure, he believed that moral resources are the leaven of communism in human society.
He thought, debated and wrote prodigiously. On a day such as this we must acknowledge one fact: The writings of Che will have a perpetual place in the history of the Cuban revolution and of Latin American. The value of his ideals as a man of action, as a thinker, as a moral beacon, as a man of spotless moral virtue and conduct has universal value.
The imperialists sing songs of triumph over the death of Che the guerrilla; the imperialists celebrate the stroke of luck that handed them this redoubtable soldier. Perhaps they forget – or pretend to forget – that the soldier was only one facet of this great man. And when we speak of the pain of loss, this pain is for the loss of not only a soldier but a man of virtue and exquisite humanity. Our pain is of a lost intellect, and this is our greatest loss. It hurts us that he was only 39 when he died, and yet there was so much more that we would have reaped from him.
I know well the extent of the loss to the revolution, but this is also the weakness of the imperialist enemy; they believe that by eliminating the man they have also killed his ideas, virtues and his example. And they believe it so firmly that they shout it out loud, as if it was the most natural thing to kill him after wounding him in battle. They see nothing repugnant in their actions and admit it openly. As if it was their right as oligarchs and mercenaries to kill a captured enemy combatant. Worse yet, they explain why they did it – that bringing Che to trial would have caused undue attention, and that it would have been impossible the contain the presence of such a revolutionary in court. And worst of all, they hid his remains.
Whether or not it is true, they announced the incineration of his remains, showing their fear, their lack of conviction that by killing the man they killed his ideas as well.
Che perished championing the cause of the oppressed and exploited of the continent: Che died for the humble of the earth. The commitment with which he waged this battle is beyond the question, even for the most callous of his enemies.
Those who follow and live by his example, and fight for the downtrodden arise each day among the people. The enemy has realised this: It will not be long before they realise that Che’s death was a seed from which many of his kind shall sprout. I am convinced that the revolutionary cause on the continent will sprout from his death: That the revolutionary cause in Latin America will survive this blow.
From a revolutionary perspective, from our perspective, how can we learn from Che’s example? Maybe we believe we have lost him? It is true that we shall no more read new fruits of his pen, neither shall we hear his voice. But Che left the world a heritage, a rich heritage, and as the children of this country, we are the most privileged heirs. He left us his revolutionary ideals, his character, his will, his tenacity and his love of work. In one word, he left us his example. Che’s example must serve as an ideal for our people!
What should our revolutionary soldiers, our men conform to? No question, they should be like Che! What should the men of our future generations conform to? Like Che! How should our sons be educated? They must be educated in the spirit of Che! If we seek the model of the future man in every sense, this model must be Che! And with all our revolutionary vigour we wish that our children become like Che!
Che has become the ideal man, not just for our people but also for the whole of Latin America. Che exemplified revolutionary stoicism, sacrifice, tenacity and work ethic in the purest form. He practised Marxist-Leninism in its freshest, purest and most revolutionary form. Nobody has, to this point championed the internationalist cause of the proletariat better. This, above all else, is the example of Che!
In his heart and mind, Che had no veils, no prejudices no egotism or chauvinism: He was ready to shed blood for all peoples. He shed blood on Cuban soil when he was wounded in combat, fighting for the freedom of the exploited and oppressed. He shed blood in Bolivia for the downtrodden. He shed blood for all the people of America. He shed blood in solidarity with the Vietnamese by combating the oligarchies of Bolivia. It is for this reason, Comrades, that we must look to the future with resolve, decisiveness and optimism. We will always look to Che’s example for inspiration in battle, in tenacity and resolve in the face of the enemy, and inspiration in the spirit of internationalism.
Tonight, through this massive display of recognition, incredible in size, in discipline, and in devotion, we show our people’s ability to honour our fallen comrades, we honour those who have served us, we show our solidarity with the revolutionary struggle. We show that we will forever hold aloft the banner and the principles of the revolution. Today, in this memorable moment, we lift our spirits to Che with absolute optimism in the definitive victory of the people. We say to him and all those who have fallen by his side, ‘Until victory, always!’
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Fidel Castro Ruiz was the leader of the Cuban Revolution. This speech was his first official homage to Che Guevara, at the official announcement of his death. This text is an extract from ‘Eulogy for Che Guevara by Fidel Castro’ (Eric Losfeld, 1968).
* Translated from French by Josh Ogada.
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