‘This is a story of failure.’ These words have become almost a cliché in describing the adventures and misadventures of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the 130 Cuban guerrillas who, from April to November 1965, trained and fought alongside the leftist rebels in the Congo. Before the publication of his ‘Reminiscences from the Revolutionary War’, thirty years after the event, Che’s role in the Congo had been all but lost in the ‘gap’ between his public disappearance in March 1965 to the photo-evidence of his execution in Bolivia in October 1967.
A devoted internationalist, Che had always both supported and participated in struggles abroad. Following his now famous speech to the United Nations in December 1964, Che embarked on a tour of Africa. It is reasonable to assume that this tour inspired the Argentine guerrilla to fight once again. Resigning his ministerial post and Cuban citizenship in a letter to Fidel Castro, he declared that, with his duty to the Cuban revolution fulfilled, ‘other nations of the world call formy modest efforts.’ His disappearance was quickly picked up on and many a rumour spread speculating on his fate, with one theory claiming that Castro had ‘got rid of’ a potential rival.
In April 1965 Guevara travelled secretly to Tanzania in a disguise not even his closet friends could recognize him in. Crossing the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and adopting thenom de guerre ‘Tatu’ (number ‘three’ in Swahili), Che soon realized that the Congolese rebels whom theCubans were to aid were apathetic, ill-disciplined, and prone to tribal infighting. The ‘magic’known as Dawa, a ritual which supposedly made the recipient immune to enemy fire, was aparticular restraint on relations between the Congolese and the Cubans. Military failures anddiplomatic negotiations at inter-African state level soon made the Cubans’ presence untenable, andso in November 1965, Che withdrew to the Cuban embassy in Tanzania, defeated and depressed,where he began to write his highly self-critical ‘Reminiscences’.
The Congo chapter of Che’s eventful and controversial life was indeed a failure. Years later,Guevara’s comrade-in-arms VíctorDreke would comment that ‘we Cubans upset the balance ofarmed peace achieved by the Congolese.’ Yet that seems unlikely, as the DRC government wasemploying white mercenaries from South Africa and Rhodesia, including the infamous Major ‘MadMike’ Hoare. Despite the continued misery in that troubled corner of the world, perhaps a certain romance could be said to linger in the internationalist aspirations of the man who said ‘the truerevolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.’