spirit of Che Guevara, the charismatic revolutionary leader who is still a hero and an inspiration to many Latin Americans, is gaining strength.
In fact, he titled the diary "Che Guevara Smacks Bush!," and a portrait of Che is displayed prominently above the fold.
Unfortunately, Chris has his facts wrong, and the trend his evidence describes is much more diverse than he allows. While it is true there are still Guevarist elements in Latin America, most of them are relegated to the radical fringe in their respective countries. A close look at the political development of Chile is instructive. What happened there in Sunday's election has almost nothing to do with the "spirit of Che Guevara," whatever that might mean.
and most of us probably know that he was Argentine, that he played a prominent leadership role in the Cuban Revolution, and that had iconic status in radical movements the world over in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Some might even know that Che attempted to export Cuban-style revolution to Latin America and Africa, and personally participated in guerrilla movements in Congo and Bolivia.
For now, I'm more interested in his political philosophy, in what might be his "spirit" gaining strength in Latin America. I think for that, we have to look at some key elements of what Che stood for: revolution, Marxism, spontaneity.
Che's was an unorthodox revolutionary Marxism. Although he believed in vanguard parties should lead the revolutionary process, he was less interested in learning and applying the rigorous methodology of dialectical materialism as it had been develooped in the Soviet Union and by the Third International. Revolutions were driven, he thought, by the revolutionary cadre, and the revolutionary process itself stripped people of the bad habits and corrupt consciousness that had characterized the old order. The result of the revolution was a purified "New Man," capable of generous, self-less acts and ready to cooperate in a mutual endeavor to transform society.
Che seems to have believed that it was possible to pass directly from underveloped capitalism straight to advanced communism, passing through a very brief dictatorial stage. As Finance Minister in Cuba in the early 1960s, he eliminated money, in the belief that removing this vestige of capitalism would free people to find their mutual interests.
Clearly a Marxist, Che also shows some Nietzchean elements and there is a strong anarchist, utopian streak in his thought. Through force of will alone, through the correct application of revolutionary violence, he believes, the enlightened revolutionary cadre can bring down the old regime and initiate the communist transformation.
Guevarism swept the world in the 1960s. Not only was his image displayed on t-shirts in just about every continent, young, would-be revolutionaries everywhere voraciously consumed his books. The slogan "two, three, many Vietnams" (from Che's 1967 address to the Tricontinental Congress) became the catchphrase of world revolutionists across the globe.
The "spirit of Che" was clearly present in Chile's Popular Unity, the 1970 political coalition that brought avowed Marxist Salvador Allende to the presidency. While Allende himself was in essence a moderate leftist politician who sought improved living and working conditions for the working class, the left-wing of his coalition was inspired by the Guevarist example.
The center and the left of the Popular Unity coalition split over how rapid a transition to socialism they should implement. The left believed Chile could move rapidly to a full socialist state, and even beyond to a communist society. They argued for immediate nationalizations of the factories, the creation of democratic institutions of popular power, and the distribution of arms to workers' councils.
After Allende was overthrown in 1973, most of Popular Unity's political leadership wound up in exile, many of them in Europe. Carlos Altamirano, who as Secretary General of the Socialist Party was probably the most prominent figure to espouse a Guevarist politics, along with many others went to East Germany. He found he didn't like existing socialism, however, and made his way to Western Europe. There, in the late 1970s, he converted to Eurocommunism, the perestroika revisionism adopted by the Italian Communist Party in the mid 1970s. In 1977 he publicly renounced almost all of his previous political positions in the book Dialectica de una derrota (Dialectic of a Defeat). (A detailed analysis of the "renovation" of the Chilean Socialist Party can be found here.)
Altamirano started a centrist faction within the Socialist Party, which moved back to Chile and allied with the anti-communist Christian Democratic Party. When Chile's Communists and others created an armed movement in the early 80s to overthrow the Pinochet dictatorship by armed force, Altamirano's Socialists entered into negotiations with the dictator, and ultimately agreed to accept the constitution he had imposed on the country in 1980.
In 1988, the military regime sponsored a plebiscite as mandated by that constitution on whether Pinochet should continue another eight years as president. The armed left rejected the plebiscite as a legitimation of dictatorial rule, but Altamirano's Socialists and their Christian Democratic allies agreed to participate in it.
The centrist opposition won the 1988 plebiscite, and their Christian Democratic candidate won the presidential elections held the following year. In 1993, a second Christian Democrat was elected -- again with Altamirano Socialist support. In 2000 the Socialist Ricardo Lagos, heading the Altamiranist Socialist Party, won the presidency with Christian Democratic support. The Lagos administration has consistently shown a firm commitment not just to capitalist economics, but to free trade. To the best of my knowledge, Chile has not yet been invited to join MERCOSUR, the South American trade bloc that has resisted Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), because Chile's existing tariffs are lower than those imposed by MERCOSUR. At the same time, however, Chile under Lagos has signed and implemented free trade agreements with the United States, the EU, China, and India. In South America, Chile is the strongest supporter of the FTAA.
Michelle Bachelet, who won the first round of Chile's presidential elections on Sunday with about 46% of the vote, has vowed to continue Lagos's economic policy. Her victory in January, however, is not assured, as the two right-wing candidates together took almost 49% of the vote.
If there is still a Guevarist influence in Chile, it is to be found within the Communist Party and the veterans of the 1980s armed movement. At their rallies and in their newspapers it is not uncommon to see Che's image and to read his texts. In fact, here's the cover of the current issue of Punto Final, the house organ of the Chilean Communist party:
The only problem is, the Communists didn't vote for Bachelet on Sunday. They had their own candidate, the Green/Humanist Party's Tomas Hirsch, who got a little over five percent of the vote. The Communists may vote for Bachelet in January, but given the animosity between Communists and Socialists, and especially between Communists and Christian Democrats, it's entirely possible that they won't.
To sum up, Bachelet if anything is anti-Guevarist. She leads a political party that had been Guevarist in the past, but has explicitly and publicly renounced Guevarism as an error that led more or less directly to the establishment of the Pinochet dictatorship. They are friendly to free trade, to anti-Communists, and to the United States. Sunday's election in no way, shape, or form represents any kind of "anti-imperialist" victory.