Che Guevara – the ideas behind the icon


“Che’s understanding of the role of imperialism was central to his political practice. His views were unequivocally confirmed by the actions of the US both during and after the Cuban Revolution’s overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.”

By Bernard Regan

The name of Che Guevara is known across the world.  His image is ever-present in publications of the left, on posters and on T-shirts.  Revered by many for his selfless commitment to fighting imperialism, he remains internationally a symbol for all those who believe a better world is possible.

Born on 14th June 1928, Che’s political outlook was rooted in his personal experience gleaned from two extensive trips across the Latin American continent in 1952 and 1953, witnessing the desperate poverty and exploitation of peasants, workers and indigenous peoples.

It stemmed from his witnessing the overthrow of the democratically elected President Arbenz in Guatemala following the lobbying of the United States government by the United Fruit Company.  Assuming the Presidency in 1951 having won the election with more than 60% of the vote, Arbenz, described by the United Fruit company as a “communist”, embarked on a programme of land reform and redistribution. This was too much for the US-owned United Fruit Company, the largest landowner and employer in Guatemala. They were not prepared to let go of their right to exploit Guatemala and its people.

Che learnt an important lesson about the economic interests of companies like the United Fruit Company, backed by the United States Administration which would seek to impose US wishes over any people seeking to gain control over their own economy.  Travelling through Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia, he saw first-hand the consequences of imperialism’s policies and what they inflicted on the peoples of the continent. 

The foreign policies of the United States Administration were, and remain today, firmly rooted in the Monroe Doctrine, adopted by the United States of America in 1823. The doctrine was re-endorsed at the United National General Assembly as recently as 2017 by US President Donald Trump and has in fact been sustained by President Biden. 

The doctrine, while allegedly giving support to countries of the Western Hemisphere breaking from Europe colonialism, in reality claimed that they were now the subjects of the United States Administration. In the post-Second World War era, the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, any manifestation of what Washington considered socialist or communist politics which could lead to independently-minded governments was considered anathema. 

The Central Intelligence Agency, established in 1947, was given a secret directive which authorised it to carry out an array of covert operations including “propaganda, economic warfare, preventive direct action, sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas, and refugee liberation groups.”

Between 1948 and 2019 the United States was involved in backing right wing coups in 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries on at least 17 different occasions. The United States has been involved in trying to determine who shall run countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, not to mention Europe of course.

Che’s understanding of the role of imperialism was central to his political practice.  His views were unequivocally confirmed by the actions of the United States both during and after the Cuban Revolution’s overthrow of the US’s dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

During Batista’s era Cuba had become, quite literally, a playground for the Mafia running brothels and casinos that lined the pockets of gangsters.  Happy that Batista was ‘their man’, US Presidents were content to support the dictator.  They quickly came to learn however that the Cuban Revolution was the end of all that.

An independent state, which carried out a redistribution of the land and took into public ownership oil refineries which refused to process oil from Russia after the US had imposed its blockade, definitely did not conform to the terms of their Monroe Doctrine.  Cuba was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to break US hegemony and plant the flag of socialist transformation in the western hemisphere.

The task of conducting a socialist revolution could not be successful through a coup. Despite attempts, both on the right and some sections of the left, to portray Che exclusively as the archetypal guerrilla leader, his contribution to the development of socialism in Cuba and his analytical approach to problems demonstrate that this image and characterisation are not only inadequate but are indeed erroneous.  He was an avid reader and penetrating thinker in a variety of fields. 

In Cuba he was for a time in charge of the Industrial Department of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform. He became the Head of the National Bank of Cuba. He did not see these tasks as technocratic assignments separate from the process of the Revolution. He remained profoundly engaged at all levels – talking with workers and peasants, addressing the United Nations, unequivocally denouncing imperialism, meeting revolutionary figures in Africa and across the world.

Throughout Che’s writings and speeches he emphasised the need to involve the mass of the people. He spelt out the premise of his approach to the Cuban Revolution on many occasions. On Cuban television on 18th June 1960 he explained that, “a Revolution like ours, a popular revolution made by the people and for the people, cannot advance unless each conquest and each step is taken by the whole mass of the people.”

Again and again he used the expression “the mass of the people”. He analysed the nature of the country explaining that there were differences between and within different social groups.  The “masses” was not some undifferentiated concept. He fully appreciated and addressed the issues of concern to workers and to peasant farmers and analysed the challenges that the Revolution faced.

Even in his approach to the necessary armed struggle mounted to challenge the brutality of the Batista regime, he emphasised that “guerrilla warfare is a people’s warfare; an attempt to carry out this type of war without the population’s support is a prelude to inevitable disaster.” When Che won one of the most important battles of the Revolution at Santa Clara, the workers of the factory in Havana kept him informed about the armed train they were being asked to build. It was because of this coordination between the workers and the guerrilla units that they were able to time the Rebel Army’s ambush on Batista’s supply lines and inflict perhaps their most decisive defeat on the Batista armed forces.

It is impossible to do justice to the range and scope of Che’s contribution to the development of socialism in Cuba, anti-imperialism and internationalism in a short article. One has to read his works to gain a deeper appreciation of the breadth and profundity of his contribution. Now his contribution to an understanding of the challenges of imperialism across the globe are there for all to see. 

The CIA and their United States controllers wanted to see their enemy killed. They killed the man but his legacy is there for all to learn from.  An internationalist committed to the fight against imperialism and for the right of nations to determine their own futures, he said: “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Che Guevara – the ideas behind the Icon. 7PM Monday, October 10th.
Featured image: Neighbourhood in Old Havana with hand painted mural showing the Cuban flag and Che Guevara. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Public domain image enhanced by

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