An Interview With Ricardo Napuri
This article first appeared in the July 1997 edition of Herramienta, published in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It has been translated into English by Alejandra Rios and Philip Marchant. Ricardo Napurí is a Peruvian, and has been involved in politics and revolutionary activities for 50 years. He was deported to Argentina when, as a pilot in the armed forces, he refused to bomb militants from the left wing of APRA during the 1948 Peruvian Revolution. In Argentina, he joined the group called Praxis, led by Silvio Frondizi. During the early years of the Cuban Revolution, he collaborated with Che in initial projects to ‘extend’ the revolution. He played a very important rôle in the foundation of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR — Movement of the Revolutionary Left) and of Vanguardia Obrera (Workers Vanguard) in Peru. He was an instigator and co-founder of the CGTP, the Peruvian trade union confederation, in 1968 and later of the Frente Obrero Campesino Estudiantil y Popular (FOCEP — Workers, Peasants and Students Front) that obtained 21 per cent of the votes for the Constituent Assembly in 1978. He was also an MP and a member of the Senate in Peru. In 1973, he joined the ranks of the Trotskyist movement, and is today a leading member of the Argentine Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism). He was deported six times, sent to prison eight times, and spent 15 years in exile. He is the author of two essays: ‘La realidad peruana’ and ‘El APRA, balance y liquidación’.
ON 8 October, it will be 30 years since the death of Ernesto Guevara. Throughout the world dozens of new biographies have been launched, and old ones have been republished. This shows that there is a remarkable interest in Che’s life and work. The theatre and the cinema have also participated in this revival, and many conferences and seminars have been organised as well. The image of Che, which has largely been confined to posters and T-shirts, is that of someone who is highly respected because he remained true to his principles until his death. However, Che has been considered a utopian, a romantic who believed in his ideals, and whose early death prevented him from witnessing their failure. There is a clear necessity, especially for the new generations, to know about the life and thought of Che in the light of the events of the last decade, in which there have been moments of great crisis and unexpected historic changes. We are under an obligation. There is no profound study of Che’s writings, neither is there an objective evaluation of his political development that would enable us to understand his place in the revolutionary theory and practice of the second half of the twentieth century. Therefore, it is essential to analyse the experiences of those who knew Che and fought alongside him. Amongst them there is a person whose experiences are not widely known; this is the case of the Peruvian Ricardo Napurí, who was privileged to witness Che’s early years in Havana. Napurí also collaborated with Che in his efforts to spread the revolution to the rest of the continent. In publishing the following interview, conducted by José Bermúdez and Luis Castelli, we want to share with our readers at least part of this important testimony.
In January 1959, a few days after the fall of the Batista government, you went to Cuba and met Che. What was the reason that led you to take this decision?
RN: In Argentina, a Committee for the Support of the Combatants of the 26 July Movement was set up in 1956, immediately after the boat Granma arrived at the island. At that time, I was a journalist for a local newspaper, La Razón, and I was also the general secretary of the shop stewards’ organisation and on the executive of the journalists’ union. Since 1949, I had been part of the group called Praxis, which was led by Silvio Frondizi,1 and in spite of the fact that, like almost all the left, he was hostile towards the ‘bearded ones’, I collaborated with the committee in opposition to Praxis. My reasoning was simple, intuitive: the combatants from Granma called for an armed struggle against Batista — a dictator and murderer of his people — and even though they were allied with bourgeois forces, their rôle was progressive.
How did Praxis and other left groups explain their hostility towards the combatants of Granma?
RN: Praxis and an important part of the left equated Batista and Fidel, and they said that both were ‘agents of imperialism’. In Praxis, for example, it was said that Fidel was the agent of the ‘democratic wing of imperialism’, and that two kinds of agent were fighting each other. They didn’t make any distinction between them. I joined the Committee of Support almost by instinct, thinking that ‘even if Fidel is an agent of the bourgeoisie, he is more progressive, more democratic than Batista the assassin’. This was the difference I had with Praxis, and so I went to Cuba.
You saw Che almost immediately...
RN: I arrived in Havana on 8 January 1959 on a plane that someone from the revolutionary Castroite leadership had sent to repatriate Cuban exiles living in Argentina. Some ‘friends’ of the committee and some journalists, myself amongst them, took this plane. Along with Che’s mother and his two sisters, I was able to see Che almost immediately. My first impression was of a young and polite man, warm, simple and shy. He was wearing combat clothes, his trousers and shoes stained with mud, and he was wearing a revolver on his belt. I told him who I was and that I wanted to help the revolution. When he learned of my political activity in Praxis, he asked me about the political differences between the brothers Silvio and Arturo Frondizi.2 He said that his lack of information was due to the fact that during his time at university in Argentina, he had not held political views, nor engaged in political activities.3
During these early days of January 1959, there were differences amongst the combatants coming from the ‘sierras’ and those from the ‘plains’, that is from the cities...
RN: This was the discussion taking place when I arrived in Cuba. I told Che that I had heard comments about the differences between those from the ‘sierras’ and those from the ‘plains’, concerning the rôle played by each of them during the war. He favoured the people from the sierras, and he offered to help me see the island and to put me in touch with people to interview, if I was interested in doing that. The combatants from the city — the ‘plains’ — used to say: ‘We fight harder than those from the sierra, and we don’t have titles like Commandant.’ According to them, between 70 and 80 per cent of the Batista army was needed in the cities thanks to their active resistance. The conflict was such that Fidel threatened to shoot the combatants from the Revolutionary Directory,4 who had taken over the university. Later, some of these people fused with the 26 July Movement.
You went to Cuba to offer your collaboration with the revolution. What kind of collaboration was it?
RN: Che was excited by the fact that I had been a pilot in the Peruvian Army, and that I was deported because I refused to bomb marines and militants of the ‘Aprista’ left in the October 1948 insurrection. I had thought I could support and collaborate with the revolution by making propaganda, but I found myself in a situation in which Che told me that the first test for me to show my sympathy with the revolution would be to return to Peru, with the task of exploring what organisations and men supported Cuba and were also prepared to demonstrate their revolutionary commitment. He was very clear. ‘Do you accept or not?’, he said. At that moment I decided to abandon everything — my family, my work, everything. It was the force of the revolution, people on the streets. I was young, only three years older than Che, and I thought: ‘I always wanted this, and fought for this’, and Cuba was telling you: ‘Let’s make the revolution together.’ The message from Cuba was not ‘I make the revolution’, but: ‘You make the revolution, and we will support you.’ So I had no second thoughts, and I accepted immediately. I realised that only seven days after arriving on the island, I had committed myself to Che’s cause.
If we take into account your Marxist background and closeness to Silvio Frondizi, it is quite difficult to understand what led you to abandon Argentina to return to Peru when asked to do so by Che — a leader of a revolution that at that moment was not openly anti-imperialist, let alone Socialist, and with a very uncertain future...
RN: That is true. As a Marxist I was a fighter for the Socialist revolution. I had been involved for many years. The point is that Latin American revolutionaries come up against the wall represented by the nationalist movements and also the Communist parties. The latter, in proposing the formation of alliances and popular fronts with sectors of the native bourgeoisie, played the dreadful rôle of being ‘the political police of the left’, giving priority to peaceful solutions. Che himself experienced this when he strongly criticised José Manuel Fortuny, at that time General Secretary of the Guatemalan Labour Party (the Communist Party), for refusing to give support to the Arbenz government in 1954, or for armed resistance against US aggression.5 We didn’t find the means to get rid of the Stalinist obstacle which was preventing the revolution. For that reason, seeing what Fidel Castro, Che, Camilo Cienfuegos and others had achieved, the desire to copy them was more important than the perspectives provided by the theoretical, programmatic and political arsenal of Marxism for many of us. By means of guerrillaism, they had opened a new chapter in the history of Latin America. Many young people thought that they could be right and that it was worth imitating them, promoting the revolutionary struggle in our own countries.
How long were you close to Che?
RN: I had an organic relationship with him after my trip to Cuba, from January 1959 until 1964. There were various guerrilla projects created in 1959, and I was part of one of them in Peru. But there were also projects in Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay and other countries. The driving force behind them was Cuba, which relied on us to ‘export’ its revolution with the aim that it would be copied in many places. Fidel and Che supported these guerrillas ‘freely’, as they used to say. Imperialism attacked them for that very reason. There is an anecdote about ‘Patojo’6 from Guatemala, whom I met, which shows Che’s audacity. One day Che called me, and said: ‘Look at this letter.’ It was a letter from Patojo in Mexico explaining that he hadn’t received the arms that they were supposed to buy, and asking for money. The letter had been sent by normal post! Then Che, who knew that the CIA controlled everything related to Cuba, took the letter and showed it on TV, saying: ‘Look what imperialism does, these provocateurs!’ Che presented the letter as if it was an imperialist provocation, in order to cover him from the attack that he knew that imperialism would prepare. They were masters of political audacity...
In April 1959, Fidel Castro went to the USA, invited by the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie. Did this trip generate any discussion inside the 26 July Movement?
RN: Che was opposed to this trip. Castañeda,7 in his book, said that Che was opposed, but that he kept it to himself. In reality, Che argued within the Movement, and he even told me that he was opposed to the trip. Fidel Castro’s response to Che was roughly this: ‘I am going because I have been told by Pepe Figueres8 and others who were part of the democratic front, that the USA is going to have a tolerant position towards us.’9 Che had formed his own view of Fidel. In a letter addressed to René Ramos Latour, Che said: ‘I always considered Fidel as an authentic leader of the left bourgeoisie, though his stature is heightened by his personal quality of extraordinary cleverness, which puts him above his class. In this spirit I initiated the struggle, without any hope of going further than the liberation of the country, and was prepared to depart when the conditions of the coming struggle switched to the right...’10
What happened then was that the USA was not tolerant at all, and could not possibly be tolerant because of the course followed by the revolution, whose leadership had gone further than was expected in their original project. People on the streets made concrete demands, all of them addressed to imperialism, because Cuba was entirely in the hands of the Yankees or their allies. The demands raised by the people were against the USA and the Yankees got the message, and for that reason they tried to stop the revolution by promoting the manoeuvre of General Cantilo,11 which was frustrated by the general strike.
You convinced Che to invite Silvio Frondizi to the island...
RN: Silvio’s trip to Cuba has its own history. Che complained that students didn’t understand that in Cuba a revolution had taken place, and that they still behaved as they did in the old days, during the reform of the universities. He held the view that it would be helpful if capable intellectuals assisted the leadership to develop the students’ vanguard culturally and ideologically. Various names were mentioned to carry out this task, and I nominated Silvio Frondizi, but Che questioned this because he characterised Frondizi as a Trotskyist. I said to him: ‘I am very surprised that a revolutionary like you vetoes a man of the left, a Marxist, with independent views.’ Che replied that he had never read Trotskyist literature, and that he hardly knew Trotsky’s ideas, and he also asked me to find a book by Trotsky so that he could understand his positions. It was not an easy job to find a book by Trotsky at that time in Cuba, but I found a battered copy of the Permanent Revolution in a bookshop and took it to him at the Bank of Cuba, since he was its president. About 15 days later, Che rang me to tell me that he had read the book, which was marked in his very small doctor’s handwriting, later seen in his Bolivian Diary.
Then we had a very long conversation — at 2am, a moment most convenient for him — and he stated that Trotsky was coherent and that he was right in many things, but he, Che, also said that ‘it was too late’ to change orientation. A clever man, he understood almost immediately Trotsky’s idea in relation to the transformation of the democratic revolution into a Socialist one, and of its uninterrupted character until it became an international and world-wide revolution. In that discussion, we talked about everything, about the social and political subject of the revolution, the proletariat. He said: ‘Fine, but we have made the revolution without the proletariat.’ Ultimately, this would leave you disarmed, making you fall at his feet. Because what happened was that you took him the literature and he was there, with his beard and a revolution under his belt. He looked at you, and you realised what he was thinking: ‘And where did you make a revolution?’ Then you surrendered. He would also say, ‘OK, make a revolution’, as if he were saying ‘prove it’. Che was the kind of person with whom one could discuss. The only thing is that because they were in a hurry to spread the revolution, he would say: ‘I made a revolution, now you make one, of any variety that takes your fancy, but mine was different, and as long as I don’t have proof to the contrary I will stick with this model.’ It was in that sense that he told me that it was too late for the Trotskyist position. During the discussion, I was impressed by the way in which he grasped concepts, and by the strength with which he defended his own political positions.
Was it as a result of this discussion that Silvio Frondizi was invited to Cuba?
RN: Yes, without doubt. Nevertheless, Che told me that the political conditions in Cuba didn’t allow for someone who was accused of being a Trotskyist to be officially invited. If Che officially invited Silvio, he said, there would be problems, mainly amongst the leadership of the PSP, for example with Carlos Rafael Rodriguez.12 This being the case, I was on my own when Silvio arrived at Rancho Boyeros Airport. Since Silvio expected to be welcomed with much ceremony, he was upset and threatened to go back immediately. But he calmed down when he knew that Che was going to meet him the following day. They met several times; I was present at two of these meetings, but Silvio kept me updated with all the discussions in a very detailed way, because we were in the same hotel. A large part of the discussion was about Peronism, and Che pointed out that he understood the character of the nationalist movement and the rôle played by Perón because of the recent events in Guatemala, where a revolution had suffered from US aggression. But he could not understand why it was taking so long for the workers to liberate themselves from their ties with Peronism, a movement with a tendency to make pacts with, and capitulate to, imperialism. Finally, Che proposed that Silvio stay in Cuba to work in the area of culture and ideology. Frondizi replied that he would think about it, but for the time being his intention was to go back to Argentina, although he could collaborate if a Latin American publishing group was created with the aim of publicising the issue of the Cuban revolution, and the thoughts of the left and the Socialist movement in the continent. Che accepted the proposal, and they agreed that Uruguay would be the provisional base for the venture.
And you returned to Peru as requested by Che. Were the aims agreed with Che achieved? Which organisations were involved?
RN: Whilst still in Cuba, and advised by Che, I supported APRA Rebelde, the left wing of APRA, the party of Haya de la Torre which was later led by Alan García. I shared with Che the view that it was unfortunate that I didn’t have a political presence in Peru, the place from which I had been deported when I was very young. You couldn’t even think of working with the Communist Party of Peru, which was hostile towards the Cuban guerrillas. Nevertheless, I achieved important agreements with Luis De la Puente, Hilda Gadea — Che’s first wife — and other leaders of the left wing of APRA. De la Puente was a young lawyer, with a background as a leader of the student movement, a very confident person with leadership qualities. He and his group had a militant tradition, and had influence in the north of the country among sugar workers, some peasant communities and in various universities.
The group, which was later expelled from APRA in November 1959, had shown sympathy with Cuba, but a political connection with the Castro leadership had not been established — a task that Che entrusted to me. But when I went to the north of Peru, one of De la Puente’s lieutenants pointed a gun at me and said: ‘Get out of here, you son of a bitch. You’ve come here to take away what we have. Go away!’ I had to play it tough, and challenge him to shoot me. He didn’t do it... and they accepted me. The thing is that APRA Rebelde did not have working-class traditions, and also they were not pleased to see a Cuban ‘protégé’.
In relation to the Peruvian guerrillas, Che agreed with you and De la Puente that the revolution would be made not only by means of the ‘foco’ tactic supported by him, but through APRA Rebelde.
RN: It was a very interesting discussion. Faced with Che’s argument defending the guerrilla ‘foco’ as the main and essential tool for the revolution, De la Puente answered that the alliance of APRA Rebelde with Cuba would become an incredible catalyst. He was confident that an imminent crisis in APRA would attract thousands of workers and youth to APRA Rebelde and its revolutionary project. He also affirmed that the work in the peasant areas where they had influence was well developed. De la Puente was an expert in agrarian and peasant issues. He knew a lot about the subject, and Che was unable to argue when he explained the land question in Peru. He told him that the peasants were organised in trade unions. In addition, there were thousands of peasant communities with a tradition of internal discipline and with a fighting spirit. This made Che have doubts about relying exclusively on the ‘foco’, because De la Puente would say to him: ‘There are existing peasant organisations, and if we are going to organise an uprising I have to take into account what the peasantry has already built. Moreover, the peasantry is not going to abandon its organisations because I form a guerrilla group. We have to work with these organisations.’ Che understood that he would have to ‘modify’ his concept of the ‘foco’, since there was a lot to be gained in Peru. Che’s desire to export the revolution made him consider Peru as a spearhead. He assured us that if the insurrection ‘ignited’, he would be with us in the Peruvian mountains. He listened to our arguments and said: ‘Fine. Give it a try.’
Although at the same time, he organised another guerrilla group...
RN: Yes, the one led by Béjar,13 a leader of the ELN — a very ‘foquist’ organisation — with only 20 men, as was his way. The Peruvian ELN emerged from a group of young people who went to Cuba to study painting and music. In Cuba, it was proposed that they form a guerrilla organisation. Part of this group accepted. Héctor Béjar later told me that Che had encouraged the formation of this group of volunteers — who had been expelled from the Peruvian Communist Party — as insurance against any problems with APRA Rebelde. In 1962, Béjar was of the view that in spite of the fact that the ELN was a much smaller group than the MIR,14 Che and Fidel gave them special treatment during their trips because in the eyes of the Cubans they were much more ‘orthodox’ than the MIR. The ELN were faithful followers of the Cuban line, as was explained by Regis Debray in his book La revolución en la revolución. The fact is that Che maintained a ‘purist’ view of the ‘foco’ tactic until the end of his days. There are a few anecdotes surrounding this — for example, whilst De la Puente was in Cuba receiving military training, I remember a piece of advice given to us by Che: laughing, he said that Fidel and other comrades had criticised him for his recklessness because it could lead to his premature death. He told us that, as in conventional wars, ‘the command never dies’, and that this idea was even more valid for guerrilla organisations, especially when they developed and went into combat. He said that to lead was a political fact. One should not take unnecessary risks, but there was a specific reason for his apparent excess of courage: he had always been a ‘close neighbour of death’ because of his constant and serious attacks of asthma. This illness had brought him close to death more than once, and the struggle to overcome it had given him his ‘tough’ personality and apparently suicidal attitude.
After a few years, De la Puente himself became a ‘pure’ ‘foquist’ and abandoned the views that he had explained to Che.
RN: Yes. In 1963, Che went to say goodbye to Béjar’s guerrilla group. Cuba was desperate for the ‘focos’ to go into action, and the MIR, after three years of receiving support, was prevaricating. APRA Rebelde could not constitute itself as a pole of attraction to APRA youth and young people in general, in the way that De la Puente had promised Che. Party bases were disorganised, and links with trade unions and peasant communities were almost non-existent — apart from those due to the marginal influence of De la Puente, in part because he was a labour lawyer. De la Puente was travelling around the world telling people that he was about to make the revolution in Peru — even Mao Zedong received him — but he didn’t deliver. He was unable to make the revolution a reality because he didn’t have the base that he claimed. When Béjar’s guerrilla group and the ELN started to act, De la Puente — who had committed himself honestly to Cuba — realised that he had to speed things up. Back in Peru, he decided to follow the supposedly unique Cuban model: ‘a recognised leader, a group of armed militants working under his command with their only project being that of creating successive guerrilla “foco” groups able to go into action as soon as possible’. This was something completely different to what we had originally proposed to Che, and posed the question of what kind of organisation we should set up, and what revolutionary project we should follow.
Shortly before that the peasant uprisings led by Hugo Blanco15 took place. Did this have any influence on De la Puente’s decision?
RN: Cuba ordered us to make contact with Hugo Blanco, who had formed a peasant organisation in the valleys of La Convención and Lares in Cuzco, and mobilised and organised tens of thousands of peasants who were hungry for land. At that time De la Puente was in prison for killing a ‘buffalo’ — as APRA thugs were called — in self-defence, and when he was released we had an argument, because I was in favour of getting in contact with Blanco, who was a Trotskyist. According to De la Puente, I was a Trotskyist myself. We had a heated discussion, because De la Puente thought that the leadership of the revolution should be in the hands of the MIR and himself, so he rejected any kind of unity with Blanco or Béjar. He took advantage of the fact that Blanco used to welcome visitors with great ceremony, with thousands of peasants. Blanco sincerely wanted to welcome De la Puente, but De la Puente filmed the reception and sent the films to Cuba, saying that Blanco was under his discipline. I argued that this was both an ethical and a political problem.
When De la Puente proposed the formation of a ‘Cuban style’ ‘foco’, there was a sharp debate, which ended up with the group to which you belonged splitting from the party...
RN: We would say: ‘If there is a proven nucleus of activists and militants, if there are still relations with the peasantry, if the links with the student movement and the working class have improved, why don’t we build the MIR as a workers’ and Socialist party?’ This wouldn’t have denied the commitment to Che, nor to internationalism, but rather it would have established them on a new basis. So, a very decisive discussion took place. For quite a long time, we discussed whether a ‘foco’ was necessarily in contradiction with the existence of the party. We thought not, as long as the guerrilla group placed itself under the discipline of the revolutionary party. Many historic experiences, including those of Lenin and Mao, demonstrated this. On this subject, the differences were even deeper, because it involved the project in hand. In analysing what had happened in Cuba, De la Puente and his followers declared that the guerrilla organisation was the determining factor in the victory. We said that the question was more complex, because of the rôle played by the ‘plains’. The Cuban 26 July Movement had a large apparatus in the city, as became apparent in the general strike of 1 January 1959, which put an end to General Cantilo’s attempts to form a military Junta to prevent Fidel and his people taking power.
It is unthinkable that Che did not know about these differences in Peru...
RN: I think he came to know about them, but with difficulty. There were adverse conditions: distance and problems of communication. Besides, Che was in charge of decisions regarding Peru, despite the fact that he was kept very busy with his frequent travels abroad. In Cuba, you sometimes had to wait for days to see Che. He was our only contact, and if he was not there, there was no one with whom we could reach agreement. There was no team to meet and discuss with, so the attention we received was not as disciplined as it was when military training was provided in the camps, or when there was a discussion about tactics.
In my case, the possibility of contacting Che depended on Hilda Gadea. I could not say: ‘I will ring you on such and such a day.’ I had to ring Hilda, and she would make contact with him and then tell me: ‘Che will be waiting for you on this day, at this time, according to his diary, in the Bank of Cuba.’ Later on, when I was back in Peru, the official link was the responsibility of De la Puente. We had a coded message on radio La Habana. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but, for example, in order to talk about weapons one tuned to radio La Habana, and listened to the message. If you didn’t know the message you wouldn’t notice anything unusual — you had to have the code in order to understand it. If you heard: ‘And now, in an exceptional contribution, El Negro Milcíades is going to talk’, you knew that there was going to be information about weapons or money. On a few occasions, I had to cross the border to Chile on foot, through the Arica desert, in order to communicate with Cuba. Everything was done in an ‘ad hoc’ way.
You wrote a letter to Che, telling him about your differences with De la Puente.
RN: I convinced myself that the MIR’s insurrectionary project would not work. So I expressed my opinion to Che in a personal letter, telling him that I had resigned from the MIR due to my insuperable differences with that organisation, but that I was not giving up my support for and solidarity with Cuba, and that from whatever political position I was in I would give assistance to any rebel coming from the island. I also told him that the working class and the masses had started a process of uprisings and struggles in the cities and mines, and that this obliged us to resume the discussion that De la Puente, Che and I had held in 1960, at the start of our political relationship. I told him: ‘Look, this is an important issue, because there is a possibility of making the revolution, and I want to make it, but not with that method. So I want to be free to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the MIR’s method. I want to remain in solidarity with Cuba, but to go through my own experience.’
Later on, in an internal bulletin, the MIR was to comment on the end of my discussions with De la Puente, saying: ‘The MIR has resolved its difficulties with Trotskyism forever! We have accepted Napurí’s resignation!’ At that time, there was no more serious accusation than that of being a Trotskyist — it didn’t matter if you were or weren’t one — but in my case the accusation was made 10 years before I joined the Trotskyist movement.
What happened to the Peruvian guerrillas?
RN: Everything ended tragically. Just 15 men from the ELN left Cuba in January 1963 bound for Bolivia, where the Communist Party should have helped them to get into Peru. But the Bolivian Communist Party declared that they could not enter Peru using the route decided by Cuba, and three months were wasted. The first victim was the poet Javier Heraud, who was killed in the jungle by the Peruvian police.
Neither could they make contact with Hugo Blanco, because he was already a prisoner. From then on, this small group of people, who did not know the region, tried to consolidate their position. They could not establish links with the peasants because the peasants’ lifestyle was so different from that of the rebels. And once the military repression arrived, they were killed in ambushes or in prison. From the ELN, only Héctor Béjar and one other comrade managed to survive. All this was in less than a year...
The MIR, for its part, started the organisation of guerrilla groups in Peru in 1964. Guillermo Lobatón16 was in charge of launching actions on the Sierra Central front, whilst De la Puente was in charge of Cuzco, the area where Hugo Blanco had previously been active. Lobatón occupied a mine, blew up a bridge, took over a large farm, and defeated a force of 60 police at Yahuarina. When the army intervened, he tried to avoid encirclement, but in 1966 he was taken prisoner and killed. De la Puente was killed earlier, in October 1965, having hardly been given the chance to fight.
One year had passed, and everything was over. This is not the moment to draw a balance sheet, but there is one lesson to be drawn: in a country favourable to the guerrilla, with a peasantry possessed of a very rich history of struggles and organisation, guerrilla ‘focos’ introduced into the countryside weren’t able to take root, and could not survive...
Committed as you were to the insurrection in Peru, how did you face this situation?
RN: I had told Che in my farewell letter that in Peru there were very good conditions for forming a political organisation if one based oneself on the masses. Those who disagreed with the MIR in 1963 formed a new organisation — Vanguardia Revolucionaria [Revolutionary Vanguard] — which was a decisive factor in the formation of the Central Obrera [trade union confederation] in Peru, participated in workers’ and peasants’ trade unions, and was in the leadership of the student movement. Vanguardia Revolucionaria fulfilled its promise to Che: we gave solidarity and support to guerrilla ‘focos’ whilst they lasted. We were the victims of repression because of our political activity, and we were accused of promoting an urban uprising. Our comrades, myself included, were sent to prison or deported. We also tried to support Che’s plans for Bolivia. We sent comrades from our organisation to Cuba for military training in 1965 with only one condition: that there should be prior discussion on the programme and on the necessity for a party. This commitment remained unfulfilled when our friends Juan Pablo Chang, alias ‘El Chino’, Lucio Galván, alias ‘Eustaqui’, and José Cabrera Flores, alias ‘El Negro’, lost their lives fighting at Che’s side at La Higuera.
After your split from the MIR, did you meet Che again?
RN: No, but in 1966, when I was in Peru, I ran into Paz Estensoro,17 whom I knew. He had been President of Bolivia, and had been deported. Paz Estensoro told me in a low voice: ‘I have been with Che. He consulted me on which areas he could organise guerrillas in. I told him this area is good, this is bad...’ This happened before Che entered Bolivia, when he was passing through Peru. I tried to contact Che, but I could not find him. I thought it was very unlikely that Che would have talked to someone like Paz Estensoro about his guerrilla project. Imperialism would have known about everything in two minutes. But that’s what Che was like...
In a few months, on the thirtieth anniversary of Che’s death, he will be remembered all over the world. Do you have any thoughts on this?
RN: Nowadays, Fidel Castro says that Cuba is going through a ‘special stage’. As the facts show, this adaptation to a ‘new world’ is a preparation for the return of capitalism to Cuba.18 In line with this, it is likely that Che will be hailed as a great man, but as a man who belonged to the ‘previous world’, the one which ended in the 1960s and 1970s.
Until his Granma adventure, Che characterised himself as a new Quixote, not knowing where the ‘windmill’ would lead him. But once the ‘windmills’ were defeated, the class struggle and revolutionary anti-imperialism led him, Fidel and other comrades first to the defeat of the tyrant Batista, and later to take the road of the Socialist revolution, which led to the expropriation of capitalism in Cuba. Young people all over the world love him. Their image of him is of a man who started from nothing and went on to develop a rich personality, overcoming obstacles just like Quixote. He was so full of ideals that he was prepared to die for his cause anywhere in the world.
But Che could not escape the problems of his epoch; he was conditioned by them. Capitalism and imperialism were committing outrages against countries, and imposing their ‘law’ over the exploited and oppressed. Apparently on the ‘opposite side’ was the other world, the world of ‘Real Socialism’, of Stalinist despotism. Because Che did not have a different world as a concrete reference, he became a radical in order to attack the oppressors wherever they were — this is what explains his militant anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, despite his differences with the ex-USSR, he would have needed to reflect more profoundly, and live longer, in order to understand that neither Socialism nor the ‘new man’ were being built there. Because for him, as for Marx, ‘the root of the man is the man himself’.
So Che faced up to everything, and the revolutionary ‘Quixote’ was defeated, not by death itself, but by a reality that his will could not change.
For those of us who were part of the generation of young people and combatants who followed his ideas, and who tried to imitate the ‘bearded ones’ with faith and hope rather than with political and revolutionary understanding, and for the current generation as well, a balance sheet of this period of history remains to be written. Thirty years since the death of Che, to do this successfully means drawing the lessons from the struggle of the revolutionaries and the masses to achieve their final liberation from the oppression of capital.
Lenin and the First World War
Lenin’s wartime struggle for revolutionary internationalism against the opportunists of the Second International
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1. An intellectual Marxist and university lecturer. He was a founder of the Praxis group and author of the La Realidad Argentina and other works. He was assassinated by the Triple A in 1974, a paramilitary organisation.
2. Arturo Frondizi was a right-wing bourgeois politician (translator’s note).
3. In a letter addressed to Lisandro Otero dated 14 February 1957, Che said: ‘I never had social preoccupations during my adolescence, neither did I participate in student political life and struggle at all.’ (Quoted by Roberto Massari in Che Guevara, grandeza y riesgo de la utopía)
4. A Cuban insurrectionary group based mainly in the cities. On 13 March 1957, they assaulted the Presidential Palace in an attempt to assassinate the dictator Batista.
5. In her book Che Guevara: años decisivos, Hilda Gadea makes the following reference to this event: ‘At last Ernesto met Fortuny, something that we were looking forward to for months in Guatemala without success. After the usual greetings, we asked Fortuny the questions: “What happened in Guatemala? Why didn’t you fight?” He replied: “We considered the situation very difficult, and we thought that it would be better to leave the question of power until later and to fight from the plains; the fight is still on and we are trying to proceed with it.” We were astonished, we could not conceive of such an argument; then Ernesto intervened again: “Well comrade, it might have been better to fight; having power in your hands would have been different.” “What do you mean?”, asked Fortuny in a tone close to hostility. “Precisely this”, Ernesto explained, “If President Arbenz had abandoned the city, heading for the countryside with a group of genuine revolutionaries, the prospects for the struggle would have been different; besides, the fact of being the legal president would have made him into a symbol and a morale booster; then the possibility of reconstituting the revolutionary government would have been more favourable.” Fortuny was speechless; the argument had been completely persuasive, and he made no reply. Che commented: “These are excuses — there are many advantages when one fights with power in one’s hands, but anyway, with it or without it, the only possible thing to do was to fight.”’
6. Julio Roberto Cáceres, alias ‘El Patojo’, was a Guatemalan revolutionary and a friend of Che. His nickname referred to the fact that he was short.
7. Jorge Castañeda, La vida en rojo, Espasa-Calpe.
8. José Figueres, the former President of Costa Rica. He was known as a great democrat.
9. On 17 April 1959, in New York, Fidel declared: ‘I have said it in a very clear and definite way that we are not Communists. The doors are open for the private investments that will contribute to the development of Cuban industry. It is totally impossible to make progress if we don’t make terms with the USA.’ And on 27 April, in his speech in Central Park, he said: ‘The victory was only possible because Cubans from different social classes and sectors gathered together around the same aspiration.’
10. Che’s letter addressed to René Ramos Latour on 14 December 1957. Quoted by Roberto Massari, op cit.
11. A general from the Batista army, who was persuaded by the American Ambassador to form a Provisional Junta in order to block the road to power of the 26 July Movement and Fidel Castro. The attempt did not succeed due to the general strike called on 1 January 1959.
12. The leader of the Partido Socialista Popular (Cuban Communist Party). He was a minister under the Batista regime. In July 1958, he went up to the Sierra Maestra to establish relations with Fidel Castro.
13. Héctor Béjar, leader of the Army of National Liberation (ELN) of Peru. Later he was one of the theoreticians of the nationalist movement of Velazco Alvarado. Today he is a Social Democratic intellectual.
14. APRA Rebelde took the name of Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) in 1961.
15. A prominent Trotskyist and the leader of the peasant movement in Cuzco. He organised the peasants in trade unions and in occupying estates of big landowners. They defended themselves from attacks carried out by the police and hired assassins of the local ‘caciques’ (bosses). He suffered repression, and was taken prisoner in 1963. See Hugo Blanco, Land or Death: The Peasant Struggle in Peru, New York, 1972.
16. A student at European universities. At first, he was a member of the ELN, but in Cuba he supported APRA Rebelde.
17. A main leader of the Bolivian Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), a bourgeois nationalist party that led the April 1952 popular revolt. He was President of Bolivia for three terms. See Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no 3, Summer 1992.
18. In his speech given at the close of the Encuentro Mundial de Solidaridad con Cuba (World Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba) on 25 November 1994, Fidel Castro said: ‘We had a blockade for many years, but it is necessary to meditate on this fact: when the revolution was triumphant, it was a particular kind of world; today, 35 years since the revolution, it is a different world. The world has changed, but not towards progress; in reality the change has been a regression... But this is the world that we have, with which we have to trade and exchange our products, in which we have to survive; for this reason we have to adapt to it, and to adopt those measures that we consider necessary, with a very clear goal.’