The Congo Diaries: the untold chapter of Che Guevara’s life

While Che: Part 1 detailed Guevara’s successful revolution in Cuba, and Che: Part 2 details his unsuccessful revolution in Boliva which led to his death, there was left out the story of his life before Bolivia, where in 1965, Che Guevara traveled to Africa and to the Congo to try to lead a revolution to overthrow the government to form Africa’s first community country. Most of it is listed in Che’s ‘Congo Diaries’ book.

Part 2 of Che should have been his travels to the Congo, and then have a Part 3 for his last 11 months in Boliva. This was should have been Part 2 of Che:

On October 3, 1965, Castro publicly revealed an undated letter purportedly written to him by Guevara some months earlier which was later known as Che’s “farewell letter”. In it, Guevara reaffirmed his enduring solidarity with the Cuban Revolution but declared his intention to leave Cuba to fight for the revolutionary cause abroad to bring the whole world under socialism. Additionally, he resigned from all his positions in the Cuban government and communist party, and renounced his honorary Cuban citizenship.

Earlier in 1965, Guevara went to Africa to offer his knowledge and experience as a guerrilla to the ongoing conflict in the Congo. According to Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, Guevara thought that Africa was imperialism’s weak link and therefore had enormous revolutionary potential. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had fraternal relations with Che dating back to his 1959 visit to Egypt, saw Guevara’s plans to fight in the Congo as “unwise” and warned that he would become a “Tarzan” figure, doomed to failure. Despite the warning, Guevara traveled to the Congo using the alias Ramón Benítez.

Guevara led the Cuban operation in support of the Marxist Simba movement, which had emerged the previous year from the ongoing Congo crisis. Guevara, his second-in-command Victor Dreke, and 12 other Cuban expeditionaries arrived in the Congo on April 24, 1965 and a contingent of approximately 100 Afro-Cubans joined them soon afterward. They collaborated for a time with guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila and his 200-stong guerrilla army, who had previously helped supporters of the overthrown Patrice Lumumba lead an unsuccessful revolt months earlier. As an admirer of the late Lumumba, Guevara declared that his “murder should be a lesson for all of us”. Guevara, fluent in French along with limited knowledge of Swahili and the local languages, was assigned a teenage interpreter, Freddy Ilanga. Over the course of seven months, Ilanga grew to “admire the hard-working Guevara”, who “showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites”. However, Guevara soon became disillusioned with the poor discipline of Kabila’s troops and later dismissed him, stating “nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour”.

As an additional obstacle, white South African mercenaries, led by Colonel Mike Hoare, working in concert with Cuban exiles and the CIA, worked with the Congo National Army to thwart Guevara’s movements from his base camp which was located in the mountains near the village of Fizi on Lake Tanganyika in southeast Congo. They were able to monitor his communications and stopped Che’s attacks against government outposts before they began, as well as interdicted his supply lines. Despite the fact that Guevara sought to conceal his presence in the Congo, the US government was aware of his location and activities. The National Security Agency was intercepting all of his incoming and outgoing transmissions via equipment aboard the USNS Private Jose F. Valdez (T-AG-169), a floating listening post that continuously cruised the Indian Ocean off Dar es Salaam for that purpose.

Guevara’s aim was to export the revolution by instructing local anti-Mobutu Simba fighters in Marxist ideology and focused theory strategies of guerrilla warfare. In his Congo Diary book, he cites incompetence, intransigence and infighting of the local Congolese rebels as key reasons for the revolt fizzling out.

On November 20, 1965, in ill health with dysentery, suffering from acute asthma, and disheartened after seven months of frustration and inactivity, Guevara left the Congo with the Cuban survivors (six members of his 12-man column having died). At one point Guevara considered sending the wounded back to Cuba and fighting in Congo alone until his death, as a revolutionary example. After being urged by his comrades and pressed by two emissaries sent by Castro, at the last moment he reluctantly agreed to leave Africa.

During that day and night, Guevara’s forces quietly took down their base camp, burned their huts, and destroyed or threw weapons into Lake Tanganyika that they could not take with them, before crossing the border into Tanzania during the night and traveling overland to Dar es Salaam.

In speaking about his experience in the Congo months later, Guevara concluded that he left rather than fight to the death because: “The human element for the revolution in the Congo had failed. The people have no will to fight. The revolutionary leaders are corrupt. In simple words… there was nothing to do.” Guevara also declared that “we can’t liberate all by ourselves a country that does not want to fight.”

A few weeks later, when writing the preface to the diary he kept during the Congo venture, he began: “This is the story of a failure.”

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This entry was posted in History.

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