Che Guevara’s African ‘story of a failure’ 50 years ago

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Che Guevara brought a dozen African Cubans to Congo in 1965, in an attempt to overthrow the US backed General Mobutu. He left after 7 months, having failed to topple the leader.

Che Guevara’s African ‘story of a failure’ 50 years ago

Che Guevara’s African ‘story of a failure’ 50 years ago

/ Baraka (DR Congo) – 20 April 2015 13:16 – AFP (Jean-Baptiste Baderha and Marc Jourdier)

“This is the story of a failure,” Marxist guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara acknowledged in his journal after a bid to bring “revolutionary war” to the Congo 50 years ago.

Guevara arrived secretly at the head of a dozen Cuban fighters of black African origin on April 24, 1965, to join rebels in the nation today named the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The small expeditionary force, sent by Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, disembarked at Kibamba in the east after crossing Lake Tanganyika from Tanzania and heading for the lakeside town of Baraka.

“He came as a friend and a lover of revolution,” recalls Andre Shibunda, local branch leader of the party that backs current President Joseph Kabila, son of one of the former rebel chiefs in the eastern mountains.

Guevara “spent a while with us in the forest, but he found that our leaders lacked political maturity and he preferred to go,” Shibunda says in a pithy summary of a seven-month adventure.

The Argentine-born guerilla and his comrades linked up with Simba (“Lion” in Swahili) rebels in South Kivu province with the ideal of making the very heart of Africa a bulwark against neocolonialism and “Yankee imperialism”.

In “The African Dream – The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo,” Guevara wrote that Baraka “displayed traces of its former relative prosperity, including a cotton-baling machine, but everyone had been ruined by the war and the little factory was bombed out.”

In just five years after hasty independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo endured successive conflicts, including a secession bid by Katanga, a southeastern province the size of Spain that holds enormous mineral wealth.

Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba asked for help from the United States, but so badly tarnished his image in Washington’s eyes during a disastrous visit that he subsequently turned to the Soviet Union.

Belgian soldiers went back to the troubled nation and helped army chief Joseph-Desire Mobutu to mount a coup against Lumumba, who had become a prime Cold War target and died at the hands of a firing squad in January 1961. Direct US involvement is still being debated today.

– ‘Organised chaos’ –

Washington badly needed the Congo. The uranium for the American atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had come from its mines. The country was also a vital source of cobalt used in the weapons industry, since most of the rest of global resources lay under Soviet soil.

When Guevara arrived, the young republic was still in upheaval. Katanga was back in the fold, but the rebellion by the Simbas, who combined Lumumbists with Maoists, had broken out the previous year.

The rebels gained control of almost a third of the vast central African country, only to lose it by April 1965 and be confined to two pockets in the centre and east of the Congo.

Guevara wanted to see rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, after a first meeting a few months earlier in Brazzaville, capital of the former French Congo, but he had to wait months while Kabila travelled abroad.

When Kabila finally showed up on July 7, it was only to leave again four days afterwards, amid circumstances the Argentine-born revolutionary at one point described as “organised chaos”.

“The main flaw of the Congolese is that they don’t know how to shoot,” Guevara wrote. He was disabused to find that Simba forces lacked fervour and were unduly fond of magic rituals they believed made them invulnerable.

Yet the medical student turned guerrilla chief and military strategist “travelled round all the positions” of Kabila’s resistance over a wide area “to teach politics and army tactics,” Shibunda remembers.

– ‘Revolutionary ideals’ –

“I was a simple soldier” in 1965, General Lwendema Dunia says in a hut in South Kivu’s capital Bukavu, recalling that Guevara “taught us how to make a revolution. He gave us military training and taught us politics.”

In battle, the Cubans were “as brave” as the Congolese, says the general, who puts his age around 80, but “once we started to march towards revolutionary ideals … they were gone.”

Yet the Congolese rebels were themselves prone to flee heavy fighting and their camps were full of women and children and incongruous loud music in the jungle, where they drank and danced.

Castro reinforced Cuba’s contingent to around 100 men, which helped to win a few battles, but Shibunda says that advances by government soldiers contributed to the departure of the foreign fighters.

“I helped to transport ammunition,” he says. “When Che Guevara left, there was a great battle. We were almost routed.”

By October 1965, Guevara wrote to Castro: “It’s not really weapons that are lacking here… Indeed, there are too many armed men and what is lacking are soldiers.”

Rebel positions fell one after another in the face of a ground offensive and air raids by planes flown by Western mercenaries.

Guevara and his men left the country, where eastern provinces are ravaged by conflict to this day, on November 21.

Three days later, Mobutu seized power, to enjoy US backing even as he became a nepotistic authoritarian steeped in massive corruption. He ruled for nearly 32 years.

Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967. For his part, Kabila bided his time until he ousted Mobutu in May 1997 in a rebellion backed by neighbouring Rwanda before they fell out, starting a new war.

Tags : years, Failure, story, African, Guevaras

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