Friday, June 09, 2006

Commander Tatu
(‘tatu’ is a Swahili word meaning ‘three’)

The Embassy of The Republic of Cuba is located a mere hundred yards down a residential street from my house in Tanzania. I jog past it almost every evening on my typical running route. So, when I learn that Ernesto “Che” Guevara had lived at the Cuban Embassy in Tanzania, I just have to investigate further.

The Cuban Embassy lies in a residential neighborhood, and without the pictures of Fidel Castro in a glass display case along the street it might easily be mistaken for a house. I greet the High Commissioner inside the small, no-frills lobby. He is a black, middle-aged man with a few grey hairs around his temples wearing a casual short-sleeved shirt with two buttons undone at the top. Since I was expecting to meet a Latino-looking man, I was a bit surprised at first to be introduced to a man who could have passed for a Tanzanian.

The High Commissioner is energetic and sharp. He speaks quickly, and seems to say whatever comes into his mind. Shortly after explaining my work and reason for stopping in, he asks me my nationality. I had told myself I would only reveal my American heritage if he asked, since disclosing my nationality, I feel, would either set up a long tirade of how badly Americans are behaving on the global scene, and may even get me thrown out into the streets without accomplishing my goals. None-the-less, I’m honest with him. At the outset, then, he castes me into what he sees as a typical American, an uninformed critic of socialism and promoter of global American hegemony, and I end up fighting this stereotype for much of the rest of our conversation. I work hard to get him back onto my goals of discussing Che Guevara in East Africa, Tanzania’s early socialist system (Ujama), and the role of socialism in development.

As a believer in certain aspects of socialism, the U.S. public library system being just one of them, I feel that I have to present some of our commonalities in order to establish rapport. So, I praise the Cuban health care system. Cubans have an average life expectancy that is equivalent to Americans, despite having a much weaker economy. Furthermore, Cuba continues to send physicians around the world on medical missions, and there are currently twelve doctors working in Tanzania. He is clearly very proud of the Cuban health care system and the fact that Cuba sends physicians to assist in developing countries, and as well he should be proud. We transition from standing cordially to sitting on the couches in the lobby.

I first ask him about Ujama, the socialist system introduced by Tanzania’s first President and implemented for over 20 years. At first, he claims to not know much about socialism in Tanzania and referenced an obscure book written by a South African socialist (Hosea Jaffe) in 1971. Feeling that I’m not getting very far, I challenged him saying, “According to most people socialism had failed in Tanzania.”

“You know, socialism can’t fail if it is never implemented,” he says, now becoming more engaging. “It is like going to a dance and seeing a pretty girl. You think about inviting her to dance, and people give you advice on asking her to dance, but you never dance with her. You can’t say you failed,” he says holding out his hands, “Because you never really tried. Socialism will not fail when it is implemented.” Given my understanding of Tanzania’s socialist experiment, I feel that he has a good point and moved on to discussing Che Guevara.

During the early 1960s, after assisting Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara had been growing bored as Cuba’s Minister of Industries. During the same time period, halfway around the world, most African nations were gaining political independence from their European colonizers. Guevara was at heart more of a guerilla fighter than a political administrator, and much of his principles were set on fighting the forces of imperialism and colonialism around the world. Therefore, his attention was easily drawn to Africa.

I ask the High Commissioner about Che Guevara. He confirms that Che lived in this very same building about 40 years ago after trying (and failing) to initiate the African Revolution. “Just upstairs in a small room,” he says pointing up and towards the back of the long building. He again claims to have little knowledge of the subject, but we continue on.

In the Cold War era of the 1960s, the newly independent Africa countries became the battle ground in the race between democracy and socialism. Che Guevara had been growing in popularity and had become a leading voice in the fight for independence and socialism. In December 1964, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he brazenly called upon the “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism”, said the word ‘colonialism’ 10 times, and said either ‘imperialism’ or ‘imperialist’ 31 times! After his speech, he traveled to Africa for the first time and visited 7 countries, including Tanzania. After his audacious speech and a high-profile trip around Africa, Che Guevara had secured his role as a prominent international figure for liberation.

Che Guevara returned to a solemn reception by Fidel Castro in March 1965. The two men spent all night talking and by the morning had agreed that Che would lead Cuba’s first military intervention in sub-Saharan Africa. Shortly thereafter, Che dropped out of public view. Just two weeks after he had returned to Cuba, Che personally delivered the famous ‘Farewell letter’ to Fidel. In his resignation letter, Che wrote, "Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts of assistance." and “I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever one may be.” After delivering the private letter, Che Guevara secretly slipped out Cuba’s backdoor in disguise and traveled to East Africa in order to take up arms against imperial powers.

Che Guevara’s whereabouts over the next two years remained a great mystery and was an issue of much speculation. A couple of months after his initial disappearance, Fidel announced that his location will be revealed “when Commander Guevara wants it known.” Rumors about his disappearance and possible death spread both inside Cuba and around the world. Later that year, Fidel confirmed to international reporters that he did know of Che’s location and that indeed he was not dead. The fact was, Fidel had been funding Che’s mission and following his progress and activities rather closely, even if from a large geographical distance. While it was strange that Che Guevara never announced his intentions pubically, few would have guessed that he was halfway around the world leading the next revolution.

Che Guevara’s intentions in Africa were to train revolutionary guerrila fighters throughout Africa and to mobilize the movement created by Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Lumumba was the Congo’s first elected prime minister after gaining independece in 1960. However, 67 days after coming to power, he was dismissed by the state president and forceably removed from office. Lumumba was suspected of being a pro-Communist, and the Western powers, particularly the Belgians, didn’t have the assurances that they could continue extracting wealth from the resource-rich country. The American and Belgian governments wanted to assure his removal from power. The U.S. CIA attempted an assisination, but failed. Finally, several month later, Belgian military troops assisted Lumumba’s Congolese opponents in carrying out his disappearance and eventual execution. Che Guevara openly discussed his outrage to continued imperialist influences within the newly independent Congo during his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

After Lumumba’s death, Laurent Kabila and Pierre Mulele planned to continue the struggle for independece from Western imperialism. They founded the Congolese Liberation Front, and started an armed struggle in eastern Congo, which was far from the political capital located in western Congo. Furthermore, the rebel leaders were based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which was far from the front lines of battle in eastern Congo.

When Che Guevara arrived in Dar es Salaam in April 1965, none of the rebel leaders could be found. Kabila was abroad in Cairo, and Mulele’s whereabouts were unknown. (Mulele was later murdered in 1968 after Mobutu’s men lured him into Brazzaville with a false promise of amnesty.) Therefore, Guevara set out for eastern Congo in a secrete envoy with 13 men. The long trip over the horrendous dirt roads across the vast countryside to the far western border must have been strenous. While the Tanzanian government knew there was a Cuban envoy traveling to the west, they didn’t know the envoy contained the famous Che Guevara.

The group arrived in a town called Kigoma along the eastern border of Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world and the natural border separating Tanzania and the Congo. At the same time Che and his envoy passed though Kigoma, just 20 kilometeres to the north, in what later became known as Gombe Stream National Park, there was a young female, who had recently earned a doctoral degree from Oxford Univeristy, studying cimpanzee behavior and social systems. Her name is Jane Goodall. Perhaps it’s not ironic that Jane Goodall spent at least the next 40 years living with the chimpanzees, and Che Guevava spent only 7 months training guerilla fighters for the African Revolution.

Che Guevara and his men crossed the lake and set up their training camp along the steep, heavily forested western shore of Lake Tanganyika. Two days after arriving at training camp, Che revealed his true identity to his fellow Cubans. He took on the name “Tatu”, which is a Swahili meaning ‘three’. At 37 years old and with no formal military training, ‘Commander Tatu’ established a base for teaching the Congolese rebels, as well as fighters from other African liberation movements, strategies of guerrilla warefare and preparing them to fight against the imperial armies.

However, Che was shocked by what he found amongst the rebel fighters. Not only did they lack any coherent political direction, but, according to Che, the rebels had formed a "parasitic army". Rebel soldiers often robbed the local men and assaulted the women. They would drink heavily into the night and get into fights. In conflicts witnessed by Che, the fighters would usually flee from battle. Che had hoped that by having experienced Cuban guerilla fighters alongside men without experience there would be a ‘Cubanisation’ of the Congolese. Instead, he found that the exact opposite had occurred, and over a period of time a ‘Congolisation’ of the Cubans had taken place.

Over the next several months, Che would become frustrated with what he percieved to be a lack of seriousness among his trainees. In a letter to Fidel in October 1965, Che wrote, “According to people close to me here, I have lost my reputation for objectivity by maintaining a groundless optimism in the face of the actual situation. I can assure you that were it not for me, this fine dream would have collapsed with catastrophe all around. You have to be really well tempered to put up with the things that happen here.”

In November, Che Guevara led an unsuccessful revolt against the Congolese army. The revolt included Laurent Kabila, one of the two rebel leaders. However, the rebel force was ill-prepared and underpowered, and was quickly suppressed by the Congolese army. Che had already become weary of Kabila and his dedication to the revolution. Kabila would arrive days late to provide supplies and was hardly ever present when battles were imminent. Che dismissed Kabila as ‘insignificant’. "Nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour," Che later wrote.

Che Guevara's dream of an African Revolution had collapsed against the reality of the Congolese forces' complete incompetence and lack of seriousness. With Congolese and foreign army forces starting to move in around his training camp, he hesitatingly asked Havana for help in evacuating his men. Since Che’s ‘Farewell Letter’ had recently been made public in Cuba, he felt awkward about the possibility of returning to Cuba. Che considered staying behind at the training camp in order to demonstrate his dedication and become a martyr for the Revolution. In Che’s words, “I had the feeling that, after my farewell letter to Fidel, the comrades began to see me as a man from other climes rather distant from Cuba's specific problems, and I could not bring myself to demand the final sacrifice of remaining behind. I spent the final hours like this, alone and perplexed, until the boats eventually put in at two o'clock in the morning and set off immediately that very night.” They crossed Lake Tanganyika at night and Che secretly returned to Dar es Salaam in late November 1965, seven months after he established the training camp. Six members of his initial Cuban column had died.

During the same month, a Congolese military general named Mobuto Sese Seko had forceably taken control of the Congolese government in a successful coup d’etat. Mobuto would preside over one of the most tyranical despotic governments in post-colonial Africa. However, due to his pro-Western and anti-Communist platform, he received continued supported from Western governments, who in exchange would extract the minerals and resources. Mobuto regime was exactly the type of government from which Che Guevara was trying to liberate the Congolese people.

Mobuto became one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, while the Congolese people became some of the poorest, over the next 32 years, until 1997. At that time, the Tutsis, an ethic group that had been executed in mass during the Rwandan genocide and displaced to eastern Congo, rose up to overthrow Mobuto. The leader of the Tutsi group to overthrow Mobuto in another successful coup d’etat was none other than Laurent Kabila, the man Che had considered ‘insignificant’ over 30 years earlier. Kabila’s rule, perhaps as Che might have predicted, also resulted and ended in a disaster.

Back in Dar es Salaam in 1965, Che Guevara took up residence in a small room on the second floor of the Cuban Embassy. Only a few select people were allowed on the second floor, since Che’s whereabouts were still a global mystery. Over the next three months, Che and the men at the Cuban Embassy spoke about problems that arose in the Congo and liked to play chess. In addition, Che also wrote his diaries, which were later compiled and published as ‘The African Dream’. Che cited ‘incompetence, intransigence, and infighting’ as the key reasons for the revolt's failure. In ‘The African Dream’, he wrote, “It should be emphasized that, although I have given a detailed account of various cases of weakness and have placed emphasis on the general demoralization into which we had sunk, this doesn’t make that effort any less heroic. That defiance, that clear stance on the great problem of our era, embodies the heroic significance of our participation in the struggle of the Congo.”

Two men were dispatched from Havana to extricate Che from Dar es Salaam and Africa. First, Luis Gutierrez, called “Fisin”, was put in charge of disguising Che. Fisin first met Che on the second floor of the Cuban Embassy in Dar es Salaam. According to Fisin, “[Che] was shaved and was working at a little table in his [underwear], because the summer there in December is very hot. Since I had come from a cold region, I asked for permission to take off some of my clothes. [Che] replied, ‘You can strip down to what I have on,’ and we laughed.” Fisin removed his characteristic widow’s peak, made his hair recede more at the temples, and fitted him with both upper and lower prosthetic devices to fit over his teeth. They tested the disguise on Major Edy Suñol, who was there heading a Cuban military delegation. Suñol only recognized Che after he started speaking with an Argentinean accent. Che and Fisin were satisfied.

The second man, named Ulises, was sent to orchestrate Che’s escape from Africa. Ulises booked them on a flight arriving from Madagascar, which he knew would be on an unpredictable schedule. The two men waited in a small cabaret bar alongside the road to the airport. Ulises figured that they would be able to hear the plane arrive and once they did could then go to the airport. “We must have gotten too interested in the show, and nobody heard the plane when it arrived,” Ulises said. Another Cuban brought news that the plane had been on the ground for over an hour and was ready to depart. Ulises and a disguised Che Guevara managed to board the plane just before takeoff.

Che Guevara left Tanzania late in the night at the end of February 1966, after spending approximately 10 months in East Africa. He would never return to Africa again. A year and a half later, Che would be captured and killed while leading revolutionary rebels in Bolivia. Che had been tracked, captured, and killed by a Cuban-born U.S. CIA agent.

The Cuban High Commissioner is now settled into his chair in the lobby of the Embassy. Now knowing that I have his interest and attention, I start firing off some more difficult if not challenging questions. Our conversation is fast-paced and jumps back and forth between and among topics. I ask him about global aid to developing countries and the recent efforts of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“The World Bank and IMF have made the system much worse, but not just for Tanzania, all over the world. They have come in and said, ‘You have to reduce doctors’ salaries and invest more of your money into this sector’. It is like saying you can only see your wife twice a week or you can only wear a suit on certain days. It is not right.” He challenges me to describe a country in which the World Bank and IMF policies have been successful, but I can’t.

“In fact, the situation is getting worse all over the world, except Cuba,” he says. “You had socialism in Russia, and now that it has been converted to democracy, look at how it is doing.”

“Do you know the origins of the word democracy?” he asks. “It is a Greek word with two parts, demo-, which means ‘people’, and –cracy, which means ‘power’. Taken together this means ‘power of the people’. That is not what you have in the U.S., that is what we have in Cuba.”

As our conversation wears on, he becomes more interested in talking about current global events, the failures and calamities within the U.S., and the nature of Cuba and socialism. The more we speak the more I feel his disdain for the U.S. None-the-less, he is friendly and polite, and I like him.

I thank him for his time and he walks me to the door. Feeling that we are parting on friendly terms and with a general understanding, I can’t resist asking just one more question. “What about the post-Fidel era?” I ask.

“There is a movie called ‘Dying With His Boots On’,” he says. “Fidel is a soldier and he will die wearing his boots, meaning that he will die working.”

“But will socialism survive after Fidel?” I ask more pointedly.

“Of course it will. You know he has a young brother (Raul) who is very energetic. There are several younger people who would be very capable as well. You just have to go there are see it for yourself.”

“I would love to see the health care system,” I say.

“No! You can’t just go there and see the health care system. You have to go and see the people, see the culture, and see the countryside. It is a wonderful country.”

William Gálvez. “Che's departure from Africa” in Che in Africa. Ocean Press Pty Ltd.; 2001.
Che Guevara. The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo. Grove Press; 2001.
Dihur Godefoid Tchamlesso. “Che Guevara's War-Cry Still Resounds in Congo”. Havana, Cuba; Prensa Latina, May 22, 1997.
Che Guevara. “Farewell Letter to Fidel Castro.” April 1, 1965.
Che Guevara. Address to the United Nations General Assembly. December 11, 1964.
BBC News. "Profile: Laurent Kabila." May 26, 2001.