Che Guevara's Legacy

President Castro of Cuba ended his 30th anniversary oration for Ernesto Che Guevara yesterday with the words the guerilla leader…

President Castro of Cuba ended his 30th anniversary oration for Ernesto Che Guevara yesterday with the words the guerilla leader made famous - hasta la victoria siempra, "onwards until victory always". Clearly Guevara retains his popular appeal in Cuba if one can judge from the crowds who turned out to pass by his remains and that of his six comrades buried yesterday in Havana after they were exhumed from Bolivia earlier this year. And equally, Dr Castro needs all the legitimacy he can muster from this ceremony as he continues to hold out against the United States embargo eight years after the end of the Cold War.

History has moved on decisively since Guevara was shot dead by his captors in the Bolivian jungle. He had gone there to "create two, three, many Vietnams" in an attempt to exploit dissatisfaction with US foreign policy and create diversionary uprisings which would stretch its capacity to contain revolutionary movements around the world. This was a highly ambitious plan, which, ironically, was internationally projected by the manner of his death and the way it was reported at the time. The famous photograph of him on his deathbed conferred a romantic image that was in fact belied by the rather pathetic record of his guerilla struggle in the jungle. He failed to mobilise a peasant rebellion against the Bolivian military. Recent studies of the time he spent in the Congo in 1965 show that he was also unsuccessful there although one of the people he worked with, Laurent Kabila, certainly learned some lessons on how to organise an insurrectionary movement.

Cuban activism overseas has in fact had as much success in Africa as Latin America in the years since Guevara's death. In Angola its troops played an important role in the battles against South African forces in the late 1980s. Guevara's romantic internationalism inspired more than his techniques in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s and more recently in Mexico. The US pulled out of Vietnam after the regime it supported in the south of that country was defeated by one of the most effective guerilla wars to have been fought - but which owed little or nothing to Guevara's example. The US maintained its policeman role in Latin America by supporting the overthrow of Allende in Chile and propping up military dictatorships. But as democratisation and market liberalisation proceeded to take hold in the main Latin American economies during the 1980s, and as debt relief stimulated US exports to the sub-continent, a new kind of engagement - free trade - emerged as the preferred means of maintaining US hegemony.

It was institutionalised in the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the US and Canada. And it is interesting that yesterday, President Clinton should have retraced President Eisenhower's steps in Argentina at the conclusion of his first visit to Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela in recent days. He has been advocating a free trade agreement among all the American states by the year 2005 and has endeavoured to encourage these ones to support the project. He found President Cardosa of Brazil reluctant to go along with the idea for fear that his own emerging leadership role in Mercosur, the increasingly successful regional trade grouping of southern Latin American states, could be jeopardised. Such concerns are far from those of Che Guevara, but closer these days to the real fabric of Latin American politics.