Here are excerpts from one of Ernesto Che Guevara’s letter to Fidel Castro describing his time in Congo. For the full letter, go to The Guardian or the books: Congo Diary: The Story of Che Guevara’s “Lost” Year in Africa, and The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo by Ernesto Guevara and Aleida Guevara.
Che Guevara’s words: “we can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight; you’ve got to create a fighting spirit and look for soldiers with the torch of Diogenes and the patience of Job” still ring true today. You have to create a fighting spirit. My question to you readers is, HOW?
“To victory forever. Patria o Muerte!”
I received your letter, which has aroused contradictory feelings in me – for in the name of proletarian internationalism, we are committing mistakes that may prove very costly. I am also personally worried that, either because I have failed to write with sufficient seriousness or because you do not fully understand me, I may be thought to be suffering from the terrible disease of groundless pessimism.
When your Greek gift [Emilio Aragones, a member of the Cuban central committee] arrived here, he told me that one of my letters had given the impression of a condemned gladiator, and the [Cuban health] minister [Jose Ramon Machado Ventura], in passing on your optimistic message, confirmed the opinion that you were forming.
You will be able to speak at length with the bearer of this letter who will tell you his firsthand impressions after visiting much of the front; for this reason I will dispense with anecdotes. I will just say to you that, 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.
In my previous letters, I asked to be sent not many people but cadres; there is no real lack of arms here (except for special weapons) – indeed there are too many armed men; what is lacking are soldiers. I especially warned that no more money should be given out unless it was with a dropper and after many requests. None of what I said has been heeded, and fantastic plans have been made which threaten to discredit us internationally and may land me in a very difficult position.
I shall now explain to you.
Soumialot [Gaston Soumialot, president of the Supreme Council of the Revolution] and his comrades have been leading you all right up the garden path. It would be tedious to list the huge number of lies they have spun.
There are two zones where something of an organised revolution exists – the one where we ourselves are, and part of Kasai province (the great unknown quantity) where Mulele [Pierre Mulele, former minister under Lumumba and the first leader to take up arms] is based.
In the rest of the country there are bands living in the forest, not connected to one another; they lost everything without a fight, as they lost Stanleyville without a fight. More serious than this, however, is the way in which the groups in this area (the only one with contacts to the outside) relate to one another.
The dissensions between Kabila [then second vice-president of the Supreme Council of the Revolution and head of the eastern front where Guevara was] and Soumialot are becoming more serious all the time, and are used as a pretext to keep handing towns over without a fight. I know Kabila well enough not to have any illusions about him. I cannot say the same about Soumialot, but I have some indications such as the string of lies he has been feeding you, the fact that he does not deign to come to these godforsaken parts, his frequent bouts of drunkenness in Dar es Salaam, where he lives in the best hotels, and the kind of people he has as allies here against the other group.
Recently a group from the Tshombist [pro-government] army landed, in the Baraka area (where a major-general loyal to Soumialot has no fewer than a thousand armed men) and captured this strategically important place almost without a fight. Now they are arguing about who was to blame – those who did not put up a fight, or those at the lake who did not send enough ammunition. The fact is that they shamelessly ran away, ditching in the open a 75mm recoilless gun and two 82 mortars; all the men assigned to these weapons have disappeared, and now they are asking me for Cubans to get them back from wherever they are (no one quite knows where) and to use them in battle.
Nor are they doing anything to defend Fizi, 36km from here; they don’t want to dig trenches on the only access road through the mountains. This will give you a faint idea of the situation. As for the need to choose men well rather than send me large numbers, you and the commissar assure me that the men here are good; I’m sure most of them are – otherwise they’d have quit long ago. But that’s not the point. You have to be really well tempered to put up with the things that happen here. It’s not good men but supermen that are needed…
And there are still my 200; believe me, they would do more harm than good at the present time – unless we decide once and for all to fight alone, in which case we’ll need a division and we’ll have to see how many the enemy put up against us. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration; maybe a battalion would be enough to get back to the frontiers we had when we arrived here and to threaten Albertville.
But numbers are not what matters; we can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight; you’ve got to create a fighting spirit and look for soldiers with the torch of Diogenes and the patience of Job – a task that becomes more difficult, the more shits there are doing things along the way.
The business with the money is what hurts me most, after all the warnings I gave. At the height of my “spending spree” and only after they had kicked up a lot of fuss, I undertook to supply one front (the most important one) on condition that I would direct the struggle and form a special mixed column under my direct command, in accordance with the strategy that I outlined and communicated to you.
With a very heavy heart, I calculated that it would require $5,000 a month. Now I learn that a sum 20 times higher is given to people who pass through just once, so that they can live well in all the capitals of the African world, with no allowance for the fact that they receive free board and lodging and often their travel costs from the main progressive countries. Not a cent will reach a wretched front where the peasants suffer every misery you can imagine, including the rapaciousness of their own protectors; nor will anything get through to the poor devils stuck In Sudan. (Whisky and women are not on the list of expenses covered by friendly governments, and they cost a lot if you want quality.)
Finally, 50 doctors will give the liberated area of the Congo an enviable proportion of one per thousand inhabitants – a level surpassed only by the USSR, the United States and two or three of the most advanced countries in the world. But no allowance is made for the fact that here they are distributed according to political preference, without a trace of public health organisation. Instead of such gigantism, it would be better to send a contingent of revolutionary doctors and to increase it as I request, along with highly practical nurses of a similar kind.
As the attached map sums up the military situation, I shall limit myself to a few recommendations that I would ask you all to consider objectively: forget all the men in charge of phantom groups; train up to a hundred cadres (not necessarily all blacks)… As for weapons: the new bazooka, percussion caps with their own power supply, a few R-4s and nothing else for the moment; forget about rifles, which won’t solve anything unless they are electronic. Our mortars must be in Tanzania, and with those plus a new complement of men to operate them we would have more than enough for now. Forget about Burundi and tactfully discuss the question of the launches. (Don’t forget that Tanzania is an independent country and we’ve got to play it fair there, leaving aside the little problem I caused.)
Send the mechanics as soon as possible, as well as someone who can steer across the lake reasonably safely; that has been discussed and Tanzania has agreed. Leave me to handle the problem of the doctors, which I will do by giving some of them to Tanzania. Don’t make the mistake again of dishing out money like that; for they cling to me when they feel hard up and certainly won’t pay me any attention if the money is flowing freely. Trust my judgment a little and don’t go by appearances. Shake the representatives into giving truthful information, because they are not capable of figuring things out and present utopian pictures which have nothing to do with reality.
I have tried to be explicit and objective, synthetic and truthful. Do you believe me?
Warm greetings …