Che Guevara in the Congo

Che Guevara's expedition in the Congo, though ill-fated, stands as a crucial example of anti-imperialist solidarity.

Che Guevara in the Congo in 1965. Wikimedia Commons

The death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 prompted me to revisit the extraordinary history of the Cuban Revolution, and in particular the diplomatic recognition, political support, and military assistance provided by Cuba under Castro to national liberation struggles and independent states all over Africa — from Algeria and Western Sahara, to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, and the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. Cuban soldiers’ victories against South African forces in Angola in 1975–76 and again in 1987–88 played a crucial role in the successful struggles against white rule in Namibia and in South Africa itself.

The earliest Cuban aid effort went to the 1961 Algerian liberation movement when Castro sent a large consignment of American weapons captured during the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. After the Algerians won independence in July 1962, they reciprocated by helping train a group of Argentinian guerrillas, even sending two agents with the guerrillas from Algiers to Bolivia in June 1963. Two years later, Cuba provided systematic support to a potentially revolutionary movement by sending an elite group of volunteer guerrillas, the vast majority of them black, to the eastern Congo. Che Guevara was among them.

Congolese Independence

Following independence from Belgium in June 1960, the Congo elected left-wing prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Soon after, the army mutinied; the mineral-rich Katanga province, under Moise Tshombe, seceded; the Belgian troops returned; and, finally, at Lumumba’s request, United Nations peacekeeping forces arrived to protect the country’s territorial integrity and his new government.

When Lumumba asked for additional military assistance from the Soviets, President Kasavubu — supported by Commander in Chief Joseph Mobutu — deposed him. After Lumumba’s murder and UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold’s death in a plane crash, the Congo descended into further chaos.

By early 1964, Cyrille Adoula, weak and unpopular, was trying to lead the country. As the UN withdrew, four different rebellions broke out, most operating under a leftist umbrella group called the National Liberation Council. Since Adoula had shut down the official parliament, this opposition coalition had effectively replaced it.

Gaston Soumaliot led the movement in the country’s northeast — his lieutenant Laurent Kabila orchestrated a related group further south. For a few weeks in mid-1964, these forces controlled much of the Congo’s eastern region. One of Lumumba’s former colleagues, Christophe Gbenye, had taken control of much of the rest of the country with backing from China and the Soviet Union.

In March 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sent Averell Harriman to the capital, Leopoldville-Kinshasa, to assess the situation. With Cyrus Vance, the deputy defense secretary, Harriman drew up plans for an American airlift, which began May. In July, Moise Tshombe seized power, replacing the ineffective Adoula, and called for help from the United States, Belgium, and South Africa.

They heeded his call, and Belgian officers and white mercenaries from Rhodesia and South Africa reinforced the Congolese military. Its immediate task was to crush Gbenye’s rebellion, which had established a government in Stanleyville-Kisangani. In November, the United Kingdom joined the effort, allowing Belgian paratroopers to be flown in by US planes from its South Atlantic base on Ascension Island. The newly elected Labour government under Harold Wilson approved the action. Paratroopers landed on Stanleyville at the same time the white mercenaries arrived.

Guevara Looks to Africa

In response to these Western interventions, a group of radical African states, led by Algeria and Egypt, announced that they would supply the Congolese rebels with arms and troops. They called on others for help, and the Cuban government announced it would oblige.

In December, Guevara — already one of the most internationally oriented members of the Cuban leadership — gave an impassioned speech at the UN General Assembly. He referred to the “tragic case of the Congo” and denounced the Western powers’ “unacceptable intervention,” referring to “Belgian paratroopers, carried by US planes, who took off from British bases.”

Guevara then embarked on a tour of African states, visiting Algeria, then Mali, Congo-Brazzaville, Senegal, Ghana, Dahomey, Egypt, and finally Tanzania. In Dar es Salaam, he met Laurent Kabila, who sought his help maintaining the liberated areas in the Congo’s east and southeast; in Cairo, he met Gaston Soumaliot, who wanted men and money for the Stanleyville front; and in Brazzaville, he met Agostinho Neto, who requested Cuban support for the Angolan liberation army, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Guevera was excited by these potentially effective liberation struggles and the role Cuba could play in them.

In February 1965, he flew to Beijing to see what help the Peoples’ Republic of China might provide for the Congolese rebellions. There he met Chou en Lai, who had taken his own tour of ten African countries between December 1963 and February 1964. Soon after meeting Che, Chou made a second visit to Algiers and Cairo, where he may have met the Congolese rebel leaders. In June, he flew to Tanzania, where he certainly had an audience with both Kabila and Soumaliot.

In the meanwhile, Guevara himself went back to Cairo to discuss his plan to lead a group of guerrillas with Colonel Nasser. According to an account of the meeting from Nasser’s son-in-law Mohammed Heikal, the Egyptian leader advised Guevara “not to become another Tarzan.” “It can’t be done,” he said. Guevara did not heed the warning; he was already fully committed to applying his experience with the Cuban Revolution’s success to movements all over the world. He returned to Cuba, where he was greeted by Castro. This was the last time he would be seen again in public until after his death two and a half years later in Bolivia.

Before leaving Cuba, Che wrote a farewell letter to Castro — which was read out in public in Havana six months later, in October — declaring he would extend the Cuban Revolution’s influence: “other nations are calling for the aid of my modest efforts. . . . I have always identified myself with the foreign policy of our Revolution, and I continue to do so.” He now felt that his destiny called for him to export the revolution and lead a guerrilla movement in Africa.

Disorder on the Front

The decision to intervene in the Congo had already been made before Che returned to Havana. An elite group of volunteers, all black, had been recruited at the beginning of the year and underwent training at three different camps in Cuba. The plan was for one contingent of Cubans to travel in small detachments to Tanzania and across Lake Tanganyika into North Katanga; a second contingent — named the Patrice Lumumba Battalion — would fly to a base near Brazzaville, just across the Congo River from Leopoldville-Kinshasa, the capital of Congo.

Captain Victor Dreke — a Cuban of African descent — would lead the smaller eastern column, which comprised 150 guerrillas, including Guevara himself. Che later wrote to Castro that his captain “was . . . one of the pillars on which I relied. The only reason I am not recommending that he be promoted is that he already holds the highest rank.” Jorge Risquet Valdes Santana, a member of the central committee of the Cuban Communist Party, was to head up the Patrice Lumumba Battalion.

On April 1, 1965, after a final meeting with Castro at the guerrilla base in Havana, Guevara flew with a small advance guard first to Moscow and then to Cairo, and on to Dar es Salaam. The new Cuban ambassador, Pablo Rivalta, greeted Guevara and his soldiers at the airport outside Dar es Salaam. Guevara worried that their arrival would draw the CIA’s notice, but the Americans had just withdrawn their ambassador from Tanzania and were otherwise occupied. Unfortunately, the Congolese rebel leadership also paid them little attention. Kabila and Soumaliot were meeting other leaders in Cairo to try and reduce the political divisions within their movement, and only relatively junior personnel were available to Guevara.

Cuba’s preparations for their intervention were — as we have seen — thorough; but they clearly overestimated the level of cooperation they would receive from the rebel leadership itself. Nevertheless, on April 22, 1965, Guevara and his comrades set off from Dar es Salaam for Lake Tanganyika, drove south, and established a supply base in the lakeside town of Kigoma, near the village of Ujiji — where David Livingstone and Henry Stanley had met nearly a century before. We don’t know whether Guevara was aware of Ujiji’s place in the history of African imperialism when he established his anti-imperialist base in Kigoma.

After crossing the lake, the Cubans met a well-armed detachment of the People’s Liberation Army and started a seven-month campaign in what pro-Tshombe mercenary leader Colonel Mike Hoare named “the Fizi Baraka pocket of resistance,” an area that covered over sixteen thousand square miles. More Cubans arrived in dribs and drabs between April and October. During this period, the Cubans and the Congolese explored the terrain, and the Cubans began assessing their enemies’ and their allies’ strengths and weaknesses.

They noted that the enemy’s forward bases were well defended, supported by small aircraft and white mercenaries; they also noted that the Congolese rebels were suffering from low morale. They regarded their leaders, including Kabila, as strangers — or, more pejoratively, as tourists. The local commanders “spent days drinking and then had huge meals without disguising what they were up to from the people around them. They used up petrol on pointless expeditions.” On June 7, in an unexplained accident, Leonard Mitoudidi, the most senior rebel leader present — Kabila was still in Dar es Salaam — drowned in Lake Tanganyika.

Soon, instructions came down from Kabila that the Cubans should organize an attack on the Bendera garrison, which was defending a hydroelectric plant. Guevara did not agree with the plan but decided to go ahead anyway. On June 20, a combined force of Cubans, Congolese, and Tutsis (some of whom originally came from Rwanda) set off and carried out the attack, as requested. Many of the Tutsis ran away, the Congolese refused to take part, and four Cubans were killed, revealing to the enemy that Cuba was now involved in the rebellion on the ground. The Cubans considered this operation to be not only a failure but a disaster. Mercenary leader Mike Hoare, on the other hand, was impressed. In his memoirs, he noted:

[O]bservers had noticed a subtle change in the type of resistance which the rebels were offering the Leopoldville government. . . . The change coincided with the arrival in the area of a contingent of Cuban advisers specially trained in the arts of guerrilla warfare.

At this point, the Cubans felt depressed and disillusioned. They had all now been ill at one time or another since their arrival; Guevara himself suffered from bouts of asthma and malaria. Their small military successes — like the ambush of a group of mercenaries in August — seemed negligible, and the political climate was undoubtedly deteriorating.

Differences between the rebel factions and their leaders seemed to be coming to a head, and a coup d’etat in Algeria changed the balance of forces. Ben Bella, one of Guevara’s principal supporters, was replaced by army commander Houari Boumedienne, who wanted to reduce the international community’s commitment to the Congolese rebellion.

Although Guevara noted the low morale, the lack of progress, and the shifting political climate, he kept his concerns to himself. When Soumaliot went to Havana early in September 1965, he convinced Castro the revolution was going well. Cuban guerrillas continued to arrive in Tanzania. Also, despite the odds, the Cuban training must have counted for something. As Hoare recorded later:

The enemy were very different from anything we had ever met before. They wore equipment, employed normal field tactics, and answered to whistle signals. They were obviously being led by trained officers. We intercepted wireless messages in Spanish . . . and it seemed clear that the defense . . . was being organized by Cubans.

But by October, the Cubans and their Congolese allies found themselves on the back foot. The combined forces of the white mercenaries and Tshombe’s troops were advancing in a counter-offensive. Guevara retreated to their base camp at Luluabourg and expected a long, last resistance. Events, however, proved as unpredictable as ever.

Changing Ground

President Kasavubu began to recognize that he would never get approval from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) if Tshombe continued as prime minister, so he replaced him with Evariste Kimba.

For a moment, it looked like the revolution would be saved. In reality, however, the end of  Tshombe’s regime presaged a political reconciliation effort that would eventually undermine the rebellion, ending the support it had been receiving from African states. On October 23, 1965, Kasavubu attended a meeting of African heads of state in Accra, presided over by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Kasavubu announced that the rebellion was virtually over and that he would be sending the white mercenaries home. This sufficed to convince many African leaders. It also represented a signal defeat for the radical African states, allowing a more conservative alliance to coalesce within the OAU.

On November 11, 1965, sensing that the climate now favored him, Ian Smith, the white Rhodesian leader, unilaterally declared independence from the United Kingdom. In South Africa, a renewed attack on the African National Congress effectively crushed the mass movement against apartheid for half a decade, and the Portuguese were encouraged to maintain their grip on Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau for another decade. Meanwhile, Ben Bella had already been overthrown; Nkrumah was removed from power while on a visit to China in early 1966; and Ben Barka — the radical Moroccan leader who had been organizing Cuba’s Tri-Continental Conference, a gathering of international revolutionary movements to be held in Havana in January 1966 — was kidnapped and murdered.

Back in the Congo, Mike Hoare heard about Kasavubu’s speech and flew to Leopoldville to see Mobutu in person. “The general was furious,” he recalls, “he had not been consulted . . . and felt bitter in consequence.” The new prime minister, Evariste Kimba Muondo, had to make a statement explaining that no mercenaries would go home until the Congo was thoroughly pacified.

Guevara was also struggling with the turning political tide. On November 1, 1965, he received an urgent message from Dar es Salaam warning him that the Tanzanian government had decided to end the Cuban expeditionary force. President Nyerere, all too aware of the feuds within the Congolese leadership and concerned about its implications, felt he had little choice.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Guevara considered staying behind “with twenty well-chosen men,” continuing the fight until the movement developed or until its possibilities were exhausted. He asked for help from China, and Chou en Lai advised him to continue building resistance groups but not to enter combat himself. Guevara himself entertained the idea, at the end, of making a forced march across the Congo to join forces with Mulele’s rebels in Kwilu, but he did not receive backing for such a wild notion.

On November 20, Guevara organized the crossing of Lake Tanganyika back into Tanzania. “All the Congolese leaders,” he wrote, “were in full retreat, the peasants had become increasingly hostile.” He recognized that such a situation made the continued presence of the Cuban guerrillas pointless. Others agreed. Years later, Castro would say:

[I]n the end it was the revolutionary leaders of the Congo who took the decision to stop the fight. . . . In practice, this decision was correct; we had verified that the conditions for the development of this struggle, at that particular moment, did not exist.

Whether that was indeed the case remains debatable. In any case, after a few days in Dar es Salaam, most of the Cubans flew home via Moscow.

To Another Front

Victor Dreke returned to Cuba to head a military unit preparing internationalist volunteers; in 1966, he led the Cuban military mission to Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde, where he served alongside Amílcar Cabral. He performed a similar function in the Republic of Guinea. He returned to Guinea-Bissau in 1986, heading Cuba’s military mission there until 1989.

Jorge Risquet became head of the Cuban Civil Internationalist Mission in the People’s Republic of Angola between 1975 and 1979, eventually leading fifty-five thousand Cuban troops against the CIA-supported South African Defense Forces. Other members of Guevara’s guerrilla force also returned to Africa to fight.

Che Guevara did not return to Cuba with his comrades. He remained in the Cuban embassy in Dar es Salaam to write his account of the Congolese campaign. Early in 1966, he traveled to Prague, where he stayed for several months. He finally returned to Cuba, where he secretly helped prepare the expeditionary force that would establish itself in eastern Bolivia in November 1966. While in the eastern Congo, Guevara formally accepted the number-three position, in Bolivia, he insisted on openly leading the force. This — combined with the fact that the revolutionary left in Bolivia was deeply divided as a result of the Sino-Soviet dispute — meant that his guerrillas received little support from the largely Moscow-aligned Bolivian Communist Party, leaving them desperately isolated.

In March 1967, only three months after they had arrived, the Bolivian government forces discovered the Cubans and their local allies and obliged them to fight. With virtually no external support, the band slowly dwindled in numbers, and its morale ebbed away. In October 1967, Guevara was captured and shot.

From one perspective, we might see Che’s decision to fight on against hopeless odds in Bolivia as evidence that he learned nothing from his experiences in the Congo. From another, we might argue that he had already planned something like this back in the Congo, when he considered staying behind. He even may have made up his mind back in April 1965, when he wrote his letter to Castro renouncing his positions in the party leadership, his ministry post, his rank of commandante, and his Cuban citizenship. He was, after all, an Argentinian and had always been, to a certain extent, an outsider.

He was also an idealist who had traveled widely on his motorbike in Latin America as a young doctor, becoming familiar with how poor people lived. He believed that revolutionary action could improve their lives, and his participation in the Cuban Revolution’s extraordinary success showed him what a few determined people could achieve. Before he left for the Congo, Guevara wrote to his parents: “Once again I feel under my heels the ribs of Rocinante.”

This image of Guevara — as a twentieth-century Don Quixote, setting out on his ancient horse to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world, who, against all odds and despite a series of disastrous encounters, survives with spirit undiminished until the very end — appeals to the romantic in all those who see themselves as revolutionaries. But the Cuban intervention in the Congo was not undertaken lightly, or without serious preparation; and the divisions within the various Congolese movements and the failings of their leadership, although very real, did not seem to the Cuban leadership, at least at first, to be insurmountable.

Whatever the situation on the ground in the Congo, it was, arguably, the changing political environment in Africa as a whole, and particularly the withdrawal of support by President Nyerere of Tanzania for the Cuban expeditionary force, that adversely affected the situation facing Guevara and his guerrillas. Furthermore, it is clear that the decision to abort the mission was not taken by Guevara alone, as Castro noted years later.

Guevara, however, remained heroically, if tragically, optimistic regarding his capacity to contribute to revolution elsewhere. Representatives of Mozambique’s independence movement, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), reported, for example, that they met with Guevara in late 1966 in Dar es Salaam regarding his offer to aid in their revolutionary project, an offer which they ultimately rejected.

As Guevara secretly prepared for Bolivia, he wrote a last letter to his five children to be read upon his death, which ended with him instructing them: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.”