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Flashback: Thirty years since the death of Che Guevara

This is an interview with Ricardo Napuri, who took part with Ernesto Che Guevara in the early revolutionary projects Cuba had to expand the revolution to the rest of Latin America. Ricardo Napuri was born in Peru. During the uprising of October 1948 in Peru, when he was a military pilot, he refused to bomb sailors and members of the left wing of the APRA (the sector of this bourgeois nationalist party which had started an uprising). As a consequence, Napuri was deported to Argentina. Back in Peru, he played a very important role in the founding of MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) and Vanguardia Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Vanguard), two Peruvian left wing parties. As a candidate of the FOCEP (Workers' Peasants' Students' and People's Front) he obtained 21% of the votes to the Peruvian Constituent Assembly in 1978. He joined the Trotskyist movement in 1973. At present, he is in the leadership of the Argentine MAS. He has been deported six times, been in prison eight times and lived in exile for 15 years. This article was originally published in the Argentine Marxist magazine Herramienta and reproduced in the Cuban magazine Iniciativa Socialista.

In January 1959, a couple of days after the fall of Cuba's dictator, Batista, you travelled to Cuba and met Che Guevara. Why?

At that time, I was a journalist at La Razon, a newspaper in Buenos Aires, where I was also general secretary of the workers' committee and member of the Union of Journalists of Buenos Aires. I was a member of a small left wing group, and in spite of the fact that my group,as practically the whole of the left in Argentina, were hostile to the "barbudos" (the bearded ones) as Castro's guerrilla army were called, I was also a member of the Support Committee for the Combatants of the Movement 26 of July. This committee had been organised in Argentina almost immediately after the Granma landed in Cuba. My reason for joining it was quite intuitive: the crew of the Granma had taken up arms to fight against Batista, a dictator who had massacred his people, and even if they were allied to the bourgeoisie, their role was progressive.

Why was the Argentine left hostile to the combatants of the Granma?

Most of them considered that both Batista and Fidel were agents of imperialism. For them, Fidel was an agent of the "democratic wing" of imperialism and the revolution was only a struggle of one agent against the other. I stuck to the Support Committee almost by instinct. I thought: "even if Fidel is an agent of the bourgeoisie, he is more progressive, more democratic than that assassin Batista." That is why I went to Cuba.

And you met Che almost immediately.

I arrived in Havana on January 8th, 1959, on a plane that the revolutionary Castroist leadership had sent to repatriate the exiled Cubans who lived in Argentina. Some members of the Support Committee and journalists,myself among them, also travelled on it. Since I was with Che's mother and his two brothers, I could see him almost immediately. My first impression was that he was a very kind, warm young man, who seemed to be quite shy. He was still wearing his uniform, had mud on his trousers and shoes, and carried a gun in his belt. I told him who I was and that I wanted to help in the revolution….

During those first years of the revolution there were arguments between the combatants who had fought in the "sierra" (the mountains) and those who had fought in the cities, the "llano" …

When I arrived in Cuba, I told Che that I had heard there were different opinions about the role the "sierra" and the "llano" had played during the war. He gave me his own version, which favoured the guerrilla of the mountains. But at the same time, he said that if I was interested in finding out the truth, he would give me means and contacts to go around the island to interview people who had actually taken part in the struggle. What the combatants of the city said was: "We fought harder than those of the mountains but none of us has the rank of 'Comandante'" According to them, it was through their active resistance operations that from 70 to 80% of Batista's army had been kept in the city instead of attacking those who were in the mountains. The conflict reached such proportions that, when the members of the Directorio Revolucionario (Revolutionary Leadership) 1 occupied the University, Fidel threatened to shoot them. Afterwards some of the groups from the "llano" joined the Movement 26th July, but others did not.

You offered your help to expand the revolution. What happened?

Che was excited about my having been deported for refusing to bomb the sailors and members of the left of the APRA in the insurrection of October 1948. When I had made my offer of supporting and helping the revolution, I had thought I would be doing revolutionary propaganda. But I suddenly found that Che was telling me that the first proof of my collaboration would be my returning to Peru in order to find organisations and men who not only supported Cuba, but who were willing to take up a revolutionary commitment. And he was quite clear: "Take it or leave it", he said. It was then that I decided to leave everything, my family, my job, everything. Such was the strength of the revolution, of the people in the street. I was young, barely three years older than Che, and thought: "I have always wanted this and fought for this." And Cuba was saying: "We are going to make the revolution all together". It did not say: "We are going to do it for you." It said: "Do it yourselves and we will support you." So I did not hesitate. I accepted at once.

If we take into account your Marxist background, it is difficult to understand what led you to leave Argentina and go back to Peru just because Che asked you. At the time he was the leader of a revolution that was not only not openly anti-imperialist, let alone socialist, but whose destiny was quite uncertain.

True. Because of my Marxist background I was a fighter for the socialist revolution. I had been one for many years. But at the time, all revolutionaries in Latin America had to fight against the same obstacle: the nationalist movements and the Communist Parties. The latter, fulfilled the disreputable role of "political policemen" of the left, and privileged reformism and the "pacific road to socialism" over the revolution. They did this by campaigning for Popular Alliances and Popular Fronts with the native bourgeoisies. Che knew this when he had a meeting with Jose Manuel Fortuny, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Guatemala, and criticised him for having capitulated to the United States in 1954. 2
We had not yet been able to find the way to overcome this obstacle to the revolution in our countries. That is why, when we saw that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and others had done it, our wish to imitate them prevailed over our Marxist theoretical, programmatic and political background. They had opened a new chapter in the history of Latin America through guerrilla warfare. Many young people, like myself, thought that they might be right and that it was worthwhile to imitate them by promoting and participating in the revolutionary struggle in our own countries.

How long were you in contact with Che?

I was in contact with Che from my first trip to Cuba in 1959 up to 1964. Several guerrilla projects were started in 1959. I took part in the one in Peru. But there was also guerrilla warfare in Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay and other countries in Latin America. Cuba was behind each one of these projects, which had us as supporters to "export" their revolution. The intention was that the Cuban revolution should be imitated in many places. Fidel and Che supported these guerrillas and imperialism attacked them because of this.

Could you comment on any other personal characteristic of Che Guevara?

He used to laugh at the complaints that Fidel and other revolutionaries launched at him, saying that he did not value his life. On one occasion, while we were in military training, he said that, just as in a conventional war, "commanders never die", this was even truer in the case of guerrilla warfare, particularly as the fighting developed. Leading a guerrilla offensive is a political event. For that reason the commander should not take unnecessary risks. However, in his own case, he never applied this.

In April 1959, Fidel Castro was invited by the "democratic" bourgeoisie to travel to the United States. Did this trip cause any arguments inside the Movement 26th July?

Che was against this trip. Castañeda, in his book, says that Che was against it, but that he did not say it. The truth is that Che waged a discussion inside the Movement. He even told me that he was against this trip. Fidel's answer to Che was something like: "I go because I have been told by the other members of the democratic front 3 that the United States will be tolerant with us." In this sense, Che had his own opinion of Fidel, which he wrote in a letter to Rene Ramos Latour: "I will always consider Fidel as an authentic leader of the left-wing bourgeoisie, even though his figure is enhanced by extraordinary personal qualities which put him above his class. It was in this spirit that I started this struggle, honestly, without any hope of going any further than the liberation of this country, ready to leave it as soon as the conditions of the struggle turned to the right."
What happened afterwards was that the United States neither tolerated the course that the revolution took nor could it have done so, because its leaders went further than their original objectives. The people in the streets demanded concrete things. And all their demands were aimed against imperialism, because the whole of Cuba belonged to the United States and its allies. No matter what people demanded, it always forced them to go against the United States and the Americans understood it. That is why they tried to put a stop to it by encouraging the manoeuvre of General Cantilo, 4 which was in the end defeated by the general strike.

You convinced Che to read Trotsky.

Che had never read Trotsky and asked me to find a book where Trotsky presented his thoughts. It was not easy to find a book by Trotsky in Havana in those days, but in a bookshop I found a very old edition of the Permanent Revolution. I immediately bought it and took it to the Bank of Cuba, where Che was president. A fortnight later, he called me to tell me he had read the book. He had underlined and written on its margins with his very small physician's letter, the same which became known later because of his diary in Bolivia.
In a long conversation at two in the morning, which was the best time for him, he said that Trotsky was consistent and he was right in many things, but that "it was too late" to change the orientation of the revolutionary process in Cuba. Intelligent as he was, he immediately grasped Trotsky's idea of the transformation of the democratic revolution into the socialist revolution, the uninterrupted character of the revolution to become international and global. In this talk we discussed about everything, about the social and political subject of the revolution: the proletariat. But he said: "Well, we did the revolution without the working class." And in the end this was what defeated any argument. You gave him the books, and there he was, larger than life with his long beard … and he had led a revolution. He looked at you and you realised that he thought to himself: "And where did you make a revolution?" And you had to give it to him. Besides, he would say: "OK, make a revolution", as if he meant: "Try it".
Che was a person with whom you could discuss. The only thing was that, as they were in a hurry to expand the revolution, he would say: "I did a revolution. Now you do your own, with all the differences you want, but mine was different and until somebody shows me that I was mistaken, I will stick to my method." It was in this sense that he told me that for him it was too late to become a trotskyist. In our discussion, I was impressed by the way in which he would grasp concepts and his strength to defend his political ideas. He died believing that his approach to the revolution was the only possible one.

And you returned to Peru following Che's suggestions. Were the objectives of the agreement with Che achieved? Which organisations supported them?

While I was still in Cuba, and following Che's advice, I joined the APRA Rebelde, the left wing of the APRA, the party of Haya de la Torre and afterwards of Alan Garcia 6. We both agreed that my not being a significant political figure in Peru owing to my having been deported when I was still very young, was a limitation. I did not envisage the perspective of having anything to do with the Peruvian Communist Party, which had been and still was hostile to the Cuban guerrillas. I did contact Luis de la Puente, Hilda Gaeda, Che's first wife, and other leaders of the Apraist left. De la Puente was a young lawyer who had been a leader of the student movement. He and his group had a militant tradition and had influence in the north of the country, on the sugar cane workers, on some peasant communities and on several universities.
This group was expelled from APRA in November 1959, and quickly made its sympathy with Cuba public. Che gave me as a task to establish political links between them and the Cuban leadership.

In relation to the Peruvian guerrilla, Che agreed with you and De la Puente that the revolution would not be started only with a foquist 7 approach, which was his own theory, but that you could do your own experience with the APRA Rebelde.

We had a very interesting discussion. When Che posed that the guerrilla "foco" was the primary and fundamental tool of the revolution. De la Puente explained to Che that in Peru the peasants were organised in trade unions and that there were also thousands of peasant communities with a fighting tradition and internal discipline. This was what made Che doubt the question of applying his approach in a "pure" fashion. De la Puente said: "There are concrete peasant organisations, and if we are going to organise an uprising I have to base myself on what the peasants have already built. Besides, the peasants are not going to leave their own organisations just because I set up a guerrilla army. " And Che understood that he had to adapt his idea of the "foco" to the Peruvian reality. That is why he listened to our opinions and said: "O.K. Try it!"

Even though he set up a parallel guerrilla organisation?

Yes, Bejar's 8 ELN. This was a guerrilla organisation with only twenty men, which followed Che's guerrilla approach to the dot. The Peruvian ELN emerged from a group of young men who had gone to Cuba to study painting and music. Che encouraged them to take up the struggle as a sort of insurance in case the APRA Rebelde failed. Che and Fidel supported the ELN because they both thought that it was more "orthodox" than the APRA (who had now changed their name to the Movement of Revolutionary Left - MIR). Che believed in the ideal of the "pure" focus to the end of his life.

Later on, De la Puente himself adopted Guevara's idea of the "pure" foquist approach.

Yes, in 1963 Che himself bade goodbye to Bejar's guerrilla group, which was going to start the insurrection in Peru. The rank and file of the MIR was in disarray and the links with the unions and the peasant communities were almost nonexistent, except for De la Puente's marginal influence as a trade union lawyer. He couldn't do anything because he did not have the influence he told Che he had. Finding that the ELN had already launched guerrilla warfare, he had no choice but to adopt the Cuban model. This put on the agenda the question of what type of organisation and what revolutionary project we were going to carry forth.

In the meantime, the uprising of Hugo Blanco started.

Yes, and Cuba ordered us to get in touch with Hugo Blanco 9, who had set up a peasant trade union in the valleys of Convencion and Lares in Cuzco, and mobilised and organised thousands of peasants hungry for land. At this time De la Puente was in prison. When he left prison, we had an argument because I thought that we had to get in touch with Hugo Blanco, who was a trotskyist. This made De la Puente consider me a trotskyist too. We had a big argument, because he thought that it was the MIR and he himself that had to be in the leadership of the revolution and he rejected a union with Blanco and Bejar.

You wrote a letter to Che, explaining your differences with De la Puente.

When I was convinced that the MIR project would not change, I sent Che a personal letter, in which I told him that the workers and people's movement was on the rise and that the struggle in the cities and the mines forced us to take up again the same discussion we had had in 1960. I said: "Look, the problem is very important because we want to make a revolution, and I want to do it, but not with this method., I want to be free to show that there is another way, different from the MIR's. I want to express my solidarity with Cuba, but I do my own experience."

What happened with the Peruvian guerrilla -ELN?

It had a tragic end. Only 15 men of the ELN left Cuba in January 1963 to enter Peru from Bolivia. The Bolivian Communist Party was supposed to give them support to enter Peru, but they said the guerrilla could not go into the country at the place chosen in Cuba.
They could not get in touch with Hugo Blanco either, because he had already been taken prisoner. From then on, the only objective of this small group, which was completely alien to the region, was to try to make a footing. In the end, isolated and chased by the army, they died in ambushes or were assassinated while in prison. Only Hector Bejar and another comrade managed to save their lives. The whole process took less than a year.

After your split from the MIR, did you meet Che again?

No, but surprisingly, in 1966, when I was in Peru, I found Paz Estenssoro, 10 who had been president of Bolivia and was in exile. He called me aside and told me in a low voice: "I have been with Che. He has asked me in which regions he could start guerrilla warfare in Bolivia." This was before Che entered Bolivia, on his way through Peru. I tried to get in touch with Che, but could not find him. I could not believe that he had spoken with somebody like Paz Estenssoro about his guerrilla project. Anything he said to this man would be known by imperialism within two seconds. But Che was like that.

In a couple of months, Che will be remembered the world over on the anniversary of his death. Can you make any reflections on this?

Castro is at present saying that Cuba is facing a "special stage", a stage of adaptation to a new world, which he conceives as the return of Cuba to capitalism. 11 It is quite likely that in accordance with this, the idea that Che was a great man, but belonging to the "previous world", the one which ended in the 70s, may be launched.
Up to his adventure in the Granma, Che considered himself a new Don Quixote, who did not know where the windmills would lead him. But the class struggle and revolutionary anti-imperialism led him, Fidel and the other comrades first to defeat Batista, the dictator, and afterwards to walk the way of the socialist revolution which would lead to the expropriation of capitalism in Cuba. The facet which the young people in the world who remember and love him grasp intuitively, is that here is a man who, starting form nothing, built himself a rich personality, who is so committed to his ideals that he can generously die in any part of the world, in the Congo or in Bolivia.
But Che could not escape the circumstances of his time. He was conditioned by them. His extreme radicalisation led him to attack the oppressors wherever they might be, as a proof of his militant anti-imperialism. However, he lacked a deeper reflection, or maybe a longer life. Che fought wherever he was needed, and he was defeated not by death itself but by a reality that his generous long lasting will could not change.
For the generation of young people and combatants who followed in his footsteps, trying to imitate the "bearded ones" with faith and hope rather than reason, and for the present generation, a balance-sheet of the history and of the class struggle in this period is still pending.
How successful we are at it, will depend on us drawing the lessons thirty years after Che's death and learning from the struggle of the revolutionaries and the people to reach their final liberation from the oppression of capitalism.


1. The Directorio Revolucionario was an insurrectionalist Cuban group, based mostly in the cities. On March 13th, 1957 it took by assault the Presidential Palace in a failed attempt to kill Batista.

2. At that time, there was a democratically elected president in Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, who took measures against some American companies. Immediately, the USA organised a coup d'etat and overthrew him. When Guevara asked Fortuny why instead of calling the people to arm themselves to defend Arbenz's democratically elected government, they had surrendered, Fortuny said: "The situation was very difficult and we thought it was better to leave power and continue fighting from below." Che's answer was: "If president Arbenz had left the capital and had gone to the countryside with a group of real revolutionaries, the perspectives for the struggle would have been different. Being the lawful President of Guatemala, he would have become a symbol and he would have boosted the morale of his people. Then, the possibilities of the revolutionary government to survive would have been infinitely greater." Fortuny could not answer back. Che's observations afterwards were: "He only gave excuses. Fighting when you are in power has many advantages, but whether in power or not, in Guatemala the only thing to do was to fight."

3. On April 17th 1959, in New York, Fidel stated: "I have said clearly and definitely that we are not communist. The doors are open to private investments that may contribute to the development of the Cuban industry. It is absolutely impossible to make any progress if we do not compromise with the United States." And on April 27th, in his speech in Central Park, he said: "Victory was possible only because we united Cubans from all social classes and all sectors around only one aspiration."

4. Cantilo was a general of Batista's army. The American embassador convinced him to form a Provisional Junta to prevent the Movement 26th July and Fidel Castro from taking power. This attempt was defeated by the general strike that was launched on January 1st 1959.

6. Both were presidents of Peru.

7. The 'focuist' approach, was the idea that a small group of guerrillas would go to the countryside and try to detonate an uprising.

8. Hector Bejar was the leader of the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional de Peru (ELN - National Liberation Army of Peru). Afterwards he became one of the theoretical supporters of nationalism and today he is a social-democratic intellectual.

9. Hugo Blanco was a Trotskyist leader of the peasant movement in Cuzco. He organised the peasants in trade unions which occupied the landowners' lands and organised the defence of the occupations against the police and the landowners' assassins. The movement was defeated and he was sent to prison in 1963.

10. Paz Estensoro was the most important leader of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) in Bolivia. His bourgeois nationalist party led the popular revolution of April 1952. He was elected president of Bolivia on three occasions.

11. In a speech at the closing of the World Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba, on November 25th 1994, Fidel Castro said: "We had a blockade many years ago, but it is necessary to meditate on one fact: when the revolution succeeded, there was a world; today, after 35 years of revolution, there is another world. The world has changed and it did not change in a progressive way, it really changed backwards (…) But this is the world we have to live in, with which we have to trade and exchange or products, in which we have to survive; that is why we have to adapt ourselves to this world, and adopt those measures which we find it indispensable to adopt, with a very clear objective."